Miami Destinations for Cuban History and Culture
By Carlos Harrison
Five hundred years after the first Spaniards set foot in Florida, the feel and appeal of all things Latin remains indelibly strong. Stands to reason. Their descendants multiplied exponentially and new ones from near and far just kept coming, making a bigger and bigger imprint.
Nowhere is that more true than in Miami, where the Spanish past links to the Hispanic present with an eye toward the future, and the flavor of its various Iberian, Caribbean, and South and Central American influences -- especially Cuban -- turns up on almost every corner.
The city is famous for its Latin sounds and tastes, but if you want to feast your eyes and your corazon on some historic, iconic, or just plain culturally symbolic sights, here’s a quick guide.
600 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Fl 33132
Some of us still remember when this place earned its name. Thousands of Cuban refugees passed through its doors searching for, and finding, a hearty welcome, a helping hand and what they longed for most, freedom. The tower, of course, had been there long before those waves of huddled masses came yearning in the 1960s and early ‘70s, but it took on a special meaning during those turbulent times as the “Ellis Island of the South.”
Originally built in 1925 as the headquarters for South Florida’s first newspaper, The Miami Daily Metropolis and News, the 17-story building is modeled after the Giralda Cathedral Bell Tower in Seville, Spain, blending Spanish and Italian architectural influences with Moorish ornamental touches. Lavishly ornate scrollwork decorates the facade, columns topped with Corinthian capitals flank the solid oak main doors, sweeping the eye up toward the richly ornamented bell tower itself, high above downtown Miami. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008.
The building now belongs to Miami Dade College and houses gallery and exhibit space, including the 2,600-square-foot Kislak Center and the Cuban Exile Experience & Cultural Legacy Gallery with its collection of photographs and personal stories illustrating the refugee experience that gave the building a permanent and prominent place in exile lore.
401 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33132
You can walk to this monument from the Freedom Tower. It’s just a couple of blocks away on Biscayne Boulevard, at the entrance to Bayside Marketplace.
It’s been a feature of the downtown Miami landscape since October 1960, a permanent emblem of Miami’s place as the “Gateway of the Americas” and a shining symbol of welcome for its neighbors to the south.
“We hope it will have the significance that the Statue of Liberty now has,” Miami’s then-mayor said.
The “eternal flame” of the torch went dark a few years back, but the imposing 18-foot-tall central pillar bearing the seal of the United States and the wraparound keystone wall next to it still stand as a lasting testament to the city’s “everlasting friendship” with its Latin American neighbors. Most of them anyway.
The wall is adorned with 20 round plaques displaying the coat of arms and names of just about every South and Central American country, arranged alphabetically, with a notable gap just the right size for one more, right where Cuba would fall in the lineup. (Yours truly represented Panama at the dedication ceremony, wearing an itchy montuno and slapping his sandals to the country’s national dance, the tamborito.)
1200 Coral Way, Miami, FL 33145
Or, simply, as it likes to be known, “The Cuban.” It’s a showcase for all things Cuban or, more precisely, all things Cuban Exile. It’s dedicated to telling the story of the “history, culture, and contributions” of the Cuban refugees forced to abandon their homeland and start anew here. And it does it, in its own words, “through the eyes of its greatest artists, thinkers, and creators.”
For example, a year-long exhibition paid tribute to the iconic Cuban “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz, in full 3-D — including not just her albums and unpublished photographs taken by her longtime friend and colleague, photographer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, but also “never-before-seen artifacts from her private collection.” Like a full-size replica of her New Jersey private study complete with her actual desk and a floor-to-ceiling display of her numerous awards, the Cuban passport she used when she went into exile, and the very first contract she signed with the Hollywood Palladium.
Not all the exhibits are about phenomenally popular celebrities. One examined themes of terrorism and exile. Another highlighted the famous rum-making Bacardi family and its efforts to stand up against Cuba’s communist government.
2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33137
It’s actually two, in a complex that served as both the family’s corporate headquarters from 1963 through 2009 and as a blatant thumb in the eye to Fidel Castro. Both buildings very deliberately blend art and innovative engineering into a distinctively cultural example of what’s known as MiMo, Miami mid-century modern, architecture.
The eight-story tall main tower appears to float above the plaza. Giant murals formed of traditional Spanish blue and white azulejos cover two exterior walls facing south toward Cuba — 28,000 hand-painted and glazed 6-inch-by-6-inch tiles in all, kilned in Brazil and fitted together like the pieces of a giant puzzle to depict artist Francisco Brennand’s vision of floating flowers and twining jungle vines rising toward the sky.
The second building, the “Jewel Box,” added in 1973, similarly “floats” 47 feet above the ground, supported by tensor rods from the roof, jutting out an amazing 24 feet beyond the central pedestal on each side. The four walls are made of one-inch thick hammered glass pieces forming a shimmering mosaic version of an original abstract painting, designed to withstand hurricane force winds.
The complex now serves as national headquarters for the YoungArts Foundation, a nonprofit that nurtures young artists in a variety of creative arts, which has converted the interior of the Jewel Box into an artists’ work and collaboration space. The tower houses a two-story gallery designed by Frank Gehry as an exhibition space for works by its proteges. That means you can gawk in awe at the exterior of the buildings, then go inside to gasp in amazement at how talented some of these kids really are.
