doesn't have that ONE spot which to celebrate important events
That's part and parcel of being a relatively new city, with laid-back neighbourhoods all splayed around each other, like strangers on a park bench.
Unlike most American metropolises, we don't have a Chinatown
. We don't have a Little Italy
-- alas! for post-World Cup 2006 celebrations.
And though we have a Liberty City
, no one really "celebrates" there, unless someone just hit the lottery to buy a luxury condo in Goulds
Only the Beach
comes closest, but even that is a schlepp for the poor folks down in Hialeah (serves them right, I say. Poor tu madre, who lives in Hialeah??).
But we do have one thing going for us:
We've won major championships. Recently. A lot of 'em, too.
Just earlier this summer, Miami's various thoroughways were convulsed with joy after the Miami Heat
won the 2005-2006 NBA Championship. South Beach, as ever, was the best destination immediately afterwards, with which to conga-line the night away.
Yes, sometimes downtown Miami figures into the mix, with a kind of ticker-tape parade
like New York City has, but that's usually a good week afterwards. We demand immediate satisfaction!
But the only place, the only
mind you, where one might term the natural destination for celebrants in Miami, is if something specific happened to make the Cuban-American community, jump up for joy.
And that place is Eighth Street, La Calle Ocho, in Little Havana, and more specifically still, Versailles Restaurant
is an institution, which is perfect, because their staff are nuts.
They are well-known for their fast service, which often means spilling coffee unto your new Vera Wang dress, in their rush to get out the cafecitos.
But it's not the inside bit, that concerned me on 1 August, 2006. Rather, I wanted to be part of the mad crush of people, as news of Fidel Castro's illness spread like wildfire around the community.
So follow me around another of my trademarked South Florida travellogues
, and experience first-hand, what celebrating Cuban-style is all about!EL CHOU DE LA CALLE OCHOLittle Havana
, until recently, had gone from working-class but genteel neighbourhood, home to thousands of ex-pat Cubans, and who consequently evoked old-time Havana in its architectural landmarks, to a kind of rubbish-strewn Central American slum, which I not-so-privately called, Little Tegucigalpa
I stopped going to Little Havana after a while, since the viejitos who played dominoes in droves on park tables, had gone the way of Maspons Funeral Home, or worse (Hialeah).
In their stead, there were bandana-wearing, underwear-showing, Crips-and-Blood wannabeing males of all ages, who hung around street corners looking like watered-down versions of Tupac Shakur. Let's just say, that's not my scene.
Such was my surprise on Tuesday, when I saw Little Havana spruced up. Wow, what happened?!
Gone were the rubbish, the lay-about hoodlums, and the dingy buildings which peppered the streets, in one decaying layer after another.
Take this Baptist Church
, for example. It glows, confident in its new-money architecture, and squeaky clean pavement.
And the new condos, shops, and markets which have come about in the 3 or 4 years since I'd been to the area, certainly give Little Havana a much-needed lift, like Botox on Walter Mercado
(Actually, that's a simile too far. It's more like Botox on Melissa Rivers)
Either way, Little Havana is BACK! Yay!
A word about La Carreta
It used to be the schnizzle, back in the day; yes, even more than Versailles.
These kissing cousin Cuban-American restaurants are located not a few yards away from each other, but for whatever reason, Versailles has taken over as "celebration" headquarters when big news stories happen, like the Elian debacle.
I had originally gone thinking to have a cafecito at La Carreta (the Big Wheel, seen here over that unwieldy rooster statue), but frankly, the lack of crowds put me off. So I drove on to...VERSAILLES!Oh -- a word about the pronunciation
. If you've been saying Versailles like the Louis XIV palace, stop right now.
, okay? Not Vuhr-sigh
If you're going to come on my travellogues, you better not show me up by being a clueless gringo tourist.
As I approached, waving my Union and Cuban Flags from the car, I saw the mad crush of people I had so longed to be a part of.
People half-on-the-pavement, half-on-the-street, daring cars to run them over; reporters of all the major news networks, including CNN, plus the local television and radio stations; and any number of bewildered but smiling tourists with cameras, taking this scene in so as to be able to relate it back home in Iowa or France.
Now, that's a party!
Or is it a wake?
This is the first thing I saw, when I arrived at Versailles, at long last (please, parking still sucks).
A made-to-measure "coffin" owned by these two fine gentlemen, just the perfect size for Fidel.
But wait! That's not Fidel Castro in the coffin, no. After all, the man isn't dead yet...if you believe that story, which I don't.
You know who that is? Yes, it's mini-Me himself, Hugo Frikkin Chavez
Here he is, mourning the soon-to-be loss of his mentor in evil, el Comandante-en-Peste.
Under his Uzi-toting, guerrilla black effigy, is a placard
which reads simply:CHAVEZ, VIUDA DE CASTRO
(Chavez, Castro's Widow)
The Fourth Estate luxuriated around the scene, transforming the pandemonium into something a little more organised than your usual street celebration.
Here are the fixed-point CNN cameras, which transmit live scenes from the area whenever they pan to it.
Although that journo sitting there looks a lot like a pampered French photographer waiting for someone to hand him a cafecito.
Nice job, if you can get it.
More energetic, brawny reporters (and indefatigable bloggers) decided to brave the crowds themselves, to bring reaction shots from the people.
