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Roosters, ‘Scarface’ and nostalgia: What version of Miami are they selling in Little Havana?

An image of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre next to license plates and posters of Al Pacino as Tony Montana from ‘Scarface’ are what is for sale at this Little Havana shop.
An image of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre next to license plates and posters of Al Pacino as Tony Montana from ‘Scarface’ are what is for sale at this Little Havana shop. el Nuevo Herald

If you go to Little Havana you have to buy a game of dominoes, a guayabera and Cuban coffee.

That is what they told Ruth and Eugenio, Chilean tourists who were going to Havana and ended up in Miami, after the US government banned cruises to Cuba in June.

The itinerary change did not seem to bother the couple, who took the opportunity to travel that stretch of Calle Ocho between 12th and 16th Avenue where the illusion of being in Havana is almost perfect.

In The Havana Collection, they bought that guayabera from manager Juan Cardona, who was also dressed in a guayabera and two-tone shoes, looking like a member of Benny Moré’s orchestra.

Meanwhile, Francisco Casañas’ cried from the sidewalk, “Peanuts, peanuts, peanuts ...one dollar!!!!” evoking a scene of pre-Castro Cuba.

Little Havana, the neighborhood that Cubans initially occupied upon their arrival in Miami in the 1960s, is promoted in tourist guides and websites as an alternative to the Cuban capital.

Six decades after the arrival of the Cubans, the Miami neighborhood, which last year received more than two million tourists, still oozes nostalgia.

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Maria Fritz, 54, from Austria, shops for souvenirs at the RC Gallery in Little Havana on Tuesday, September 11, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Between two worlds, seeking its identity in the past of the first immigrants and those who arrive more recently, the image of this neighborhood is confusing if you judge from the souvenirs sold to tourists.

Together with the ubiquitous roosters that have become a symbol of Little Havana, images of Al Pacino as “Scarface” are peddled in stores. His character of Tony Montana, a “marielito” drug dealer, is a reminder of Miami’s darkest hours of cocaine cowboys and Griselda Blanco, “the Cocaine Godmother.”

Additionally, in paintings, photos and other kinds of memorabilia the street scenes of Havana and the “almendrones” - as vintage cars are called on the island - and of the Capitol are commonly offered up for sale.

Unlike other cities that have monuments and emblematic buildings that are reproduced in bulk to sell to tourists, Little Havana seems to be inspired by the city from which it takes its name.

Therefore, critics of this hodgepodge of accessories and memorabilia that are sold in the stores wonder how the neighborhood is projected to the world through souvenirs.

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Shaun Henderson, 23, and Lidia Dixon, 24, both tourists from England, shop for souvenirs at the RC Gallery in Little Havana on Tuesday, September 11, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

For Professor Deborah Gómez, what emerged as a nostalgic gesture from the first Cuban exiles, who wanted to propogate their memories of the Republican era, has ended up as a response to market demands.

“All those objects that are sold in tourist areas that transport us mentally to Cuba are produced because there is a consumer who hopes to find them here,” said Gomez, who teaches Spanish language and literature at Florida Memorial University.

“In that sense the tourist forces us to duplicate the most desirable stereotypes of the city, perpetuating that image of a Miami that pretends to be real Havana,” Gomez added.

Real Havana, however, does not share Miami’s adoration, says the professor. Although in the Cuban capital buildings have begun to be restored and objects that recall the Republican splendor are sold, and the charm of the ruins is also commercialized and capitalized with the nostalgia of the Soviet era, they do not sell objects that reflect the life of Cubans in Miami.

“People do not go to Havana waiting for a replica of Miami, however, they do come to Miami waiting to see the Cuban influence in the city,” Gomez said.

Meanwhile, Miami historian Paul George, who frequently offers guided tours of Little Havana, does not object to an identification between Miami and the Cuban capital.

He criticizes, however, the lack of creativity and sophistication of the souvenirs, which in his opinion are similar to those found in other tourist sites in South Florida, such as South Beach.

For George, historian in residence at the HistoryMiami Museum, the fundamental thing is that Little Havana begins to define its identity.

“It is time to reflect what makes it unique, and especially the fact that it is a modern Ellis Island,” he said, highlighting the small businesses that give “a distinctive character to the area, which you can’t find anywhere else.”

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