Little Havana’s new face: Artists, performers and promoters give a fresh spin to an old Miami neighborhood

Street Miami

September 28, 2001

By Emma Trelles

Early September and La Virgen de Regla floats down Eighth Street. Yards of carefully laid lace, white candles and the devout fill a vigil the length of three city blocks. The Virgin’s half-curve of smile is modest and benevolent, much like the clutch of people shouldering the shrine that encases her likeness. Yes, they are praying and singing hymns. They carry palm-size Bibles and pewter rosaries. But these petitioners are also laughing, gabbing, waving at the cars that pass their streetside procession. This is Little Havana, after all, and here, the denizens possess a preternatural gift for combining a purposeful agenda with a staunch island throwdown.

Case in point: The other procession that threads through la sagüesera on this same evening, one composed of thirty-somethings parking their cars and hoofing it to the inaugural show of lab6’s latest space, an 1,100-square-foot gallery off 11th Avenue and Southwest Sixth Street.

This Friday-night milieu isn’t happenstance. During the last three years, Little Havana has gathered a heady steam as haven for both artists and patrons. Cheap rents and a thriving urban culture have tempted painters, writers and musicians to dwell and work in a neighborhood once hallmarked strictly for its ethnic gifts of Hispanic food and history. Today’s Little Havana offers this and more: galleries and studios housing the mixed-media efforts of local talent, plus film, theater and nightclubs soundtracked with live and original music. What Little Havana now offers Miami is a much needed dose of alternative art and fresh venues, an escape from faddish dance clubs and meet-and-greet happy hours, a place where culture and fun are not mutually exclusive.


The crowd spills out of lab6 during a recent opening.

Such is lab6, with its exhibit by Yamel Molerio, whose pieces are constructed in a medium he refers to as “scratch.” Perhaps if you were still in elementary school you would recognize the process: A canvas colored with crayons or paint, then slathered with black. The edges of scissors used to etch out words and shapes. Remember? If not, maybe Molerio’s work will spark the memory with a series of pop-Cuban maxims straight from the fabled island. “Three years ago, I got tired of painting,” says the 30-year-old Molerio. Someone interrupts him for a moment and offers a quick combo handshake and backslap. Molerio bobs his head in thanks, then continues. “I decided to go minimal, totally kitsch, against everything they teach you in art school.”

Here is Jesus, with the required holy rays jetting from his head, one hand outstretched and holding a stack of bills: Que dios te lo paga (May the Lord reward you). Over there, one hardware nail prying another from its plank: Un clavo saca a otro clavo (nailing a new love will make you forget the last one who tore out your heart — not a literal translation, but that’s what it means nonetheless.) A small squiggle of line in the center of the canvas: Eres un pendejo (no translation required, but if so, you are a pubic hair).

The crowd at lab6 digs the anti-arthouse vibe. They shuffle around the one-room gallery clutching beers, gesturing dramatically with their free hands. People talk loudly and interrupt each other. They fish beers out of an Igloo on the floor. They cluster on the second-story landing bumming cigarettes and calling out to those just arriving. The same evening, across town at a Coral Gables gallery, the atmosphere is more inhibited. Cliques sip white wine and speak in subdued tones. The contrast between the Little Havana and Gables exhibits is stark, but artists and lab6 co-founders Carlos Suarez De Jesus and Vivian Marthell wouldn’t have it otherwise. “One of my big beefs is with how these cultural elitists incorporate urban culture into their work but look down their noses at it as well,” De Jesus explains. “We have a vested interest in this neighborhood. We live here.”

“We wanted more than a once-a-month carnival,” Marthell adds, referring to Viernes Culturales, a mini-fest held on the last Friday of each month where restaurants, galleries and vendors draw hundreds of locals and tourists. “We wanted more art, more film, more of everything.”


When lab6 set up shop two-and-a-half years ago, Little Havana was the kind of nighttime neighborhood you’d drive through to get somewhere else. With car doors locked.De Jesus recalls rough streets veined with potholes and pockets of crime. “The building half-a-block down from us was a crack house. I remember a stabbing at a supermarket. The guy bled to death right around the corner from here.”

