The Ten Cubans Who Shaped Miami

Gloria and Emilio Estefan at one of the many charity functions they support.EXPAND
Gloria and Emilio Estefan at one of the many charity functions they support.
Courtesy of Flickr/Save the Children

This Friday, Cuba will celebrate its Independence Day. In Miami, Cuban-Americans will let out a collective sigh. After all, the island has almost never really been independent — after a struggle to gain independence from Spain at the turn of the century, it became an American playground. Then it fell into the hands of dictator Fulgencio Batista and succumbed to Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959.

A suggestion: We in the Magic City should celebrate Cuba's day of independencia by reflecting on those who fled their beloved island to get here. They helped build our home into the world-class Caribbean city it is today. From making their mark as entertainers in the Latin music sphere to leading their own secret insurgence against Castro and building world-class iconic towers, these are the ten Cubans who shaped the city we know and love today.

PAMM's east facade.
PAMM's east facade.
Courtesy of PAMM/Daniel Azoulay Photography

10. Jorge M. Pérez
Regarded as the Donald Trump of the tropics, Jorge Pérez can be credited with the rise of Miami's iconic skyline. Born in Argentina to Cuban parents, Pérez studied in Michigan before getting his start as an economic development director for the City of Miami and then later amassing a fortune as a creator of low-income properties through his real-estate firm, the Related Companies. Since then, he has become one of the most prolific high-rise builders in the world, often having more than 50 buildings under construction at once. Pérez's namesake museum, Peréz Art Museum Miami, was made possible thanks to his $30 million donation.

The infamous moment.EXPAND
The infamous moment.
Courtesy of Flickr/Cliff

9. Elían Gonzalez
Few locals can forget the Elián González saga of 2000, when a young Cuban boy was discovered by fisherman near the Miami shoreline. Fleeing from the communist government, Gonzalez's mother and ten other refugees had drowned at sea; only González and two others survived. What followed was one of the most widely publicized custody battles to date and a debate that divided Miami's Cuban exile community from scores of Americans who believed the boy should be returned home to his father. Clinging to the controversial "wet foot, dry foot" policy — a nickname for the Cuban Adjustment Act, which permits Cubans who land on United States soil to then become permanent residents — Gonzalez's family in Miami attempted to petition for the boy's asylum. But U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno declined to agree. The protests and public outcry that followed all but determined the 2000 presidential race, as Miami's staunchly Republican Cuban community became decidedly more so.

Gloria and Emilio Estefan at one of the many charity functions they support.EXPAND
Gloria and Emilio Estefan at one of the many charity functions they support.
Courtesy of Flickr/Save the Children

8. Emilio and Gloria Estefan
She was the daughter of a military hero. He was working for a rum company and making music in his spare time. Their meeting – at her grandmother's urging – spawned a revolution in Latin music, catapulting the couple to their current throne. Creating a legacy of musical and entrepreneurial success, Gloria and Emilio Estefan are the definition of the Cuban Miami success story. Their band, the Miami Sound Machine, toured across the globe. Their music set the foundation for Miami nightlife and radio waves. Gloria eventually went solo, and Emilio became her producer, allowing the starlet to shine and earn a number of Grammys. In our city, the Estefans are nothing short of royalty. They own a number of brands, including Larios Cuban restaurants, Bongos Cuban Café, Botran rum, and a stake in the Miami Dolphins. They're active philanthropists, advocating for causes such as Save the Children and the Miami Project. They've both been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award that can be given to a naturalized U.S. citizen. 

A mural of Celia Cruz on Calle Ocho.EXPAND
A mural of Celia Cruz on Calle Ocho.
Courtesy of Flickr/PhillipPessar

7. Celia Cruz
The grande dame of salsa, Celia Cruz, is one of the most infamous entertainers in Latin music. If you grew up in Miami, chances are her seminal songs are often ringing in your ears. Although Cruz didn't spend the majority of her life in Miami, her body was laid to rest at Miami's Freedom Tower — a symbol of her influence on the Cuban exile community. The singer was born in 1925 in a poor neighborhood in Havana. She was raised on the jazzy ballads of 1930s Tropicana flair, and in the 1950s she helped Latin music reach new heights with her "Sonora Matancera." When she fled communist Cuba in the 1960s, Cruz remained an largely unknown figure – until she took up with the Tito Puente Orchestra in the mid-1960s. Through the '70s and '80s and until her death, her influence allowed Latin music to flourish in America. The artist dominated the charts and garnered 23 gold records and several Grammys. 

Carlos Alfonzo in his studio.EXPAND
Carlos Alfonzo in his studio.
Courtesy of Miami New Times

6. Carlos Alfonzo
A prolific figure in 1980s Miami Beach — an era when drugs and crime ran rampant in a once-glamorous tourist destination — artist Carlos Alfonzo devoted his short life to painting and sculpture along the streets near Ocean Drive. He came to Miami on the infamous Mariel Boatlift, when he spent two months in detention before finally being allowed to enter the States. Alfonzo got to work developing his craft and making a name for himself across North America. His career was short-lived — he died only days before he was to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial. His untimely death at the age of 40 due to complications from AIDS cut his artistic production short. But today, Alfonzo's work is revered as a vital piece of contemporary art in Miami. 



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