Leslie Pantin is passionate about Cuba. Like, really passionate.
Nearly 18 years ago, the Cuban-born American had a dream. He realized that for a country so full of tradition, there was not one known festival or event that honored its culture. So, in 1999, when everyone was worrying about Y2K, Pantin organized the first CubaNostalgia. The event remains the largest (and only) gathering of its kind honoring the island's culture, Pantin says.
The organizer realized that plenty of events surround other larger national holidays, such as St. Patrick's Day for the Irish, Cinco de Mayo for Mexicans, and Bastille Day for the French. But for Cuba's Independence Day, there weren't any large celebrations — until CubaNostalgia.
It’s remarkable how an island nation that is so small, that has been under the command of a dictator for more than 50 years, can have such an impact on the world. And not only Miami.
Pantin recalls going to a local bar on a recent trip to London. He asked the bartender for a recommendation and was shocked to hear the response. "Our most popular drink is the mojito," the barkeep told him. “I can’t believe I flew all the way to London to have a mojito!” he says, laughing.
CubaNostalgia revelers in 2014.
Courtesy of Emilio Calleja
It is this realization that makes Pantin thrilled to share CubaNostalgia with the people of Miami every year. Each edition is organized around a theme, and for 2016, it's “Cuba’s World-Famous Cocktails: Daiquiri, Cuba Libre, and Mojito.”
Inspired by his European trip, the creator says, “It’s amazing that a small country like Cuba has three drinks that you can get around the world, so we thought that it was very appropriate that we would make that the theme.”
The three-day event, taking place at the Fair Expo Center this weekend, will be full of live music, delicious food, cocktails, vendors, memorabilia, and other attractions — but it's more than just about having fun.
The event, trademarked with the word “nostalgia” right in its name, was created with the slogan “A journey through the Cuba of yesteryear.” But, according to Pantin, this is all in the past.
“Slowly, we have changed [our slogan] to, ‘All things are Cuban, todo lo cubano,’” he says.
“We want to make it a celebration of Cuba — of everything Cuban — versus looking backwards. Today, whether you were born in Cuba, whether your parents were Cuban, or whatever the situation, [the fact remains] that Cuba is more popular than ever.”
With the recent improvement of Cuban-American relations and a new future for Cuban-American tourism, the stigma the island has had over the past 50 years is slowly fading away (even though their basic human rights problem is not, but that’s another story).
Cuban-Americans who grow up in Miami are raised, for the most part, knowing that the Cuban government displaced their entire family. You should resent Fidel Castro (let alone never say the “F” word out loud); you should yearn for the Cuba of the past, and, basically, ignore its future.
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However, with the potential for brighter years ahead for the people on the island and the island itself, we can see the preserved traditions in a new light. We can embrace the Cuba of yesteryear, the Cuba of today, and the Cuba of the future.
The preservation of tradition and the sharing between generations of Cubans is what it's all about for Pantin. “When I see four generations of families with some kids in the stroller, a grandfather, and a great grandfather with a walker all dressed in guayaberas, it makes it all worth it.”
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 20 and 21, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at the Fair Expo Center. Tickets cost $6 to $12. Visit cubanostalgia.org/english.