Miami residents learned about Hialeah’s Hispanic heritage during recent tour

Participants of the Hispanic Heritage Month Neighborhood Tour take photos at the Leah Arts District in Hialeah.
Participants of the Hispanic Heritage Month Neighborhood Tour take photos at the Leah Arts District in Hialeah.

On a recent Sunday, a seemingly inconspicuous scenario played out in Miami, with a tour bus ferrying camera-wielding folks around the city. But there was a twist. The people in the bus, around 20 of them in total, weren’t bleary-eyed tourists, but longtime Miami residents. And instead of criss-crossing hotspots like Wynwood or Miami Beach, the bus roamed around neighborhoods typically left out of the visitor circle: Hialeah and Doral.

The purpose of the tour — a product of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau — was to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by showcasing the contributions of Hispanic communities in parts of the city that even veteran Miamians might not be familiar with.

Shepherding the tour on Sunday was Corinna Moebius, a cultural anthropologist who has led Little Havana walking tours for more than a decade.

“You’re going to have to rebrand yourself, girl,” suggested one of the Hialeah tour’s participants with a laugh.

Moebius said her goal for the day was to point out the complex, mutable quality of Hispanic heritage, which draws from cultural influences scattered the world over. Borrowing a metaphor from Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz, Moebius explained that Miami’s checkered cultural landscape shows how Hispanic heritage is really like an ajiaco — an eclectic stew common to Cuba, Colombia and Peru.

“[Ortiz] said it’s like you got the yucca, which is evidence of African heritage; you’ve got some of the vegetables and seasonings associated with the indigenous heritage; you’ve got some of the meat associated with the Spanish heritage. And they are all there and they keep their form somewhat but they are also constantly cooking and blending to create something new,” said Moebius. “And it’s always changing as new flavors come into the mix.”

The tour’s first taste of Hialeah was the site of its 10 a.m. meeting point: the Hialeah Park Race Track. The nearly 100-year old facility’s horse-racing days are mostly over, but what the park lacks in thoroughbreds, it makes up for in flamingos, with a sizable flock living in the center of the track.

“They’ve been here since 1930,” noted a park staffer. “And don’t let anyone tell you we hold the flamingos hostage. We do not.”

On the bus, Moebius kicked off the tour by reminding participants of Hialeah’s Cuban credentials, which include being the city in the U.S. with the highest percentage of Cuban and Cuban-American residents. “Oftentimes we think of Little Havana as the Cuban place,” she said. “But actually it’s Hialeah that has a very, very strong Cuban cultural identity.

The tour’s first stop was the Rincon de San Lazaro, a Catholic church on East 4th Avenue chiefly devoted to the worship of Saint Lazarus, the elderly, sickly figure cherished for his healing ability. But as Moebius was quick to point out, this wasn’t the “Saint Lazarus of the Bible,” but rather a “unique Cuban understanding of him,” which syncretizes the saint with the Yoruba healer deity Babalú-Ayé. African influences, Moebius explained, are common in the Cuban religious culture.

“This is where you start seeing the blending of Spanish traditions and African traditions,” she said. “And that’s what I want to focus on in this tour. I want us to think about how nothing is fixed, everything is fluid. [...] Here in Miami, we are always bringing something new to the mix.”

Tour participants then trooped around the Leah Arts District — a Hialeah version of Wynwood — which local councilman Paul Hernandez helped found in 2015.

“I’ve been living here for 10 years and I’ve never come here,” said Jim Yu, chairperson of Miami Dade College’s World Languages Department. “I think it would be great for our students, and a lot of students are locals, to do things like this because many of them don’t know about the cultural heritage here.”

A change of scene later, the group found itself snaking around the sprawling, 400-stall Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market. “Let’s say you wanted to get gold-plated teeth and a songbird and a new transmission and some artisanal artwork from many different parts of the world,” said Moebius. “You could get it all done at the Hialeah flea market.”

Among the stalls Moebius pointed out was a Cuban botanica that advertised sacred flowers and plants, spiritual services and conch readings. “There are a lot of spiritual shops in Hialeah that sell items related to Afro-Cuban religions,” she said. “There’s really a whole bunch of spiritual traditions from Latin America that are part of South Florida.”

For Kerri McDowell, a Miami Beach resident, the tour was an eye-opening experience.

“I’m originally from California and I don’t know as much about the local culture here as I should,” she said. “And I really feel like I need to know more about the city that I live in. That’s a big part of why am here.”

This was the second straight year that the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau sponsored a neighborhood tour for Hispanic Heritage Month. Last year, the stops on the tour were in Little Havana and Allapattah.

Near the end of Sunday’s tour, the group stopped for lunch at Mondongo’s, a Colombian restaurant in Doral. Ajiaco stew was on the menu.

Lautaro Grinspan is a bilingual reporter at the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He is also a Report for America corps member. Lautaro Grinspan es un periodista bilingüe de el Nuevo Herald y del Miami Herald, así como miembro de Report for America.