5840 SW 8th St Miami FL 33144
Few things say Latinx more than a guayabera. We wear them to weddings and funerals, to parties, or just because. They’re elegant and comfortable; formal, yet not.
As the stories go (yes, there’s more than one), the guayabera originated in Cuba. One popular version credits a resourceful housewife adding a pair of pockets to a shirtfront so her husband could carry his tobacco and flint along with his pens and pad and other things. Local guava farmers (guayaberos) latched on to the practicality of the idea for packing their pockets full of guava fruit and — voila! — the guayabera became a thing. Everywhere.
The distinctive shirt with twin bands of tightly regimented pleats (typically 10) running down the front and the four pockets (of course) spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. And, thanks to Cuban refugees, to South Florida.
Perhaps the most well-known maker of quality guayaberas has been a fixture in Miami for almost a half-century. The late Ramon Puig started making them back on the island in its pre-Castro days, then opened La Casa de las Guayaberas on Calle Ocho after he went into exile. It’s now run by his son, and between one generation and the next they’ve outfitted Ernest Hemingway, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Andy Garcia, Alonzo Mourning, and Sylvester Stallone, among others, as well as Presidents Reagan, Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
If you're going to be in the area you should visit, even if you're not planning to get one for yourself. You'll see an array of short-sleeve and long-sleeve variations, custom-made and off-the-rack, and just about every color and hue. They’ve even broken the gender barrier, making women’s dress versions of what was once a for-men-only style.
3609 South Miami Avenue, Miami, FL 33129
The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity is one of the spots most venerated by the Cuban exile community in all of Miami. Understandably. It holds a replica of Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre — The Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, in English. Or, as the refugees and their descendants affectionately call her, La Cachita.
According to legend, two men and a boy in a small boat were caught in a storm off Cuba’s coast in 1612. They prayed to the Virgin Mary to save them. Suddenly, they said, the sky cleared, the sea calmed, and they saw a small statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus floating on the water. It bore the inscription, “I am the Virgin of Charity.” The statue ended up in the town of El Cobre, where the three were from.
Pope Benedict XV declared her Cuba’s patroness.
Fast forward to 1961. As Miami filled up with Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a replica of the 16-inch statue was smuggled off the island through the Panamanian embassy and secreted in a blue carry-on case to join them in exile. They scraped together donated refugee dollars to build the ermita for it, on church land looking out over Biscayne Bay — toward Cuba. The building was consecrated in 1973, and, oh, what a shrine it is.
The conical metal roof is patterned after the statue’s mantle, perched on six support columns representing Cuba’s six pre-Castro provinces. The statue stands on an altar inside built on a composite block of earth, sand and stone from each of those provinces, mixed with water brought from the island on a raft. The floor-to-ceiling mural behind it spans a massive 747 square feet and depicts 63 figures representing Cuban history — from original indigenous tribes to modern-day rafters — all surrounding an image of the Virgin Mary and her Child floating over the sea.
Intersection of SW Eight Street and 13th Avenue
The six-sided marble statue closest to Calle Ocho commemorates the men who fought and died in the abortive Bay of Pigs assault on Cuba in 1961. It’s topped by a flaming torch, surrounded by artillery shells, and bears a bronze replica of the Brigade 2506 arm-patch insignia, along with a list of the names of the fighters who perished.
Just a few feet behind it, you’ll find a bust honoring the renowned Caballero del Tango, Manolo Fernandez, followed by a full-sized statue of one of the Brigade’s most-respected anti-Castro fighters, Tony Izquierdo, poised for attack in full combat uniform and armed with an M-16.
Continuing south along Southwest 13th Avenue, aka Cuban Memorial Boulevard, there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, a giant relief map of Cuba, and a bust of Lt. Gen. Antonio Maceo, second-in-command of the rebel army in Cuba’s war of independence against the Spanish. Past that, there’s a bust of Cuban writer Salvador Diaz-Verson, a statue commemorating Cuba’s political prisoners, and, finally, a marble-fronted pyramid in memory of Cuban journalists who opposed Fidel Castro.
In all, it’s a tree-lined four-block stroll past some of the more painful reminders Cuban exile history, and a window into their passion for the homeland they lost.
Southwest Eighth Street from 17th Avenue east to 4th Street
If you got to the monument, you’ve arrived at the place where Miami’s Cuban Exile experience began. No one even calls it Eighth Street anymore. It’s simply, and symbolically, referred to as Calle Ocho, the spot where the first Cuban refugees clustered when they first arrived, and settled, and expanded. It used to be part of a neighborhood called Riverside, where the refugees found cheap places to rent. They opened businesses and, yes, the rest is Miami history.
The Cuban influence has made way for other incoming exiles, but the Cubania is still the strongest element of the street at the heart of Little Havana.
You can find Cuban-themed products from cigars to fine art, sip a cafecito at an open-front cafeteria window, stock up on T-shirts and tchotchkes, and pose for a selfie with one of the giant gallos — boldly painted rooster statues — adorning the street. And don’t leave without stopping by Domino Park at the corner of 16th Avenue to see the folks playing fast and furiously fun rounds of Cuba’s favorite pastime. Trust me, those raised voices and thundering smacks! of the domino tiles are all part of the merriment — usually.