By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
In this atmosphere of excited aimlessness, the slightest suggestion of an event invites a flurry of interest. A manic Congolese vendor whirls wildly behind his display of soukous CDs; gawkers gather round. A Haitian photographer asks a pretty girl to pose, and 100 people convince themselves they've just seen a celebrity. A fledgling salsa school does a demo in front of a nearly famous salsa orchestra; a slew of pretenders who don't know a single step crash the circle, spinning and dipping the instructors with perilous vigor. Every year Calle Ocho presents the biggest number of the biggest stars of Latin pop seen anywhere in the world; every year the real entertainment is on the pavement.
But in the beginning Calle Ocho was simple like being a Cuban in Miami was simple: a little ethnic celebration to introduce neighbors to Gloria Estefan, grilled pork, and the guayabera. "We wanted to do a project that would bring the community closer together," says founding Kiwanis president Leslie V. Pantin, Jr., as he sits in his office surrounded by Florida State Seminole paraphernalia and photos of Calle Ochos past. Now a plump, prosperous 53-year-old, the public relations executive is telling one more time how back in the 1970s he and a group of friends tossed around ideas at the old Red Coach Grill downtown, eager to unite Cubans and Anglos: a concert? "But then there was the problem of English or Spanish," Pantin points out, "segmentation again." A bicycle race down Calle Ocho? "We said: What is that going to be? Us against them?'" Architect Willy Bermello came up with the idea for an open house, like the ethnic block parties he'd seen while up at school in Philly. "We didn't call it Calle Ocho," Pantin laughs, "because we wanted to be Anglo-sounding. We called it Open House Eight. It was the Anglos who started to call it Calle Ocho."
Corner of SW 8th St. and 10th Ave.
Miami, FL 33135
Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks
Region: Little Havana
7365 SW 8th St.
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Category: Community Venues
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
The Kiwanis, by their very nature and good breeding, are and always have been well-organized men (and now three women). An event of this magnitude, an event that would show their neighbors how really well-organized and well-bred they are, would take at least a year to plan. "Of course in those years the situation was different," Pantin observes. The exile enclave economy was just beginning to flourish. Few Cubans were in public positions of power. City hall was suspicious; sponsors were scarce. Kiwanis legend has it that some of the original members even mortgaged their houses to cover the costs. "We were in our twenties then so we could do a lot of the physical labor ourselves," says Pantin, who was working for his family's insurance company at the time. "We built the stages and planted flowers at the entrance."
On Saturday, March 11, 1978, the night before the first Open House Eight, the Kiwanis dined at the Little Havana restaurant Centro Vasco and hoped for a crowd of 10,000. They anticipated a tidy affair, with trams running the elderly and the infirm up and down the ten blocks from SW 27th Avenue to SW 17th. By noon the next day, they had to pay the shuttle service to shut down, because there was no room for the trams to pass. One hundred thousand people trampled the newly planted flowers and kicked up so much dirt dancing that the Miami Sound Machine, old friends who had been doing the Kiwanis Christmas party every year on the cheap, could hardly play their three scheduled sets. "The amount of earth we swallowed the first year was really something," remembers music mogul Emilio Estefan, Jr., who at that time still backed his wife Gloria as a percussionist. "This was set up and do. There was no budget. Everybody was wannabe, wannamake."
The Cuban culture the Kiwanis had planned to introduce turned out to be not so tidy after all. Unscheduled street performers showed up and put on their own shows. There was the man who dazzled passersby with his enormous whirling tops. Others dressed as Mama Dolores from a popular telenovela. And one man entertained the crowd by placing a mirror in front of a fighting cock. Hundreds gathered to watch the rooster puff out his chest and bristle his feathers, sparring with his own image.
To enter the Miss Carnaval Miami beauty pageant, sponsored by Clairol since 1982, the rules say contestants must be "between the ages of 17 and 25, single, residents of South Florida, and fluent in English and Spanish." A quick glance at photos of the finalists over the years suggests that winners also better be skinny -- and being light-skinned doesn't hurt, either. But a show at the Miami Herald Musical Stage at Calle Ocho 1999 proves there's more than one way to be Latina and lovely. A local DJ is picking out female dance partners for each clean-cut, light-skinned young man in the group Los Hijos de Puerto Rico. She chooses two pretty young things who could easily have qualified for Miss Carnaval, but then she picks two crowd favorites: a 52-year-old Puerto Rican woman with sturdy curves and a 12-year-old Nicaraguan girl, tall for her age and stout.