Here's one poor chap from Channel 7 (Fox), stuck in the middle of celebrants more interested in raising their flags, and their beer as they toast the cars which pass by.
Honk! Honk! Yes, broder, esto esta de lo mas loco! Que chou!
(By the way, see that chubby reporter on his mobile? I swear he looks like the cousin of every Fulanito who lives in Hialeah)
Not that even the sensationalist Channel 7 would show this gi-normous poster of Castro in his hospital bed.
Oh, the indignity of just lying there, with tubes up your wazoolo, and countless strangers poking and prodding you -- some of whom are not even Communist Party members!!
Treble that indignity of being a patient, when you are an expectant mother about to give birth...
...to Hugo Chavez.
Now I know the true meaning of the phrase, "A face only a mother can love".
It's fitting that in the summer of Superman, we have this young SuperCubana, strutting her Cubanitude around Miami.
You go, girl! A Superwoman with salsa!
And speaking of salsa, can any Cuban-American tell me just who this guy being interviewed, is?
I know he's famous, even perhaps a singer, because of the reverent attitude of the Univision reporter.
And also because, let's face it, that toupee can only be worn convincingly by celebrities like Burt Reynolds, Ted Koppel, or Marv Albert.
That Clorox-bleach blonde behind him, looks famous and all. It's not Charitin, surely?
Very rarely is General Raul Castro Ruz mentioned, by all parties concerned. He's the Bud Abbott to Fidel's Lou Costello, and nearly as funny.
But the people who penned this poster up, certainly didn't.
I'm not sure Raul Castro will ever be the jailbait he so obviously longs to be, dropping the soap so that the "mens" around him come to his rescue, but I can guarantee you one thing.
At 75 years-old, he's no spring chicken, and when he dies, prison will seem Club Fed compared to the fate he will get -- inferno without parole.
It's hard to get worked up about a badly-drawn piece of cardboard, but darn it, I can!
As 4 PM approached, more and more people got out of their jobs in Miami, and headed down to Versailles.
The cars grew more numerous, the gridlock more tetchy, the crowds more exuberant, as they waved to all and sundry.
It seemed as if every Cuban flag
in the world, had suddenly appeared in the streets of Little Havana.
If I had been a more enterprising blogger, I would've combined business with pleasure, since my little Cuban flag, the kind you can later put on your car window, cost me 5 buckeroos from a freelance merchant.
5 bucks! Good grief. That has got to be a 500% mark-up.
Next time there's a Cuban-American crisis-cum-celebration, I'm stocking UP.
(Oh, but I see that Cubans have learnt their lesson after El Caso Elian -- when "Anglo" Miamians accused the exiles of only waving Cuban flags, and not also, the Stars and Stripes. A fair point, perhaps, but as you can see, an obsolete one)
No visit to Versailles, can culminate without actually EATING OR DRINKING something at Versailles.
So off I went, inside the restaurant.
If you've never been there, the decor is as if someone who had never been to the Hall of Mirrors in the real Versailles, built a down-home Cuban-American eatery evoking its general style.
Corniches, glass fobs, mirrors, and gilt everywhere, as far as the eye could see.
As they say though, you go for the glitter, but you stay for the food.
I had ropa vieja
, it goes without saying.
Shredded beef served on a bed of white rice, plantains, and black bean soup so thick, you'd swear it was molasses.
God, now I'm hungry all over again!
Curiously, though, as I was leaving, I saw this gringa reporter
interviewing the Versailles manager. She came in, little reporter notebook in hand, surveying the scene with a kind of lofty amused look that screamed:"So, this is where the crazy Cubans eat at. That girl with the British flag is even having shredded beef, which is surely a right-wing dish if ever I saw one!"
Lady, just sit down and eat. You might learn something.
I ended my meal, as I do my blogpost on the happenings surrounding the Fidel Castro handover of power, which launched Miami into a frenzy of excitement:
With a loving reference about what is best about Cuban-Americans.
Few things are as good, as a cafe con leche from Versailles, just the right shade of milk and coffee -- once tasted, never forgotten.
This combination of light and dark represents the life and death which we will all have to endure. Taken separately, they sometimes feel isolating or lacklustre.
But taken together, and it transforms itself into a party in a cup.
This Cuban drink, which exists all over the world to be sure, is as particular as the people themselves.
Because few communities could gather together in such quantities, without some fight erupting, without counterprotesters paved along the opposite road, trading insults, without perhaps even some kind of police overraction, reining in the crowds from the sidewalks, as they spill over into the city roads themselves.
But not in Little Havana. Not in La Calle Ocho. Not with Cuban-Americans, you don't.
Contrary to the opinion mainstream media would like to give you about them, these are one happy, peaceful people who were exiled by a man whose possible death they now greet with happiness.
Maybe you think they're getting ahead of themselves, and that they'll have egg on their face, if Fidel Castro survives?
Not a bit of it.
For what you have seen in my travellogue, is something that hasn't been possible in Cuba for the past 47 YEARS.
The PEOPLE, speaking their mind, with honesty and with passion.VIVA CUBA LIBRE
I had to jump through hoops to convert this recording of Cuban-Americans singing their national anthem, at the behest of a reporter, but I did it.
Forgive the warbly bad quality -- but it was sung with heart, which shows.