Miami’s Cuban Community

How a city in Southern Florida became the epicenter of America's Cuban culture.

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A stroll down Miami’s vibrant Calle Ocho is like being transported 330 miles south to the heart of Cuba—except in this hub of Cuban culture, no passport is required. The main drag of Miami’s historic Little Havana, Calle Ocho became an anchor for Cuban immigrants in the 1960s and remains one of the country’s most-concentrated cultural havens today.

Long before it was home to a thriving Cuban immigrant community, Miami was a seemingly sleepy city where snowbirds and vacationers seeking the warmth of southern Florida flocked. But that all changed the moment communist leader Fidel Castro took power of Cuba in 1959. Those in opposition to Castro fled to the United States to seek refuge, and records show more than a million Cubans made the journey to America in what historians divide into four waves.

Photo courtesy of Greater Miami and the Beaches

The first to arrive in Miami between 1959 and 1962 were mainly elite politicians, businessmen, and professionals who had supported the overthrown Batista government and feared the communist regime. Because they had money, they were able to escape first, while the groups that followed primarily relied on government intervention to immigrate. The second wave between the years of 1965 and 1974 was conceptualized by United States President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“Freedom flights,” as they became known, flew American aircrafts to Cuba twice daily, five times each week, to carry Cuban refugees to the United States. It’s estimated that Freedom Flights helped more than 300,000 Cubans come to America. During the third wave in 1980, Cubans escaped by boat after Castro, in a fit of anger over an altercation at Havana’s Peruvian Embassy, opened the port of El Mariel allowing anyone wanting to leave to do so. The fourth and final wave came in 1991 when the Soviet Union’s economy collapsed, causing riots in Cuba over horrible circumstances. Castro again opened ports to allow people to leave, which they did on homemade rafts, earning them the nickname balseros (“rafters” in English).

Photo courtesy of Finka Table & Tap

By the time they were able to escape, many Cubans arrived in the United States with little more than the clothes on their backs. The rich became poor, and the successful had to start all over to build a new life for themselves. Eileen Andrade, chef and owner of two popular Miami restaurants Finka Table & Tap and Amelia’s 1931, says her grandparents had to start from scratch when they arrived in the 1960s.

“My grandfather had started the family restaurant business in Havana, but after the Castro regime came in and took over, he moved to Miami with my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother,” she explains. “He had to start over from the bottom. He started out as a busboy at a restaurant, and my grandmother started out as a housekeeper at a hotel.”

Most Cubans never dreamed that America would become their permanent home; they assumed they’d move back to Cuba after Castro was overthrown and normalcy was regained. But this didn’t happen. In April 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles, sponsored by the United States, unsuccessfully invaded Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Castro in what was called the Bay of Pigs Invasion. While Cubans held out hope that the United States government would further intervene, they ultimately began to build their lives in the Sunshine State.

Photo courtesy of Greater Miami and the Beaches

Given its proximity to their homeland, Miami was a natural choice for Cubans looking to escape Castro’s rule. After passing the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1962, the United States repurposed a 1920s building that originally housed the Miami News to establish a central place for refugees to claim asylum, get medical help, and find family members in the United States. Called the Freedom Tower, this Miami landmark gained the moniker the Ellis Island of the South.

In Miami, Cubans flocked to the Freedom Tower downtown and settled in an area that became known as Little Havana. Calle Ocho became the landmark thoroughfare of Little Havana, serving as an incubator of Cuban culture. Here, Spanish is spoken almost exclusively, open-air fruit markets and cigar shops dot the street, and older men still gather in Máximo Gómez Park (known more popularly as Domino Park) to play a round of dominoes or at a nearby restaurant to sip a strong cafecito (Cuban espresso) and argue politics.

Today, Little Havana is home to more than just Cuban Americans. It’s estimated that only a third of the 60,000-person neighborhood is of Cuban descent. Parts of it are crowded with a never-ending stream of tourists snapping photos of the vibrant streets or searching for a hand-rolled cigar souvenir. But inside Miami’s Cuban restaurants—the famed eateries founded by the people who know the cuisine best—you’ll find authenticity.

