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Sundries
...a sweatshop of moxie

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

El Chou De La Calle Ocho

Miami 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.

Versailles 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 OCHO






Little 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.

It's Vehr-sah-yes, 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)

Heh.





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!

UPDATE: 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.

this is an audio post - click to play

16 Comments:

  • Perfect travellogue, Victoria. You were much missed.

    By Blogger Ruth Anne Adams, at Wed Aug 02, 01:50:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Perfect travellogue, Victoria. You were much missed.

    Thank you, Ruth Anne!

    It sure is great to see you here, too. I missed you loads. :)

    I would reply to the other posts below, but oh dear God, I've been sitting on my tuchus for 3 hours.

    I'm off to sun myself by the pool, then perhaps to the pics to watch Miami Vice. Heh. ;)

    P.S.: Love the new avatar!

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Wed Aug 02, 02:30:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Here in Venezuela, Chávez must be crying over his mentor illness or death, I don't know... But for us the venezuelans this event give us a little bit of joy for our brothers the cubans that finally are going to be seeing a Cuba Libre...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 02, 03:20:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Ahhh! Everything is right with the world:Victoria is back!(I checked yesterday, but did not comment)

    Another fine example of content we can't get anywhere else.

    I wish I would have thought about Castro sooner! Whatever it takes...

    By Anonymous Darrell, at Wed Aug 02, 04:49:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Victoria, welcome back! I have sorely missed your musings. Just glad you are well.

    Thank you for the blog about the Cuban-American community, I was wondering how they were reacting, and since I rarely watch the news I had no idea.

    Thanks again and welcome back!

    By Blogger ZWarrior, at Wed Aug 02, 05:23:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Great post Victoria! Calle Ocho has been a lot of fun the last couple of days!!! Our celebrations are nothing compared to what you would see along the malecon in Cuba if the people were not so terribly repressed by the evil castro brothers. But you will see that long awaited celebration in Havana soon; nuestro dia ya viene llegando!!!

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Wed Aug 02, 05:37:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Oye inglesita, I loved the title "El Chou"!!! Esas ocurrencias are what I soooo missed during your extended absence!!! As someone else said, you got some 'splaining to do!

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Wed Aug 02, 07:10:00 pm GMT-4  

  • A few paragraphs later I forgot how to pronounce Versailles! Sheesh!

    Hey, I took 3 years of German in High School. My Espanish is no damn bueno!

    Nice visit on the Calle De Ocho! We can wait for fidelito to kick the bucket. I will get some rum for just that occasion!

    By Blogger benning, at Thu Aug 03, 08:52:00 am GMT-4  

  • Great to be reading your posts again Vicky! I loved the pictures, the creativity of the people shows how passionate they must be. You have to take me to Vehr-sah-yes someday for a cafecito.;)

    By Blogger Renato, at Thu Aug 03, 12:01:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Here in Venezuela, Chávez must be crying over his mentor illness or death, I don't know... But for us the venezuelans this event give us a little bit of joy for our brothers the cubans that finally are going to be seeing a Cuba Libre...

    Anonymous, thank you for taking the time to post these words.

    I am sorry for you in Venezuela, because I don't think for a moment that Hugo Chavez will ever step down from his charge, or hand over his position, even to a puppet he could then lead (like Rangel).

    However, as long as there are people of conscience in Venezuela, all is possible.

    We shall see what tomorrow brings, and God willing, it won't be 47 years of torture, so that decades later, you see scenes like this about your country in the streets of Miami (well, Key Biscayne ;).

    FUERZA VENEZUELA!

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:04:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Ahhh! Everything is right with the world:Victoria is back!(I checked yesterday, but did not comment)

    Another fine example of content we can't get anywhere else.


    Hey Darrell! Thank you so much for sticking in there, and believing in me to come back. I am just reading a lot of the back emails I had, which I haven't checked since March...

    I wish I would have thought about Castro sooner! Whatever it takes...

    LOL!

    That sounded as if you were saying you might've engineered an event for me to come back.

    Although in terms of Castro, I'd say, knock yourself out! :)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:06:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Victoria, welcome back! I have sorely missed your musings. Just glad you are well.

    Thank you, Zwarrior! :)

    Thank you for the blog about the Cuban-American community, I was wondering how they were reacting, and since I rarely watch the news I had no idea.

    Yes, indeed. Although it's being covered by MSM, they do not go amongst the people and merely target one or two persons to put on camera, never soaking up the atmosphere, as I am a proponent of doing.

    If you don't do so, then, whether true or not, you put yourself on a pedestal of distance and by inference, superiority.

