Another Enchanted Day (and Evening) in Little Havana

This post is a re-post from 2013 …

A most magical day started with my walking tour for seven people: four of them from the states, three from Canada. During the three-hour excursion along Calle Ocho, I felt charged and inspired as I do on most of my tours. I love to catch the sparkle in the eyes of my guests and to feel our bonding as a group as we explore, learn, discover and share together.

At the Gallery

Unlike most of my excursions, however, this particular one concluded at the studio gallery of Agustin Gainza, as the group wanted to continue on their own to the nearby Bay of Pigs Museum.

Before I could exit the studio, however, Ester — Agustin’s wife — called me back.

“Don’t leave!” she said.

She wanted me to stay and talk with both of them about the state of tourism Little Havana.

“We don’t understand why the tour guides from the buses don’t bring people this way,” she said, looking bewildered. I explained that tour buses are on a strict time schedule, which is why most guides prefer to drop tourists off in front of souvenir shops (so they can receive a commission) or in front of the famous Domino Park, several blocks away from their gallery.

Ester sighed, mentioning that a tour bus guide had told her the same thing: “He said that we basically had nothing to offer him.”

“Don’t worry about trying to reach all the tourists arriving on buses,” I reassured her, speaking in Spanish. “There are tourists who travel on their own, or take the hop-on, hop-off buses and explore. There are guides who do take visitors here. The right people will find you.” I shared some suggestions for creating a more welcoming space outside the gallery, and thus enticing visitors to step inside (the interior of the studio gallery is lovely).

The Painting

Agustín then emerged from his studio area in the rear of the gallery. “Te gusta ese cuadro?” he said in his gentle voice, his head nodding towards a framed watercolor sitting on the floor, leaning up against the wall. Yes, I did like it, I said: it was clearly a local gathering place, but where?

Little Havana artist Agustín Gainza standing in front of Domino Park next to his 1980 painting of the park

Little Havana artist Agustín Gainza standing in front of Domino Park next to his 1980 painting of the park

He said it was Domino Park before it had been fenced in; he painted the park in 1980. He wanted to give the painting (a reprint of the original) to me.

My mouth dropped open. A gift? I did not want to accept it, but they both insisted. Gracias, gracias, gracias, I said, repeating what tour participants had said to me minutes earlier — in English, but with the same level of sincerity.

Then we were interrupted by a phone call. Ester answered it, said something quickly to the caller and then handed me the phone, her eyes wide.

“It’s for you,” she whispered. “Someone wants a walking tour of Little Havana!”

What?! And they were calling the gallery? Both of us looked at each other and shrugged.

She handed me the phone. The caller was a hotel concierge looking for a tour that would give visitors a deeper experience of Little Havana than just Domino Park, cigars and Cuban coffee. When I described my tours, he said they were exactly what he was looking for.

Weren’t we just discussing this topic? The timing gave me goosebumps. Luis gave me tips on getting the word out about my tours and promised to send me clients. During the call, Ester pointed to the sky and smiled.

Since Agustín was heading out to pick up lunch for him and Ester, he offered to walk me to Domino Park, near where I had parked, so I could take a picture of him with his painting, standing in front of the tiny park. After he left, I brought the painting inside the tiny park and showed it to the domino players, who recognized the scene immediately, pointing out the lamp posts that had existed back then, and the payphone. When my elderly buddy Rene Janero examined the painting, his broad, unguarded smile thrilled me. At 90 years old, he is the oldest player of the park.

Raissa’s Summer Camp

The day was not over. I stepped into the gallery cafe I Love Calle Ocho (NOTE: now closed) so I could grab some lunch, and there I ran into two ambassadors of the neighborhood: Pati Vargas (director of the neighborhood’s monthly arts festival, Viernes Culturales) and Steve Roitstein, a local composer/arranger/musician and manager of PALO!, an Afro-Cuban funk band that performs regularly in Little Havana and has been nominated for a Latin Grammy Award. After they left, I sipped on a cortadito topped with cinnamon while chatting with restaurant’s co-owner Barbara Aguiar. We brainstormed ideas for attracting customers to her cafe, and I was glad to hear her plans to create a larger, open air patio space in front.

Suzy Batlle of Azucar Ice Cream and Orlando Rojas of the Tower Theater discuss the movie theater's need for a digital projector.

Suzy Batlle of Azucar Ice Cream and Orlando Rojas of the Tower Theater discuss the movie theater’s need for a digital projector.

Then I decided to walk over to Azucar Ice Cream for a cone. There, I ended up in a conversation with Azucar’s owner Suzy Batlle, and film critic, screenwriter and director Orlando Rojas, who manages the iconic Tower Theater across the street. Orlando said the theater needed to raise funds in order to go digital with its equipment.

I drove home with the painting and got ready to go back to Calle Ocho once again, this time to enjoy Little Havana Art Walk, when local galleries stay open from 7 to 10 pm. My boyfriend and I made Futurama 1637 our first stop; Futurama is an arts incubator with more than a dozen studio galleries on either side of a glass-walled conference room. As soon as I walked in, Maggie Genova-Cordovi (one of Futurama’s artists) joked that this time around I was not in the role of tour guide!

Inside the conference room we were surprised to discover children sitting around the table working on stencil art, coached by artist Katey Penner and local volunteers, including local activist Raissa Fernandez. Suddenly I realized what was going on: this was part of Raissa’s summer camp project!