In February 1999, other locals voiced their own concerns about crime at a town meeting held, in part, by Miami-Dade County’s Cultural Affairs Department. The neighborhood’s rally inspired city and community leaders to launch Viernes Culturales and tend further to neglected public spaces by resurfacing sidewalks and streets and landscaping weedy medians.

Earlier this year, lab6 partnered with Artemis, a nonprofit arts collective that fosters South Florida-based artists, and both groups sponsor Surreal Saturdays, a multigenre event showcasing music, dance, poetry and visual arts (the event is held on the first Saturday of each month). Like De Jesus and Marthell, Artemis director Susan Caraballo hustles for grant dollars that bolster art and programs in Little Havana; yet, while lab6 and Artemis operate from the Hispanic enclave, Caraballo is adamant about her interest in all South Florida artists. “When we first opened, we had over 400 people stop by. People from Broward, African Americans, Asians, all different ethnicities,” Caraballo says. “We’re very interested in non-Hispanic artists. Little Havana has more potential than just being a historic Spanish neighborhood. It can be like Soho in New York. It can be a place with all kinds of art.”

A stroll through el barrio would indicate as much. Last year, the Latin Quarter Cultural Center swung open its doors, and Calle Ocho has birthed six new galleries during the last 12 months. Restaurants like Casa Pansa and El Pub proffer live music and a third, El Teté, features the work of visual artists. After last year’s $3 million restoration of the historic Tower Theatre, moviegoers now catch second-run flicks for $2.50 and celluloid shot by local filmmakers for five bucks on the last Tuesday of each month. At the Dr. Rafael Peñalvar Clinic, a steady stream of piano and dance recitals, classical theater and string quartets nourish SoFlas looking for something to do besides blowing fifty bucks on a bar tab and cover charge.

Plus, Little Havana has this gleaming bonus: At the end of the night, there are plenty of places to eat cheap or slam a shot of coffee.

At midnight, the throng at lab6 has thinned, with some remaining to make after-plans or pet Acére, a sweet lab mutt rescued by Marthell. Most of the duplexes and apartments surrounding the gallery are dark, their windows illuminated only by the blue flicker of television sets. Tonight’s opening drew a few neighbors, and De Jesus expects more to follow.

“I like to say that people from the neighborhood are our best critics. They come in and say, `You call this art? My 10-year-old niece can do that.’ Then they come back with their families, in dresses and ties.”

It might be worthy to note that one community’s loss is another’s winning ticket. Both Little Havana artists and promoters concur that the area’s renaissance can be traced, in part, to South Beach’s commercialism and overblown rents. The result? On the Beach, an absence of frontline creative minds and a surge of ho-hum galleries and tight-ass nightclubs, with little of the grooviness that made the Beach, years ago, interesting to begin with. It’s a familiar story. Still, the arts migration into La Pequeña Havana is flavored with its own uniqueness, its own sazon, so to speak.

“I think of what’s happening here as a conveyor belt,” speculates Xavier Cortada, painter-in-residence at Casa Grande Cultural Center, a studio and gallery nestled at the eastern tip of Little Havana. A westward sun slants light between parked cars and ficus branches while, inside the gallery, Cortada is setting up buckets to resemble the face of a clock for his next exhibit — Primus, an art installation exploring the slavish cult of youth. A pioneer of the neighborhood’s arts movement, the Cuban-American Cortada exhibits locally and internationally; his most recent piece, a mural depicting a manatee and other river life, backdrops the Riverside Garden at the underpass of the Flagler Bridge. “This is an enclave where immigrants can acclimate in a monolinguistic environment and move on to somewhere else. This keeps the neighborhood affordable for artists’ groups. Following them are the folks that come in from Westchester, Coral Gables, wealthy Cubans tugged back by nostalgia.”

