A Tale of Enchantment, Little Havana Style

Last Friday, from start to finish, was simply magical.

It 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 see the sparkle in the eyes of my guests and to feel our bonding as a group as we explore, learn, discover and share together.

Unlike most of my excursions, however, this 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.

The Dilemma

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 (where guides often 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 Gift

Then, out of the blue, Agustin said in his soft voice, “Te gusta este cuadro?”

I peered at a framed watercolor sitting on the floor, leaned up against the wall. Yes, I did like it, I said: it was clearly a local gathering place, but where?

Agustin Gainza painting of Little Havana’s Domino Park (1980)

He said it was Domino Park before it had been fenced in; he painted the park in 1980. It was the original. And he wanted to give it to me.

My mouth dropped open.

A gift?

I did not want to accept it, but they both insisted: they wanted to thank me for bringing so many visitors to their studio gallery (it’s one of my favorites). Gracias, gracias, gracias, I said, repeating what tour participants had said to me minutes earlier — in English, but with the same level of sincerity.

The Magic

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?

After I took the phone, the caller identified himself as the lead concierge at the Hilton in South Beach. Luis, who was very gracious, said he was 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.

Agustin walked with me to Domino Park, where I took a photo of the white-haired artist (with his trademark black eyeglasses) holding his painting against the backdrop of the now fenced-in Domino 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 payphones.

Agustin Gainza stands in front of Domino Park, holding his 1980 painting of the park.

I showed the painting to my friend Rene Janero, who at 90 years old is the oldest player of the park, and his broad, unguarded smile thrilled me.

The Brainstorming

The day was not over, though.

I stepped into the gallery cafe I Love Calle Ocho, so I could grab some lunch. 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/musician and manager of PALO!, an Afro-Cuban funk band that performs regularly in Little Havana.

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.

Orlando Rojas & Suzy Batlle brainstorm fundraising ideas.

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. We began sharing various ideas and then agreed to meet the following week, volunteering our time to help in the effort.

Little Havana Art Walk

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 Lionel 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 Fernandez with local kids enjoying an art class with Katey Penner,

So cool.

Raissa doesn’t have a nonprofit; she 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 had an idea and made it happen, 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, a new soap and incense shop owned by Ana and Waldo next store. While Lionel 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.”

Ana (in blue) tells my tour participants about the soaps she makes by hand.

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 as a gift for Lionel.

Then Lionel and I crossed the street to go to Kontempo Art Gallery, 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 her artists, including one who made three-dimensional fabric works that seemed to emerge from the wall like colorful, playful edges and bumps.

Latin Jazz Delight

Nomar Negroni on drums and Ed Calle on sax.

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).

Before the music began, Lionel 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.

Painting the Walls with Love

After the first set, Lionel 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.

“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.

Luis Pardini putting the finishing touches on his 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.

Fredy Villamil and Roy Rodriguez work on a column

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 (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.

Maggie Genova-Cardovi and Roy Rodriguez paint the shadows of wine bottles,

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!

Poetry in Unexpected Places

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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