Festivals & tours spotlight Little Havana’s cultural gems

06/21/2013 6:01 PM

06/21/2013 6:02 PM

Pepe Menendez starts his tours of Little Havana in his Cuban-American uniform: a guayabera, jeans, a cooler lunch box hanging from his shoulder and a hat.

Inside the cooler are small bottles of cologne -- love, good luck and success, among others -- that he gives to tour takers.

Inside his pockets are his cell phone and two guava fruits. The guayabera, he explains, comes from a Cuban tale of a woman who sewed pockets into her husband’s shirt so he could carry guava fruits, or guayabas in Spanish.

Menendez starts his tour of Little Havana in the 1400 block of Southwest Eighth Street, at the beginning of a row of Cuban-American monuments. He’s been giving tours with History Miami for four years.

“Let’s talk a little about Cuba,” he says.

Although Menendez’s tour is focused on about three blocks in Little Havana, there’s more to see and do in other parts of the area – especially on foot. Corinna Moebius, a Miami tour guide, said you can’t understand the neighborhood if you drive or even bike through it.

“Sometimes you’re going to go off the Calle Ocho track,” Moebius said. “You can walk into a place and feel like you’re in Spain, or you’re in Honduras.”

Moebius also encourages visitors to keep an open mind, especially when it comes to spiritual shops called botanicas.

“Each botanica is a little different,” she said. “Every cigar place is different. You want to smoke your cigar? Go to a lounge.”

It’s a great time to visit the neighborhood, she said, and a lot’s been done to bring people into Little Havana.

“Even though you’re in this big city called Miami, there’s this intimacy in Little Havana,” Moebius said. “I think it’s really exciting to discover your own city.”

Pablo Canton, who recently retired from the Little Havana Neighborhood Enhancement Team, worked with local businesses and residents on improving the quality of life for about 20 years. Economic development was one Canton’s priorities, and 13 years ago he and others started Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays), a festival that’s held from 7-11 p.m. on the last Friday of every month in Little Havana.

“It’s really made a big change in the area,” he said. “(Visitors) are going to be pleasantly surprised. The whole dynamic of the festival changes as it gets later and later into the night.”

Anywhere from 3,000 people to 4,000 people attend the festival, said Viernes Culturales Director Pati Vargas, who also runs the Little Havana Artwalk, which occurs on the second Friday of every month.

Paul George, historian and professor at Miami Dade College, gives a free walking tour of Little Havana during Viernes Culturales. The tour begins in front of the Tower Theater. This Friday’s lineup includes belly dancing, a fashion show for young girls and a performance by a group called Cortadito.

Street parking is available along Southwest Eighth Street and nearby streets. For more information visit www.viernesculturales.org.

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