Carnival of Consumption

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

The leader of the band pairs the two slim beauties with the two prettiest men, leaving the twelve-year-old with the stocky singer and taking the mature woman himself. In the meantime, a female assistant insists that she and the lady DJ take partners as well, snapping up the two most energetic volunteers. The first, who identifies himself as "Jose,el gordito cariñoso" ("Jose, the loving fatso"), bounds onstage. The second, tall and stocky, mounts the platform at a deliberate pace, adorned in pants and shirt that seem cut entirely from the cloth of a Puerto Rican flag.

The couples obey the boy band's a cappella merengue: "move your waist," "move your hips," and "pa'bajo,pa'bajo" -- down to the ground. When the twelve-year-old takes her turn, the bandleader instead switches to a Mexican ranchera about a little girl going to school. The Nica moves reluctantly, then stops. "Movida," she demands. "I want some action, too." The bandleader raises his eyebrows as the preteen shakes her hips to the ground with considerable expertise. When her partner closes in, the bandleader keeps him at arm's length.

A grimace crosses the leader's face when the older woman grinds her 52-year-old rear, but two of the other Hijos gleefully form a sandwich with her between them. Unable to hold back,el gordito cariñoso leaps forward and begins to dance with the DJ. Not to be left out, Flag Man takes up the DJ's rear flank to make a second sandwich.

Kiwani Manny Rojas puts on a party for el pueblo
Steve Satterwhite
Kiwani Manny Rojas puts on a party for el pueblo
Kiwani Manny Rojas puts on a party for el pueblo
Steve Satterwhite
Kiwani Manny Rojas puts on a party for el pueblo

Location Info


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


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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Every year Calle Ocho grew bigger. And every year it grew more corporate, less Cuban, less quaint. To help the Kiwanis score big-time sponsorships, an early booster at Eastern Airlines donated airfare along with a then-state-of-the-art slide presentation: three projectors packed into a six-foot trunk. Pantin and a fellow Kiwani, former Miami commissioner Willy Gort, Jr., lugged the trunk up and down Madison Avenue, painstakingly calibrating the slides to convey the sense of a demographic on the move. "We would tell people how loyal Hispanics are," says Pantin of the pitch. "That this was the way to reach the Hispanic market."

The big breakthrough came with an offer to televise Calle Ocho on a segment of the popular Mexican variety show "Siempre en Domingo" ("Always on Sunday"), hosted by Raul Velasco. At first, conditions for television production on SW Eighth Street were primitive. Celebrity stylist and Home Shopping Network sensation Samy set up camp in the banquet hall of a church at SW 8th and 22nd Avenue. "One year I plugged in a hair dryer and the lights blew for ten blocks," he laughs. "It was just a coincidence, but I thought it was me." Being the official stylist for the Calle Ocho telecast got Samy off the street, where in the early years he used to stand beneath a "Samy Hair Design" balloon, handing out visors that said "100% Samy" in hot pink. "That was when I could still go out myself," remembers the beauty guru. "There weren't any big sponsors. Just imagine, back then it was all very rustic."

Calle Ocho outgrew Cuban Miami, catching the eye of the newly established Spanish-language television networks showing the same programming nationwide. The festival had to appeal not only to audiences in Miami, but also to Puerto Ricans in New York and Mexican Americans in the Southwest. "The exposure we got in the Hispanic U.S. elevated Calle Ocho to the next level," Pantin observes. "We started bringing a show to Calle Ocho with prime artists. We had [sponsors] calling us."

At first the growth seemed too much, too fast. When the county offered tourism-development money if the Kiwanis would extend the festival to a second weekend, then-president José Vila protested with a Cuban proverb: "We're buying a shirt that's just too big!" The expansionists prevailed. Calle Ocho would be the culmination of Carnaval Miami, a 10-day event that also would include a cooking contest, a beauty pageant, an 8K run, a golf tournament, and Noche de Carnaval, a formal concert in the Orange Bowl that would free television producers from the chaos of the street.

Yet all did not go as smoothly as planned. In the spring of 1980, 125,000 refugees arrived by the Mariel boatlift, many of them awaiting resettlement during the summer on cots inside the Orange Bowl. Relocated to Hialeah, a small group of Marielitos began to rehearse a comparsa -- a traditional Cuban carnival parade with drummers, dancers, and elaborate costumes -- eager to participate in the carnival of their new home. With the cameras ready to roll at the Orange Bowl in March 1981, the Marielitos showed up unannounced. They were not allowed to pass. "The blanquitos [wealthy whites] had set up their own comparsa," comments journalist Nati Torres, who remembers the controversy well, "and many people in this other group were poor and black. So the jala jala [the hullabaloo] began." The bowl crowd chanted, "Let them in! Let them in!" -- holding up the show until the Marielitos were allowed their comparsa. Carnaval Night 1981 revealed just how complicated being Cuban in Miami had become.

The close of Calle Ocho always finds 65-year-old Amado at the Bacardi Super Musical Site, 4 blocks from the retired construction worker's boarding house, where for the past 7 years Willy Chirino has headlined the show. "For me, he's always the King of Carnaval," says Amado. Every year Chirino delivers his ten-year-old hit about the imminent collapse of the Castro regime, "Ya Viene Llegando" ("It's Almost Here"); every year the lyrics give the Havana native hope. "Maybe next year," Amado says, "we'll see Carnaval in Cuba."

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