Photo courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA

Beyond the ever-popular Cubano (a pressed sandwich filled with ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard), Cuban cuisine in Miami consists of dishes including fried plantains called tostones, black beans, plenty of rice, and meats such as ropa vieja (shredded beef ), vaca frita de pollo (fried shredded chicken), and braised oxtail known as rabo encendido. But, Eileen is careful to distinguish that this is Miami’s version of Cuban cuisine. They’re dishes traditional in flavor but executed with ingredients not often available in Cuba.

“I think Cuban food that you find in Cuba is not really what we have here in Miami, mainly because of the resources,” she says. “You’ll find simple things like rice and beans and chicken and eggs, but it’s very hard to find beef over there. In Cuba, it’s whatever you can find.”

For Eileen, Cuban comfort food is a chicken and rice dish called arroz con pollo, but if there’s one thing her family is known for in the city, it’s without a doubt the deep-fried ham fritter known as the croqueta. Once her grandfather Raul Garcia saved enough money, he opened his own restaurant in Miami named El Teide, after the famous volcano in the Canary Islands. And in 1977, he and his wife, Amelia, established what would be their most famous restaurant, Islas Canarias, serving traditional Cuban food—most notably, their famous croquetas. Today, Eileen’s parents run two locations of Islas Canarias while she owns and operates her own two eateries that marry classic Cuban flavors with her own modern spin.

Photo courtesy of Greater Miami and the Beaches

Eileen didn’t initially want to join her family in the restaurant business. She studied fashion merchandising and got a job in styling, but she soon realized her passion lay elsewhere. In her family, food wasn’t just for sustenance; it was a way of preserving their Cuban heritage. She began to better understand why her grandfather was a stickler for tradition.

“My grandfather was very patriotic being a US citizen, but he never forgot where his roots were from. When I was young, I don’t think I realized how important my Cuban heritage was; it was just part of my normal life,” says Eileen. “Now that I don’t have my grandparents around, I feel like I’m trying to help that legacy live on as much as I can.”

Photo courtesy of Finka Table & Tap

Eileen’s take on Cuban food is representative of younger generations of Cuban Americans: worldly fusions and upscale spins on traditional techniques learned from parents and grandparents. At Amelia’s 1931, a restaurant named after her grandmother and her birth year, you’ll find Eileen’s take on arroz con pollo. Rather than serving it as the classic paella-style meal, she’s turned the dish into an addictive fried fritter. No matter the concept, Eileen says she will always hold strong to her Cuban heritage.

“It’s where I come from, and it’s why I have everything that I have,” she says. “Everything that I have is because of Cuban food and the opportunity that the United States gave my family.”

Ropa Vieja
 
This rich, flavorful recipe is worth every minute of the low and slow cooking.
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds grape tomatoes
  • 5 tablespoons canola oil, divided
  • 3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 3 teaspoons ground black pepper, divided
  • 2½ to 3 pounds chuck roast, trimmed
  • 2 cups diced yellow onion
  • 2 cups diced red bell pepper
  • 15 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1½ tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup chopped pitted green olives
  • 2 tablespoon olive juice
  • Hot cooked rice and fried sweet plantains, to serve
  • Garnish: halved green olives, fresh cilantro
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. On prepared pan, toss together tomatoes, 2 tablespoons oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper until coated.
  2. Bake until tomatoes begin to char, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool completely. Reduce oven to 250°.
  3. Meanwhile, pat roast dry with paper towels; sprinkle roast all over with remaining 2 teaspoons salt and remaining 2 teaspoons black pepper.
  4. In a large enamel-coated cast-iron Dutch oven, heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add roast; cook until browned all over, about 3 minutes per side. Remove roast from pot.
  5. Add onion and bell pepper to pot; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and starting to brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium.
  6. Stir in paprika, oregano, cumin, red pepper, and bay leaves; cook for 1 minute. Stir in wine, cooked tomatoes, and olives; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Return roast to pot, and cover.
  7. Bake until meat is falling apart, 3½ to 4½ hours. Remove from oven, and let stand for 20 minutes.
  8. Discard bay leaves. Shred meat in pot using 2 forks or kitchen tongs. Stir in olive juice. Serve with rice and plantains. Garnish with green olives and cilantro, if desired.