What Art Thou, Little Havana?

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

According to Suarez de Jesus and others, though, what once appeared to be a burgeoning collaboration between civic leaders and artists to transform the area into Miami-Dade County's premier arts district has become just another gentrification scheme that threatens to use artists as window-dressing, then leave them behind.

The area's artists cite Viernes Culturales as a bad omen. "The goal," says Susan Caraballo, executive director of Artemis Performance Network, a support group for South Florida-based artists, "is to turn SW Eighth Street into a Hispanic Lincoln Road." Suarez de Jesus, who has glimpsed dark forces at work in Little Havana before, is more emphatic. "Viernes Cultural," he offers, "is a merchants association. They're lighting velitas to the Lincoln Road fairy."

"Clients don't want to have to walk past Williams-Sonoma to purchase art": Lincoln Road exile Carlos Alves
Steve Satterwhite
"Clients don't want to have to walk past Williams-Sonoma to purchase art": Lincoln Road exile Carlos Alves
Pedro Pablo Peña believes Viernes Culturales has taken a bad turn
Steve Satterwhite
Pedro Pablo Peña believes Viernes Culturales has taken a bad turn

Whether or not local businessmen are able to summon such a radical transformation of Little Havana, it is true that they have dramatically altered Viernes Culturales. As originally conceived by Sergio Fiallo, executive director of the Dr. Rafael A. Peñalver Clinic, the monthly event was to be part of the institution's health-education initiative. "The vision was to make the clinic a community center, with a big accent on art and culture," explains the administrator, whose casual office attire -- wine-colored guayabera, khakis, and brown Doc Martens -- is more suggestive of his other career as a singer-songwriter.

Viernes Culturales was not designed as a moneymaking venture. Indeed Fiallo rails at the suggestion. "Coño," he exclaims, leaning back in his chair and opening his arms wide, "aqui tenemos clientes hasta para hacer dulce." His use of the Cuban expression -- translated literally, "We could make dessert with the clients we already have" -- brings a smile to Fiallo. The objective, he says, was cultural uplift: "We wanted to integrate the arts into working people's lives."

The "we" to which Fiallo refers is a group of local artists that included sculptor Ramon Lago, painter Mario Valladares, and dramaturge Frank Quintana. In October 1999 the artists, with the support of the clinic, founded ALAS de la Histórica Pequeña Habana ("WINGS of Historic Little Havana"). The name, according to Fiallo, came from the artists' collective desire to give "wings," culturally-speaking, to the area. The Peñalver Clinic, located on the northern edge of Little Havana, became the group's chief exhibition and performance space. Events included a courtyard reading of Shakespeare's soliloquies. "It wasn't Stratford-on-Avon," says Fiallo, referring to the great bard's birthplace, "but I'm sure it was the first time many people here had seen such work."

Slowly these cultural transfusions grew in scope and attendance, evolving into the first Viernes Cultural, held on SW Eighth Street in May 2000. The level of the artistic productions at these events was quite high, says Fiallo. And always accompanied by some component of health education, performances designed to instruct the public on HIV/AIDS prevention, cancer detection, and hypertension control.

As the monthly festivals gained in popularity, local businesses, looking to cash in on the increased street traffic, became more and more involved. "This is where the problems began," says Fiallo, pointing to a Ford Motor Company logo on the back of the October 2000 Viernes Cultural program. With the increased presence of business owners and entrepreneurs, the Peñalver Clinic's sponsorship of the event was no longer needed. Plainly speaking, the clinic was squeezed out. In February 2001 the board of directors of Viernes Culturales, Inc., a group that included, besides Fiallo, a number of local businessmen, decided that ALAS would no longer coordinate the monthly event. Instead that job would fall to independent artist Lee Cohen, who had once been an ALAS staffer.

Predictably the emphasis of the monthly event shifted. Health education was one of the first casualties. The other, according to Fiallo, was the quality of the artistic work being presented. "Since ALAS was shut out," says Fiallo, "the quality of the art has declined." Lee Cohen doesn't deny that, in terms of artistic accomplishment, there is a wide spectrum of work being exhibited on the street. "Twenty percent of the artists are professionals," she estimates, "and another twenty percent are hobbyists." The remainder presumably are everything in between. Fiallo does not fault Cohen personally. ("She's only one person. She does her best.") It's just that the people now running the show, he says, have objectives that don't necessarily include fostering an artistic community. (Fiallo resigned from Viernes Culturales, Inc., following the July 2001 event.)

Certainly the application form potential exhibitors are required to fill out places as much importance on the artists' attitude as on their work. "If you participate in our events," reads the final condition, "you agree to be present on the proper day and time ... and to have FUN!" Disney World might include a similar boilerplate in their employment contracts, but a festival looking to lure talented artists?

"Viernes Culturales has taken a turn that doesn't bode well," warns Pedro Pablo Peña, director of the Miami Hispanic Ballet and the Creation Art Center on SW Eighth Street. "The events and the art presented should have merit," says Peña, whose cultural center recently staged a critically acclaimed Spanish-language adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. The problem, according to Peña, is that the arbiters of art, or at least the people who decide what hangs where and who performs what, are primarily restaurant and store owners whose tastes run toward tropical cheese and who are more interested in luring visitors to their establishments than they are in exposing the public to challenging art.

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