It takes more than fortitude to navigate Miami’s mean streets. You need knowledge of Cuban history from colonial times through the Cold War, which is not on any roadmap. You need to understand exile politics, which is not on any GPS. Learn the names, or you will get lost.
Southwest Eighth Street originates in downtown Miami and morphs into multiple aliases as it heads west. Calle Ocho, the Tamiami Trail and U.S. 41 is also named Manolo Capo Boulevard, Brigade 2506 Street, Celia Cruz Way, Olga Guillot Way and Felipe Valls Way, depending on the block. You’ll find yourself on Martha Flores Way, Lorenzo de Toro Way, Ramon Puig Way and the Cesar A. Calas Jr. Memorial Highway — all within three miles of each other.
Honored with five blocks on Eighth Street is the late Dr. Vicente Grau-Imperatori, a Cuban political prisoner and attorney — not to be confused with Ramon and Polita Grau Alsina Avenue, named after the “godmother” (and her brother) of the Pedro Pan operation that airlifted children out of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, or Almirante Miguel Grau Avenue, named after a 19th century Peruvian Navy admiral who shares his sign with Lindgren Road and Southwest 137th Avenue.
Crossing Calle Ocho are such streets as Generalissimo Maximo Gomez Avenue, named after the revolutionary commander during the Cuban War of Independence, or Emilio Milian Way, named after the Cuban exile radio broadcaster who denounced violence in Miami during a wave of bombings against people accused of being Fidel-friendly. On April 30, 1976, he lost both legs when a bomb planted under the hood ripped through his station wagon.
At one intersection, four different signs are posted, including Angel Manuel de la Portilla Way, named after the uncle of local politicians (their grandfather has one, too, on a portion of Coral Way), and Katherine Fernandez Rundle Avenue, named after the state attorney. Her father’s street, Carlos B. Fernandez Street, is right around the corner -- and is also known as Southwest Seventh Street, Calle Simón Bolivar and Claude Pepper Way.
Miami’s streets don’t just take you from point A to point B. They turn you into a time traveler. Pay attention at the intersection of West Flagler Street and Douglas Road and you could learn the stories of Major General Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz — a hero in Cuba's Ten Years' War with Spain — and Tony Cuesta, a hero in the paramilitary war against Castro. Cuesta defected in 1960, formed the Commandos L exile unit and participated in dozens of raids on Cuban shores. During one attack he lost his sight and his left hand and was imprisoned for 12 years in Cuba.
Nowhere but Miami can you drive on streets honoring Argentina's king of the tango (Carlos Gardel) as well as Cuban queens of bolero (Guillot) and salsa (Cruz). Nowhere but Miami can you map your route by way of a Cuban chess champion (Jose Raul Capablanca), guayabera maker (Puig), Bacardi rum founder (Don Facundo Bacardi Maso), Versailles and La Carreta restaurant owner (Felipe Valls), El Dorado furniture CEO (Capo) and several relentlessly anti-Castro Cuban commentators who waged their war over the airwaves of Radio Mambi, WQBA-La Cubanisima and La Poderosa-670 AM. Nicaraguan contra leader Enrique Bermudez, a.k.a. Commandante 380, merits a street for fighting the socialist Sandinistas. Emilio and Gloria Estefan's Miami Sound Machine has a street, and singer Willy Chirino, who gave free concerts to newly arrived balseros (rafters), has both a boulevard and a way named after him.
Exiled Cubans brought their culture with them. Cut off from their island home, they put up reminders of their heritage, so as to never forget what they left behind. They paid homage to those who tried to wrest it back. History is open to interpretation, of course. Some patriots in the eyes of El Exilio were also suspected of terrorist activities.
Personalized street names in other parts of the metropolitan area recognize historic figures, civic leaders, law enforcement authorities killed in the line of duty and celebrities. Miami Beach salutes Jackie Gleason and Arthur Godfrey. Little Haiti honors Alexandre Petion and Felix Morisseau-Leroy. North Miami has Frederick Douglass Boulevard (unfortunately, misspelled Fredrick on the sign). In Miami Shores, Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, the former head of Barry University, gets dual billing with Northeast Second Avenue. Overtown has tributes to D.A. Dorsey, Willie Waters, Willis Richardson, Clarence Pittman Jr. and Professor Charles L. Williams.
