MIAMI - It’s not yet 9 a.m. but already every table in Domino Park is filled with elderly Cubans getting ready to spend another day playing their favourite game.
The elders – the park is restricted to 55 year olds and up – chomp down on hand rolled cigars, tell stories of their boyhood days back in Cuba, talk politics and share in their hatred of Fidel Castro, the man who forced them to leave their homeland when his communists seized power in 1959.
Just outside the iron gates of the park, located in Miami’s La Pequeña Habana (Little Havana), one man is translating a Miami Herald story about Castro’s failing health – the news must be bad because a smile creeps across the face of every man gathered around the newspaper reader. When Castro first took seriously ill in 2010, the streets of Miami’s Little Havana quickly filled with residents rejoicing at the news.
There’s no laughter at the domino tables, though. Few words are exchanged. The men are focused. They take their dominos seriously here.
The small park at the intersection of Calle Ocho (8th Street) and 15th Ave. is actually named in honour of Maximo Gomez, the legendary commander of Cuban troops during its War of Independence in the late 19th century. But everyone in Miami’s Little Havana knows the park by its “domino” name.
Left: The Cuban coffee is strong and its aroma fills the air around Little Havana. Right: Old men talk about old times in Cuba while chomping on cigars.
Dominos are everywhere in Little Havana; they’re even painted into the sidewalk that weaves through this treasured piece of Miami where Cuban immigrants live much the same way they did in their beloved homeland which lies about 160 kilometres due south of here.
Even if Castro were to die, not many of the men mingling in Dominos Park ever expect to return to Cuba, though – Miami and South Florida is home now.
“Miami is Havana with newer cars,” laughs a man seated next to me at the counter in El Pub Restaurant, one of Little Havana’s better known dining spots that’s famous for its Cuban coffee, Cuban (pork) sandwiches and flank steak breakfast.
“You must try the flank steak,” insists the man with the dark, chiseled face.
“And it’s only $10,” he whispers.
I can’t resist and the lovely server with the black olive eyes arrives a few minutes later with a plate that’s overflowing with a large portion of steak surrounded by a mound of scrambled eggs and French fries. The tender cut of meat has a charcoal goodness to it and the eggs are perfectly prepared. Two could easily share this generous portion.
After breakfast, I stroll down Calle Ocho and soak up the Latin flavour that permeates the area. The smell of Cuban coffee and cigar smoke hangs over the street and colourful murals adorn walls of the buildings lining it. Cigar rollers are hunched over in their shops busy at their craft. Art shops, whose walls hang heavy with the brightly-coloured paintings that Cuban artists are so famous for around the world, are starting to open up. A man offers to sell me some homemade jewelry at a stand he’s set up opposite the street’s famed Tower Theatre, an Art Deco masterpiece that shows Hollywood films subtitled in Spanish.
Left: Cuban sandwiches are tasty treats in Little Havana. Right: The dominos tables fill up early in Little Havana every morning.
Suddenly, I’m startled by a man who jokingly shouts “Don’t step on Celia” at me.
While absorbing all that was happening on Calle Ocho, I failed to notice the stars embedded in the sidewalk where Latin personalities like Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino and Gloria Estefan are immortalized in the Walkway of the Stars.
Calle Ocho is also lined with many statues and monuments, all dedicated to Cuban heroes. An eternal flame honours those who lost their lives trying to retake Cuba from Castro in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 and a handsome statue commemorates the man who led the Bay of Pigs invasion, Nestor Izquierdo.
Music fills the air most days in Little Havana – anything from a solo musician strumming on a Spanish guitar to grand parades and music festivals. Little Havana’s best known events are the Miami Carnival, Cultural Fridays, the Three Kings Parade and a host of other smaller celebrations that are beamed to many Latin American countries in South and Central America.
Because food plays such an important role in Cuban life and because Little Havana features some of Miami’s best restaurants, the Little Havana Food Tour has become one of the biggest draws to the area. Foodies go on guided tours and get to sample some of the neighbourhood’s spicy treats and learn all about traditional Cuban cuisine. Go to www.miamiculinarytours.com to find out more.
I’ve never been to Cuba’s Havana but once you’ve been to Miami’s Little Havana, who needs the real thing?
- The approximate boundaries of Little Havana are the Miami River (north), SW 16th Street (south), SR-9 West 27th Avenue (west) and I-95 (east). The neighbourhood can also be said to extend as far west as LeJeune Road/West 42 Avenue. Little Havana is occasionally called the Latin Quarter.
- The El Pub Restaurant is located at 1548 SW 8th Street (305-642-9942).
- The Tower Theater is located at 1508 SW 8th Street, (305) 642-1264)
- For more information on Miami, go to www.miamiandbeaches.com.
- Air Canada and WestJet offer daily flights to Miami.