Carnival of Consumption

What was once a quaint Cuban festival is now part pan-Latino flag rally; part Hispanic marketer's dream

Around three o'clock Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2001, Manny Rojas savors a glass of Scotch and a cigar. He has been at work since 10:00 the night before -- setting up stages and police stands, checking sound systems and visiting vendors. He expects to remain on the job until the last ton of trash has been carted off and the last drunk shooed away -- sometime after 2:00 the next morning. But for now, for a few minutes, the 34-year-old co-chair of Calle Ocho, the largest street festival in the world, is reclining on a black leather high-back chair in the ninth-floor conference room of the Kiwanis of Little Havana, surveying the outcome of a year's labor. Through the plate-glass window, he watches a million or so bodies make their way down a three-mile stretch of SW Eighth Street.

From the ninth floor, Rojas can't make out any faces. He can only see the flow of bodies west to SW 27th Avenue and east to SW Fourth. A river of red, white, blue, yellow, and green flags shimmer in the sunlight, representing nearly every Latin American nation. Long lines for corporate handouts loop around barricades like ribbons. He notes with satisfaction the human whirlpool spinning around the police tower that stands at the center of three main stages set in a triangle at the 22nd Avenue intersection. From where he sits he can see the crowd split and eddy, but he cannot see the families with strollers maneuver in and out of legs, the beer splashing out of cups, the arepa cheese dribbling down arms. He cannot feel the suffocating heat, the inadvertent brush of skin. He cannot smell the sweat and breath or hear the bands battling to blast the loudest din. But he will, soon enough.

All looks well from a distance, but Rojas must be on the ground with his fellow Kiwanis volunteers -- all dressed like him in identical crisp white guayaberas -- managing the masses. The plans for Calle Ocho may be drawn on the ninth floor, but at street level the festival takes on a life of its own. Everyone in the organization, from the board members to those he calls "scrubs" -- after his days as a Delta Chi at the University of Florida -- must work on the front lines, carrying barricades and moving toilets.

One hundred thousand friends and neighbors, circa 1978
One hundred thousand friends and neighbors, circa 1978

Location Info

Map

Calle Ocho

Corner of SW 8th St. and 10th Ave.
Miami, FL 33135

Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks

Region: Little Havana

Calle Ocho

7365 SW 8th St.
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Category: Community Venues

Region: Coral Gables/South Miami

Calle Ocho

SW 17th Ave.
Miami, FL 33135

Category: Community Venues

Region: Little Havana

Details

Noon to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, Admission is free. Call 305-644-8888.
Along SW 8th Street from 27th Avenue to 4th Avenue

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His break over, Rojas takes the elevator to the parking level, where he stops in at the VIP hospitality area. Here he shakes hands and slaps the backs of sponsors who have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars each for the privilege of stringing the company logo above stages that broadcast top acts around the world, or handing out samples to more than a million Hispanic consumers in a single shot. Rojas jokes and jives with the corporate reps -- doing his part to sell the image of the Hispanic as a fun-loving, family-oriented, loyal consumer -- but his mind is on the street.

As Rojas heads down the stairs, he knows he will find few familiar faces in the sidewalk crush. His radio is preset to National Public Radio, not the tropical stations that promote the festival. The Kiwanis put on Calle Ocho, but the party is not for them. "The people who really need it are the working classes," Rojas explains with the articulate confidence of a man who has never had to grasp for a word in English. "The people who can't afford $50 for a ticket." Rojas resorts to Spanish to describe the crowd: "It's for la gente, el pueblo" -- the authentic Latin people.

Only a crew with the managerial skills of the Kiwanis would attempt to herd el pueblo -- that unruly congregation of Cuban exile laborers, Honduran housepainters, Argentine tourists, Chicana hairstylists, Colombian students, Puerto Rican radicals, Nicaraguan kids -- down Calle Ocho into the coherent category Hispanic; even so, la gente are always ready to escape.


In sharp contrast to the industrious Kiwanis rushing about their duties, it's not clear along Calle Ocho what, precisely, el pueblo is supposed to do. While in Trinidad and Brazil people spend the year feverishly building floats, sewing costumes, choreographing dances, and practicing routines, the only requirement for Calle Ocho is to show up. If revelers in Rio and New Orleans lose themselves in rituals of sexual abandon, strategic policing and a tight Sunday-afternoon schedule keep mischief to a minimum in Little Havana -- at least until the official party ends at dark.

Rather than parade and preen, participants file from musical site to lemonade stand to corporate tent, dancing or not, buying or not, sampling or not. The busiest booths sell flags or flag-bearing buttons, key chains, headbands, T-shirts, and hats. Strangers salute properly tagged pedestrians with "¡Viva Mexico!" "¡Viva Peru!" "¡Viva Ecuador!" and even occasionally the Kreyol "Sak Pase!" or accented-English "How are you, baby!" Ask not what you can do at Calle Ocho, ask what Calle Ocho can do to help you identify your country.

Charting a course across more than 25 stages is like driving a car through a series of stoplights: The meanderer might luck upon a show about to begin, but more likely than not the show will have just ended or is about to end, or the site is silent between acts. The best strategy might be to stay put for the day, to wait out the breaks at a single stage, but such rootedness requires almost superhuman will when all around is in constant motion.

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