But the greatest profusion of custom-named streets is in Little Havana, where an entire Spanish-language narrative from across the ocean was imported and intertwined with Miami’s history. There’s nothing subtle about it. Humility would be beside the point.
“It’s one of those only-in-Miami things compared to a city like New York, where Broadway is Broadway and has been for 200 years,” said Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum, who lives near Southwest 12th Avenue, a.k.a. Kathy Fernandez Rundle and Ronald Reagan avenues. “I think it’s recognition not just of major personalities and events but the strong presence of Cuban Americans and how they’ve transformed Miami.”
Pride occasionally crosses the line to vanity, George acknowledges. For years, it was relatively easy to persuade a county or city commissioner or state legislator to sponsor a street-naming resolution.
“The county and city have bent over backwards to recognize the contributions of everybody," he said. "For a while they were handing them out at a rapid clip. But how do you say no?”
Some of the names are quite obscure.
"Most people in the county have no idea who these people are," says a document from the Cuban Information Archives which lists alternate street names. "In some cases, selected names were chosen although they had nothing to do with the city or county."
Politicians exercise more restraint on naming rites today, in part because of some embarrassing christenings for living people who later broke the law or acted in a manner unbecoming of their immortalization. These streets provide a glimpse into Miami's corrupt and violent tendencies.
Leomar Parkway was named after developer Leonel Martinez, a contributor to the campaigns of George and Jeb Bush. He was also a cocaine kingpin of the 1980s who later pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and was charged with murdering two of his lieutenants. The road reverted back to Southwest 132nd Avenue. Major League Baseball steroid cheat Jose Canseco (he and Martinez owned neighboring mansions) had his name removed from the street by his alma mater, Coral Park High School. Others who dishonored their signs include banker Abel Holtz, who pleaded guilty to lying to a federal grand jury about bribes of Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, and former city commissioner and school board member Demetrio Perez Jr., who had Lincoln-Marti Boulevard named after his private schools and pleaded guilty to defrauding three elderly tenants in low-income Little Havana apartments he owned. Who can forget political operative Estrella Rubio, the turbaned boletera who delivered the votes of the viejos, but got arrested in the 1998 mayoral election voter fraud scandal and pleaded guilty to falsely witnessing an absentee ballot. Turns out her street sign was an alias. Her real name was Ivon Fuente; she signed ballots with both names.
“It’s better to wait until people die and then scour their records to make sure they deserve a street,” George said.
Great attention has been paid to those who tried to overthrow or undermine Castro. There are streets named after political prisoners, plotters, activists, Bay of Pigs veterans and the Brothers to the Rescue pilots who were shot down by Cuban MiGs in 1996; they each have a street plus Martyrs Boulevard along Coral Way.
A poignant collection of street signs is arrayed around the small Bay of Pigs Memorial Park north of Southwest Eighth Street in Flagami. Major Rudolph Anderson Jr. Avenue honors a U.S. pilot shot down during the Cuban missile crisis. Howard F. Anderson Way honors a CIA agent killed by a Cuban firing squad. Streets named after Wade Gray, Leo Baker and Riley Shamburger (misspelled Shanburger on the sign) are in memory of Alabama Air Guard pilots who died during the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack. Another street is named for Thomas Willard "Pete" Ray, whose B-26 bomber was also shot down. His body was frozen and displayed by Castro for 18 years as proof of the CIA's secret involvement in the failed invasion. The U.S. government denied its role and never told Ray's family what had happened to him until 1998, and when Ray's daughter claimed the body, Castro sent Ray's remains home.
You’ll need directions in Hialeah. Within its borders, the city has its own street system, thus triple names on one sign are not uncommon — one for Hialeah, one for the county and one for the person.
West 12th Avenue is also Northwest 67th Avenue, Ludlam Road and Henry Milander Boulevard, named after the mayor who made millions manipulating zoning laws and was twice re-elected despite a conviction for conspiracy and grand larceny.
Raul L. Martinez, the first Cuban-born mayor of a major Florida city, was accused in 1990 of running Hialeah as a criminal enterprise, but his three trials on the charges resulted in an overturned conviction and hung juries.
Martinez is celebrated in the “City of Progress” with not one but two streets in his name.