    Perhaps that's the journalist credo (at least the distance part, with which to appear neutral), but for example, you can tell my irritation with that red-headed lady reporter, who came into Versailles as I was having my ropa vieja, smirked as she surveyed the room, and asked to speak to the manager for an interview.

    If she had taken the least notice of people around her, who were looking at her as much as she was looking at them, she would've seen one kid (the other red-head, seen in the photo of the Versailles interior) fairly bursting to be interviewed.

    But noooo...she only wants the manager -- the top-down "authenticity" of opinion.

    Ech.

    Thanks again and welcome back!

    Thanks for waiting for me, Zwarrior!

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:12:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Great post Victoria!

    Thank you, Jose!!

    I was hoping you'd like it, especially.

    Calle Ocho has been a lot of fun the last couple of days!!!

    Last night, when I was watching the news channels late to the night, I saw a purported live shot at midnight, of Little Havana/Versailles.

    There were not as many people waving flags, but there were SOME!

    Everyone wants to get in on the act, especially since perhaps many of them weren't there for the Elian fracas.

    (I went there too, BTW, and took pics -- I have to unearth them...maybe)

    Our celebrations are nothing compared to what you would see along the malecon in Cuba if the people were not so terribly repressed by the evil castro brothers. But you will see that long awaited celebration in Havana soon; nuestro dia ya viene llegando!!!

    A guy I used to know (cornfed American from Minnesota; well-meaning, but a little too trusting perhaps), told me once, regarding the Elian parades in Havana:

    How can you say there's no freedom of speech and demostration in Cuba?

    Look at those throngs of people, wearing message t-shirts, day after day?

    I mean, how do you start to counter this, if the person is this naive?

    How do you tell people that NOTHING that goes on in Cuba, is able to happen without the express consent of one man, Fidel Castro?

    That those people were bussed in specially from their neighbourhoods, and given time off from the jobs, because the whole factory etc. was closed down especially for this "protest"?

    Where do you think people who don't have money for buying extra rice and beans, would get the money to buy, let alone PRINT!, t-shirts?

    Everything is orchestrated by direction of the Comandante-en-Peste.

    People are just clueless to imagine that people in Cuba love Fidel, and wouldn't pour out in the streets if they could, to 'celebrate' his passing.

    (I just had a long long conversation with my porter about this downstairs, so forgive the long-winded reply. It's still inside me, and I have to get it out ;)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:22:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Oye inglesita, I loved the title "El Chou"!!!

    Hehe.

    Jose, do you recall that episode in "Que Pasa USA?" (the show of which I'll blog about one day), when there was a sudden tumult in the Pena household, and Violetica turned around to say...

    "Se formo el chou Cubano!"

    (The Cuban Show has come about!)

    Well, consider this blogpost title an homage. ;)

    Esas ocurrencias are what I soooo missed during your extended absence!!! As someone else said, you got some 'splaining to do!

    I splained!

    Not convincingly, but I splained.

    Now, I want some splaining from you -- have you been to Versailles with your kids yet??

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:26:00 pm GMT-4  

  • A few paragraphs later I forgot how to pronounce Versailles! Sheesh!

    Hey Benning! Don't worry about the Versailles thingie.

    With the amount of Americanos that you see at the restaurant, eating their hearts out, because every Miamian tells tourists "Go to Versailles" when asked where authentic Cuban food can be eaten, you're in good company amongst the adorable clueless. ;)

    Hey, I took 3 years of German in High School. My Espanish is no damn bueno!

    Well, actually, I didn't speak Spanish until I emigrated in '98.

    BUT, like you I spoke other languages, which helped enormously.

    Nice visit on the Calle De Ocho! We can wait for fidelito to kick the bucket. I will get some rum for just that occasion!

    I cannot IMAGINE the party that will happen, when the news of his death is announced.

    I have a followup story about that soon. ;)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:30:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Great to be reading your posts again Vicky! I loved the pictures, the creativity of the people shows how passionate they must be. You have to take me to Vehr-sah-yes someday for a cafecito.;)

    Hey Renato!!

    Thanks for your warm words of welcome. ;)

    As for the creativity, you hit the nail on the head.

    Instead of being some retrograde, knuckle-dragging fanatics, Cubans approach this event with humour and pizzazz.

    Quite unlike the sad images, I just saw from anti-Israeli protesters below:

    Gobbed by Peaceniks

    I was thinking of doing a compare and contrast, but it's too depressing.

    Poor Joos, as ever...

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Aug 03, 02:34:00 pm GMT-4  

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