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Little Havana Is No Longer Just Cuban

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  • Little Havana Is No Longer Just Cuban

    Little Havana Is No Longer Just Cuban

    By Brendan Farrington

    September 30, 2001

    Copyright 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

    All Rights Reserved.

    MIAMI (Associated Press)
    A marquee announces a Nicaraguan ballet's upcoming performance; Honduran, Salvadoran and Dominican restaurants offer their specialized dishes; customers line up at a deli that only sells products from Spain.

    All on Calle Ocho, Little Havana's main street.

    The heart of Miami's Cuban community has become a diverse cross-section of Latin America, reflecting census figures that show nearly half of Miami-Dade County's 1.3 million Hispanics do not consider themselves Cuban.

    "A lot of Cubans have moved out as these other groups moved in," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "As Cubans got better jobs and made more money, they moved to other areas, and newly arrived immigrants who are struggling have taken their place."

    While Cubans are more prominent in Miami business and politics, growing numbers of Hispanics who left their countries to escape poverty or political unrest are making their mark on the city.

    Miami's Hispanic population was 90 percent Cuban about 30 years ago, said Max Castro, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center. As Cuban migration slowed, other Latin Americans sought out Miami as a new home.

    "You have a Latin and business sector here, a welcoming culture, and the possibilities of employment even if you don't speak the language," Castro said.

    Dulce Gomez said she left the Dominican Republic 10 years ago searching for prosperity. After five years in Puerto Rico, she moved to Miami and took over her cousin's restaurant, El Padrinito Cafe, across the street from one of Little Havana's most popular Cuban restaurants. She said her business literally adds more flavor to the neighborhood, with cooking that uses heavier seasoning than traditional Cuban fare, including a fish soup "that will raise the dead."

    She also noticed the mix of nationalities.

    "I would see six or eight tables, and everybody was a different nationality," said Gomez.

    It wasn't always an easy adjustment for non-Cuban Hispanics moving to Miami. Oscar Vanegas, 36, moved there from Nicaragua in 1980, and his parents followed two years later.

    "The Cubans didn't accept us," he said. "When I went to school it was hard for me. I didn't speak English, and they didn't want to help me translate."

    He eventually learned English. His parents still don't speak the language after 19 years in the United States. Then again, they don't need to be bilingual.

    "They saw the Hispanics and the Spanish people here, and they decided it would be easy to start a business."

    Julio and Cristina Vanegas have run a bakery on Calle Ocho since 1987, selling traditional Nicaraguan bread and other foods typical of their homeland. About half their customers are also Nicaraguan -- there are nearly 69,000 living in the county.

    Non-Cuban Hispanics still have difficulty fitting in with Cubans, said Maria Eugenia Pinedo, a Colombian native who works as an immigrant advocate. But other Hispanics tend to bond, even if they had differences in their homelands, she said.

    "The Venezuelans and the Colombians, over there we don't get along because we've always had problems at the border, but here we are partners," Pinedo said.

    "The Latin Americans usually partner with other Latin Americans. They don't partner with the Cubans as much," Pinedo said. "People that are coming say, `I don't feel comfortable with the Cubans because they have been here so long. The Cubans are already established here, they don't want to have any type of business partnerships with us.'"

    Latin Americans hope to grab some of the political influence Cubans now enjoy.

    "We are getting involved in politics. We are organizing ourselves," Pinedo said. "We want more participation, we are doing citizenship drives ... We now have approximately 15,000 Colombian registered voters."