In 1962, when I lived in Miami (well, in Camp Matecumbe… close enough) the feeling was we were living in a semi-abandoned city. It was a playground (along with Miami Beach) for the rich and the not so famous; mostly Canadians and Jewish folks from New York who came to their winter condos from the northern cities, escaping from the harsh December and January weather. What is now the three block stretch colloquially known as “Miracle Mile”, the traditional business and restaurant heart of Coral Gables, was an expanse of empty store fronts where grass was growing from the sidewalk cracks. Back then, Miami ended at about where the University of Miami is on US1 (purists will argue that it ended well before that corner since this site sits in Coral Gables, a different city altogether). From there on, it was a road full of teepees and kiosks selling cigarettes, oranges and little plastic gators along with cold sodas to those on their way to the Keys.
The migrating Cuban families who made it then to Miami and chose to stay there, settled primarily in a 30-40 block square where Calle 8 (8th St.) was the heart, and which became known as “Little Havana”. Calle 8, in the 70’s, became a second downtown to Miami and this downtown became much more active than the original. Of course, the little bistros, restaurants and store fronts reflected the Cuban culture, language, cigars, black coffee and all. Miami had yet a few years to go before becoming a financial center to the South American business community.
Hialeah was then a small farm town, some 20 miles north of Miami and this little town became the imagined retirement mecca for many of these families, who saw going to a small house in Hialeah on the week ends as going to a country home, where all weekday worries could be left behind. Little by little, more and more Cuban families bought a small home in Hialeah, making it bigger and bigger as the years went by. It eventually became a place to call home, not just a “vacation” destination.
Jump to the year 2004.
Hialeah is now home to 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Cuban (and many Central American) families. Far from being the “hazmereir” (laughingstock) and the butt of many jokes it was for many years, it has become a city which continues to grow and is a vibrant place, having become the 5th largest city in Florida; no longer just north of Miami (yes, geographically it still is) but a continuation of Miami, via the Palmetto (and other)Highway(s). It fully preserves the Latin flavor, which includes a lot of loud Spanish conversations, music and food.
Sometime in the middle of that summer, my wife and I decided it would be good for the two of us to have some time apart. There had been many pressures and much financial loss along the way. I called my brother and asked whether he had room in his apartment for a wandering Cuban and he, always present, said: - “Ven p’acá muchacho”. Loosely translated this would be: -“What are you waiting for?” So, for the first time, I had a personal taste of life in Hialeah. My brother and family lived then on a second story condo, in a subdivision which consisted of rows of buildings, which “faced” each other’s back, with a not too wide street in between. On the back of all the apartments there would be a porch which, inevitably, would be facing the porch across the way, making it ripe for nosing into everyone else’s life.
On my first Sunday as a newly minted Hialeah resident, my morning reverie was seriously jarred when, from the downstairs porch came the sound of a very loudly played song. Not necessarily a lullaby, but a fast tropical rhythm. When I questioned my brother, his response was:
-“No te preocupes… ese es Julio, el de abajo, y todos los Domingos saca su discoteca… pero tiene buena música”.
-“Don’t worry, that’s Julio downstairs” “Every Sunday he brings his collection out … but he has good music”.
Indeed it was Julio and indeed the collection of music was pretty good. Then, as I sat having coffee and enjoying the music (what else to do?) I heard what seemed to be a wailing scream coming from the porch across the passageway:
-“NENITAAAAAA!!!” “ESTAS AHI?” -“Nenita, are you there?
I ran out to the back porch, expecting someone bleeding from a knife stuck somewhere in her body screaming for help. No such animal. It seems the lady from the corner unit across and to my left was communicating with her neighbor, two doors down and to my right. Little modern nuances such as the telephone were totally ignored by these older ladies, for Nenita (I assumed it to be her) came out to her back porch and in no less of a wail answered her friend, who then proceeded to ask her to come to her place, because they were getting lunch ready.
In the meantime, our friend Julio was getting his music on and also his outdoor grill, while drinking a “few” beers. Seems that every Sunday, along with the grill and the music, his family came on to his place instead of the local park in order to have a “picnic”. Needless to say, the music became faster and louder as the afternoon wore on, and the smells of a Caribbean grill mix came also on. I almost signed on as a long lost cousin.
This was Hialeah then, in the summer of 2004. I expect it has not changed much. Yes, you can still get good Cuban food and coffee along Calle Ocho in Miami, with its many local restaurants, clothing stores and “santerías” -stores dedicated to articles for what may be considered “witchcraft”- but what to us, is only a means to get your loved one to love you back. Or to have someone you truly dislike lose a limb or some such. Take your pick; it has always been said that the line between love and hate is very slim… indeed.
While the better known Calle Ocho and the surrounding area have almost become a place for tourists Hialeah, still "a few miles to the north", has grown and matured into the real thing, becoming and remaining the last true bastion of “Cubanism” in Florida; perhaps the US.
Be Back!! Be Well!!!