Cuban History in Florida: Must-Sees for History and Culture

    By Chelle Koster Walton

    Florida's Cuban influence is seen throughout the state. These are some must-see sites to explore Cuban cultural expressions.

    Way before the sensationalized Mariel boat lift made "Cuban" synonymous with Miami, the Spanish Caribbean island and Florida had sealed a bond. By dint of close proximity, trade between the two was happening well before Europeans arrived.

    Later, Florida fishermen swapped smoked fish for rum during Prohibition days and when trouble struck in 1868, Cubans grabbed their tobacco seeds and headed to Key West, 90 miles away. In 1886, Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar-making operation to Ybor City in Tampa, attracted by better trade deals and transportation. Today the Cuban influence has added spice and spark to cuisine, arts and customs throughout the state. Here are some great places to trace this strong cuban influence on Florida culture.

    NORTH FLORIDA

    Monument to Father Félix Varela, St. Augustine. On the lawn of today's Cathedral, this monument honors a hero and saint in the eyes of the Cuban people. An important advocate for human rights, he lived as a child in St. Augustine and also retired and died here.

    Plaza de la Constitución, St. Augustine. The bond between Cuba and St. Augustine was created when Spain traded colonial Florida with England in exchange for Cuba. As a result, Spanish citizens fled to Cuba. Some returned 20 years later when Spain regained Florida. The bond remains strong and Cubans and Spaniards alike come to St. Augustine to trace their heritage and property titles. The city’s Plaza de la Constitucion was once the site of a major rally for Cuban independence. Over the centuries, several renditions of St. Augustine’s cathedral, including the present cathedral built in 1797, have bordered the plaza.

    Varela Chapel in Tolomato Cemetery, St. Augustine. Here Father Varela was laid to rest in 1853, but later his remains were returned to Cuba, where he was proclaimed a national hero. Cuban patriot José Marti once visited the site.

    CENTRAL FLORIDA

    Fiesta Day, Tampa, 813-248-3712. Varied festivities welcome revelers to February's Cuban street fair.

    Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona Beach, 386-255-0285, www.moas.org. Its permanent collection contains rare pieces from the 18th to early 20th centuries organized to illustrate the nation's past.

    Parque Amigos de Jose Marti, Tampa. This small plot of land memorializes the Cuban revolutionary's frequent exiles to Ybor City.

    Ybor City Museum State Park, Tampa, 813-247-6323, www.floridastateparks.org/yborcity. Ybor City grew up around the cigar industry as a Latin district of Cubans and other nationalities. Cigars and Cuban food still figure importantly into this colorful historic area. Its museum flashes back to the industry's ups and downs and broad influence on the city. It includes a cigar worker's casita you can tour.

    Columbia Restaurant, Tampa, 813-248-4961, www.columbiarestaurant.com. Opened in 1905, this flagship of a Florida-wide chain is worth a visit for the architecture and authentic cuisine. The shop next door sells hand-rolled cigars.

    SOUTH FLORIDA

    Calle Ocho, Miami. Mainline of Miami's Little Havana, Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) exudes a festive air any time of day. By morning, it gets pumped up on the café con leche dispensed from bakeries and restaurants through sidewalk windows. Salsa music issues from unseen sources, everyone is chattering in Spanish and delicious aromas embody a homeland not forgotten. Stars inset along the sidewalk honor Latino celebrities and shops sell religious icons, guayabera shirts and domino tables.

    Carnaval Miami, 305-644-8888, www.carnavalmiami.com. Every March a week-long showcase of Cuban festival arts culminates in Calle Ocho Festival, the nation's largest street festival.

    Freedom Tower, Miami. A symbol of the saving grace America offered Cubans from 1962 - 1974 as an immigration processing center, it was rescued in the 90s itself as a monument and museum commemorating the flee from Castro and life in Old Cuba.

    Maximo Gomez Park, Miami. Home to the slap-happy Domino Club, it has made many movie cameos, this Old World portrait of Cuban tradition haloed in a cloud of cigar smoke occupying a small corner of Calle Ocho.

    Versailles Restaurant & Bakery, Miami, 305-444-0240. A landmark restaurant, here the food is genuine Cuban, without the nouveau influence that has created the Floribbean sensation.

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