So what’s to stop Little Havana from spiraling down the sell-out funnel like South Beach? Cortada thinks it’s Miami’s long-standing influx of Hispanic immigrants that will preserve the neighborhood’s idioms. “In South Beach, a lot of the immigrant population went North. There was nothing tying them to that area. There are too many collective memories here to let that happen.”

Like those of performance artist and Little Havana resident Lourdes Simón, who fled from Havana five days short of her ninth birthday to live in Madrid (“very cold and stern”) and found herself two years later in Hialeah (“when I could, I left. I wanted more”). While in her mid-20s, Simón moved to Coral Gables, where she lived for eight years while she earned a BA in liberal studies at FIU and traveled abroad. A trip to Puerto Rico to study theater led her to discover boleros, the crooning romantic ballads conceived in late-1800s Cuba. “The bolero was born in Cuba, and then emigro,” says a honey-voiced Simón, who often divides the words within her sentences between English and Spanish. “Now there’s wonderful boleros in Argentina, Chile. The beauty of the bolero is that you can have one written by a Cuban and then made famous by a Chilean singer. It brought cultures together; it’s one of the things about it that bewitches me.”

Her interpretations of the genre are no less enchanting. Tall and shapely, the dark-haired Simón rivets eyes when she performs, her singing a soft pierce of alto in a dark room. She holds the microphone before her as if cupping water with her hands, and between songs she offers listeners poetry and musings about love and cubania. In “Nido,” she refuses to believe that there is no returning home. Instead she finds solace in love, and through it, returns to her birthplace.

Dicen que a casa, que no se regresa

Que después de la partida y

experencia de la vida

Jamas se puede volver.

Dicen que a casa, que no se regresa.

No estoy de acuerdo.

En tus brasos encuentro

El camino directo al lugar de nacimiento

El camino al regreso.

Performing in Little Havana since 1999, Simón decided to move there earlier this year because she wanted to belong to what she calls a “family” of artists. “The Gables is nice, lovely, fine, but too solitary. Aqui, I can walk to the supermarket, visit the art gallery, treat myself to a breakfast for $2.10 at El Pub. You feel like you are part of a village, a community.”

“To me, it was and is the beginning of Cuba in Miami.”


Inside Hoy Como Ayer, heavy rains and national events have muted the usual Thursday-night revelry known as ¡Fuacata! At eleven o’clock, there’s no wait at the bar and tables are available. Glowing from the club’s dark walls are painted takes of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint, here depicted in nude and folk form. The 30 or so people that have made it out gather in campfire circles around candle-lit tables. Even while sitting, those here can’t help but move in time to a recording of percussionist Milton Cardona’s tribute to Eleggua. Tonight, his bull-strong vocals are a fortifying gospel.

“Everybody I’ve talked to here is conveying the same sadness,” says Eric Fabregat, who along with Ralph de la Portilla and Steve Roitstein launched the weekly fete earmarked by son, soul and irrepressible dancing. “Everybody here has the desire to struggle forward,” he adds, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “It’s too much for the heart to take day in and day out. Tonight is like a despojo.”

The trio brought their brand of healing to Little Havana five months ago, after Fabregat and de la Portilla walked in the venue that once housed Café Nostalgia and lamented its lack of bustle. “We saw this beautiful cozy lounge, and it was completely empty,” remembers de la Portilla. “We thought, let’s make some calls and see if we can fill this up.” With backgrounds blending theater, arts and music, the three did just that, and their Ministry of Culture now promotes a mainstay night in Little Havana’s arts roster. And the fuacas are a faithful lot, arriving each week a few hours before midnight and closing the joint down at 3 a.m., exhausted and happy and sheathed in sweat.

By 1 a.m., four Corona-swigging girls in halter tops have hit the deck. The bar’s now busy. The club’s filled out. The girls roll shoulders and shake ass to an aural stew of vinyl, trombone, guitar and timbales. A stage light dusts their heads with gold, and they dance unabashed.

“These aren’t just kids in guayaberas with cigars,” says Roitstein. “We’re getting all kinds of Latin Americans, Anglos, Germans. We sensed there was a need for this. For us.”