Raissa, who is a 4th generation Cuban-American resident in the area, runs a school bus company and thought it would be nice to offer free camp-like activities to local kids from low-income families. She came up with the idea, Bill Fuller (of Futurama) donated the space, others donated time … and as I learned later, United Healthcare had donated the art supplies and pints of Azucar Ice Cream.

I noted incense in the air … it reminded me to stop by Amor Gitano (NOTE: now closed), a new soap and incense shop owned by Ana and Waldo next store. While my partner talked for nearly an hour with Waldo, I in turn chatted with Ana, who grew up in Little Havana but learned how to make soap in Berkeley, California.

“Thank you  for bringing visitors here!” she said, adding that the guests on my tour earlier that day had returned to purchase soap. “You know, every time I wonder if anyone’s going to visit, you stop by,” she said with an exuberant smile. “I just love your passion.”

Passion? She was the one with passion! My guests always appreciate hearing the story of her journey back to Calle Ocho, where Ana and Waldo had met as teenagers. Ana said that she already had regular customers (not surprising, considering the quality of her handmade soaps). I promised to be one of them, purchasing delicious-smelling peppermint soap.

Then L. and I crossed the street to go to Kontempo Art Gallery (NOTE: now closed) where we talked at length with Katiuska Gonzalez and two of her guests while enjoying a complimentary cocktail. All of us admired the way Katiuska had exhibited the works of her artists, including one who made three-dimensional fabric works that seemed to emerge from the wall like colorful, playful edges and bumps.

Afro-Cuban Jazz

On to the next stop! We stepped into CubaOcho, where I looked forward to listening to one of my favorite jazz groups: Negroni’s Trio. The place was practically empty, though. What?! I sent out a tweet and announced the band’s performance on Facebook. Fortunately, the crowd grew a bit as the night went by, and I noticed a famous face in that crowd: Chuchito Valdes, nominated multiple times for a Latin Grammy for his virtuoso piano playing (he is son of multi-Grammy-winning pianist Chucho Valdes).

Negroni's Trio performing at CubaOcho

Negroni’s Trio performing at CubaOcho

Before the music began, L. and I conversed with CubaOcho’s owners, Yeney and Roberto, as well as others we recognized who had come to enjoy the concert. At one point we were joined at our table by the artist/curator Katiuska and the very artist who had made the playful fabric creations I had admired earlier that evening: George Goodridge.

When the performance began, I was pleased to note that the core trio of Negroni’s (which includes father Jose on piano and son Nomar on drums) was none other than virtuoso violinist Federico Britos and Latin Grammy-nominated sax player Ed Calle. Ahhh, what a treat!

The audience was small but we appreciated good music: I saw people closing their eyes and, like me, relishing the conversations between bass and drums, the nuances in each solo, the moments when each musician was in flow and all of us were part of the flow, an ocean current. Afro-Latin jazz at its finest.

Occupy Futurama

After the first set, L. and I decided to leave; both of us had to rise early the next day. As we were walking back to the car, which was parked just off of Calle Ocho, I saw a strange sight: someone crouched down and writing or drawing on the wall of Futurama, which was on the next block. What was going on? We approached for a closer look.

A small crowd sat in a semi-circle of chairs facing the front of the building, and one — no two, three … five?! artists were painting the front of the building, its brightly lit interior illuminating the sidewalk thanks to floor to ceiling windows.

Little Havana artists on an evening of spontaneous creative glee ...

Little Havana artists on an evening of spontaneous creative glee …

“Occupy Futurama!” laughed Maggie as she painted on a column. Santos was adding his colorful, broad brushstrokes to the column on the other side. Luis Pardini was putting the finishing touches on a glorious rooster.

Fredy Villamil and Roy Rodriguez worked on a column together. Roy was standing on a ladder, wearing a plastic smock and holding a wine bottle in one hand, a paintbrush in another; I noticed at least a half dozen other bottles sitting on a small table.

The Dionysian nectar had certainly helped inspire this takeover!

Pati stood up from her chair in the semi-circle, embracing me in a hug.

“We’re going to get in big trouble for this,” she said with a mischievous smile. “Wait ’til Bill sees what we did.” I too wondered how my good friend Bill Fuller (an owner of the building) would react. Still, I knew he loved street art and spontaneous acts of creativity …

I myself loved what I was experiencing, right there, ’round midnight. Ana and Waldo were among those in the small crowd of onlookers, and so we immediately began animated conversations about the event.

Now Maggie and Roy had noticed the shadow of the wine bottles against the wall and were painting the shadow together, letting the paint drip down below each bottle. This was an art revolution!

Maggie and painting the shadows of wine bottles.

Maggie and Roy painting the shadows of wine bottles.

There was something else in the air that night, that whole day: a tangible reminder of community. All of us were and are linked by threads of love and support and creative delight: this is the “soul” of Little Havana that we cherish and protect. We feel stewardship of this neighborhood and at the same a sense of liberation and freedom.

Little Havana, La Pequeña Habana. To some, it is merely one stop on a tour bus ride where you can sip a Cuban cafecito, see a cigar roller and pick up a souvenir. To others (usually Miamians) it is dirty and dangerous, with “nothing to do.”

We locals, however, know its secrets and relish its poetry. Something very special is happening here. My story here is just one of many about our beautiful, magical place, our treasured community. Maybe it will cast its spell on you.

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