It’s early afternoon and the beginning of a new week. Laughter and voices mix simultaneously, a perfect match for the festive ambiance. Dominoes smack against several tables, the clatter rising into a melody.
Maximo Gomez Park, better known as the Domino Park, is like many other Miami places, a convergence of different identities. It is here, in Little Havana, in the space on the corner of Southwest Eighth Street and 15th Avenue — just steps away from the Tower Theater — that locals have played Dominoes for decades. Now tourists insist on bearing witness to the game in which camaraderie and rivalry intertwine.
Silence gives way to concentration. Dominoes and laughter, like castanets, interrupt the truce and signal that the game has started on the table under one of the gazebos.
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“I’m telling you to concentrate!,” a player shouts to his game partner sitting directly in front of him. Table players cautiously plan their movements and one of them keeps score on a sheet of paper divided in two halves labeled “Us” and “Them.” Almost all of the tables at this park are used to play Dominoes but a few are occupied by the kings, queens, horses, pawns and towers of Chess.
Some visitors are spectators who cheer the players along. Others gather for idle chitchat.
Alfredo Coffiñi a.k.a. “Pinocho,” has been frequenting the park for nine years. He is a character reminiscent of the one described by Italian author Italo Calvino in his book, in The Invisible Cities: “In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.”
That is Coffiñi.
On this day, he dons a blue T-shirt, sunglasses are mounted on his red baseball cap, chains hang from his neck and his smile twinkles from the gold on his teeth. Coffiñi is engrained in the culture of the park.
“I spend my time here peacefully: I play Dominoes, I rest, I converse, we drink coffee, we smoke a cigarette on the sidewalk,” he said. “Some people talk about sports, others about baseball, politics or Dominoes. They talk about whether one player is better than the other and if ‘you beat me!’ or ‘I beat you!,’ and a million other things. It’s all part of the Cuban culture.”
Coffiñi came to Miami 35 years ago during the Mariel boatlift. Life has had its ups and downs. Not long ago, he lost one of his sons to death.
“That’s life,” he says. “I’ve had good days and bad days. I came here when I was 33 years old and now I’m 68. I’ve been here more years than I lived in Cuba.”
Besides Dominoes, the game of baseball also inspires heated exchanges.
Voices suddenly rise behind Coffiñi. He turns around to see who is speaking. The debate has to do with Cuban baseball greats Alejo O’Reilly and Rafael Palmeiro and what players belong in the Hall of Fame.
“Who broke the athletic record?,” shouts one man. “Who broke the record?”
“You haven’t seen World Series!,” retorts another.
A third voice chimes in: “Who has more strike outs?”
Coffiñi tries to mediate a conversation that is far from over. “No, no arguing.”
Then comes yet another voice: “I’m going to tell you about four Hall of Famers I saw live and direct.”
Rene Janero, who is 92 “and four months” years old, and who is listening from a nearby bench, bursts with laughter as the debate continues.
“There are seven baseball players. Seven baseball players. More than 3,000 hits, more than 500 home runs. It’s seven baseball players!,” one of the debaters argues. “You have to know about baseball.”
“Have you seen a better player than Palmeiro?,” chimes in another.
“You’re dumb!,” gripes another voice. “You’re dumb!”
The spectacle is reminiscient of similar debates that take place at a spot in Havana’s Parque Central known as La Esquina Caliente or the hot corner.
Janero, the founder of Domino Park, shares his history.
Born in Santiago de las Vegas, he arrived in Miami in 1961 along with the others who founded the park.
“We got the land, placed an old cart here, word spread and out surged the Domino Park you see now,” Janero said, also mentioning that he once coached Cuban baseball players such as Rafael Palmeiro while showing off a photo posted on a small window in the park’s administration office.
The 1963 photograph shows Janero playing dominoes on a table set on a dirt floor. Today, the park gets an estimated 200 Domino players and about 850 tourist visitors daily, according to Miami’s Department of Parks and Recreation figures.
Dominoes is not just about the game but also the banter.
“It’s been a pleasure, my brothers, you can now leave,” Roberto Garcia, says with a flair as he prepares to set his victory chips on the table. “I love you all very much.”
“Play! Count with your eyes and not your hands,” yells a player engaged in a game at another table.
Park worker Irma Lopez then lets out a whistle and asks the players to lower their voices. “Sometimes tourists think that they’re fighting with each other and they’re not, it’s just emotions running high.”
Among the few female players are Nydia Mouriño and Flora Rodriguez.
“I play with them, sometimes with people I don’t know,” said Rodriguez, 84, as she moved the pieces with hands manicured with bright red nail polish. “I get along with people who are just like me. The ones who aren’t like me I detest, you know, the ones who play dirty.”
Meanwhile, a steady stream of tourists takes in the scene at the park that is part of a scheduled stop on the tour buses. Some walk around with shopping bags filled with souvenirs or indulge on scoops of coconut ice cream while others still savor the “ropa vieja” dish they just ate or the mojito they drank at a nearby eatery.
Those intrigued by the game, get close the tables to watch.
“I had to come”, said German tourist who identified himself only as Dieter. “It’s Little Havana in USA — cigars, good coffee...something you don’t see every day.”
Follow Carmen Graciela Diaz on Twitter: @carmen7graciela