What Art Thou, Little Havana?

Viernes Culturales is transforming Calle Ocho -- but into what remains a big question

 "Ay, que cómico," observes an elderly Cuban woman watching the man on the sidewalk spin and twirl a life-size rag doll above his head. The doll, with her straggly blond wig, grotesquely painted face, and limp limbs, is the man's dance partner. Holding her around the waist and balancing her amputated sock-stub feet atop his own, he punctuates the dance by kicking up her legs. The crowd that has gathered around the man and his doll on this Viernes Cultural (Cultural Friday) on SW Eighth Street applauds politely, then moves on, past the sketch artists, caricaturists, and musicians who have positioned themselves on either side of the street. In front of a packed Casa Panza restaurant, mayoral candidate José Garcia-Pedrosa distributes signed copies of his election poster as if they were works of art. The neighborhood arts and entertainment fair that since last year has been held the last Friday of every month on these three blocks of Calle Ocho, between Fourteenth and Seventeenth avenues, is in full swing.

Circling the action is the chiva, a brightly painted open-backed truck that shuttles Viernes Cultural visitors between Eighth Street and nearby artists' studios and galleries. One of these, lab6, an exhibition space for experimental and avant-garde art, is hosting a small gathering tonight.

"I absolutely love these," says a young woman in a sleeveless black top, eyeing a collection of charcoal drawings by Carlos Suarez de Jesus, who, along with his wife, Vivian Marthell, operates lab6. Mounted on small wooden boxes and arranged in diptychs and triptychs with titles like The Clinton Years and Election Debate, the drawings depict contemporary Amerika ("with a k," insists Suarez de Jesus) as a small, bald circus performer in tights. In successive drawings the Munchian acrobat dangles from a hanging ladder, walks a tightrope, preens for an unseen audience. The high-concept drawings criticize the bread-and-circus aesthetic of modern American life and are a radical departure from the easily digested art and entertainment being offered just four blocks away.

Vivian Marthell, Carlos Suarez de Jesus, and Susan Caraballo are in the forefront of the area's arts movement
Steve Satterwhite
Vivian Marthell, Carlos Suarez de Jesus, and Susan Caraballo are in the forefront of the area's arts movement

Since the late Nineties, when artists like Suarez de Jesus and Marthell began relocating to Little Havana, hopes have been high for transforming the neighborhood, still one of the poorest in the city, into a true arts district. Viernes Culturales, initially conceived as part of that cultural revival, has become, say the artists, an increasingly commercial, artistically bankrupt exercise. With business owners and developers lined up on one side, serious artists on the other, and civic leaders stuck in the middle, the question of exactly what kind of arts district Little Havana might become appears, like the dancing doll and the ironic acrobat, to be up in the air.

"I was standing right here when it happened," says Carlos Suarez de Jesus, remembering the afternoon he and his father walked out of El Pub, the popular Eighth Street restaurant, just in time to witness a shooting. "A crowd started to gather, so my father dragged me across the street to get a better look at the scene," recalls the 41-year-old. "I'll never forget it. All the way home my father complained about the bloodstains on his gray suede shoes."

That was the late Sixties, when, Suarez de Jesus' story notwithstanding, Little Havana was a thriving, relatively safe place, a central business district catering to the growing Cuban exile population. It wasn't until the late Eighties that the area fell on hard times. By then, boarded-up storefronts served as a backdrop for drug dealers, prostitutes, and street-corner hustlers. Some legitimate businesses survived, serving the new immigrants from Central and South America who had replaced Kendall-bound Cubans, but the area, poorer than it had once been, became both tougher and more dangerous, a place largely avoided by anyone who did not live there.

It was precisely this neighborhood of dollar stores, bodegas, pawnshops, botánicas, and dive bars that three years ago began to attract serious artists, including Suarez de Jesus and Marthell. "You can get breakfast any place around here for two bucks," says Suarez de Jesus, continuing his stroll down Eighth, before ducking into his favorite botánica. "This guy," insists the artist, pointing to a middle-age man behind the counter, "is one of the most respected santeros in Miami. I mean, he has shrunken heads back there."

Suarez de Jesus and other artists from the "Blood-on-the-Shoes" school find the grit and grime of the neighborhood to be a source of inspiration. "Little Havana is very exciting," says Carlos Alves, who, before moving into his current studio on SW Sixth Street, occupied a gallery on Lincoln Road. "There's culture here." He's not necessarily referring to other artists. By culture Alves is talking about the organic, street-level variety: the sounds and smells floating out of people's apartments, the day-to-day interaction of neighbors, the spontaneous political debates among old men slinging fichas in Domino Park. "My clients didn't want to go to Lincoln Road anymore," says the ceramist, who owned the space that is now, ironically, a Pottery Barn. "They didn't want to have to walk past a Williams-Sonoma to purchase art from me."

Local leaders, certainly, were happy to facilitate the artists' migration into the area. "When we first got here," Suarez de Jesus remembers, "the city was desperate for new businesses to move into the neighborhood. At our first opening, on a Friday, they asked what they could do for us, and we mentioned the damaged sidewalk outside our door. On the following Monday, there were workers out there fixing it."

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