Carnival of Consumption
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
"That's a dream," snorts his 73-year-old neighbor Rolando, a Cuban American born and raised in New York City who goes fishing every year to avoid the Calle Ocho hordes.
A fellow boarder, 72-year-old Jesus Salvador, doesn't care about nostalgia or noise. "We meet half of humanity there," Jesus says with delight. "It's like the United Nations."
Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, the flags flying over Calle Ocho multiplied. A revolution in Nicaragua and the booths slinging black beans gave way to gallo pinto. Civil war in Colombia; in rolled the arepa carts. Unrest in Peru lined the street with stands selling ceviche. "Every nationality has its little kiosk," Amado explains. "Eat a little taco and you talk to a Mexican."
To mark Calle Ocho's tenth anniversary, the Kiwanis convoked a comparsa long enough for everyone. The Super Conga, listed by Guinness as the longest conga line in the world, snaked beneath speakers strung from SW 27th Avenue all the way down to 4th blaring "Conga," the Miami Sound Machine's mega-hit. "It was incredible to see the whole city of Miami trying to make history," remembers Estefan. "It was history for us, too."
Even as the streets filled with new immigrants, the Kiwanis tried to keep Calle Ocho's Cuban-American beat, canceling shows in 1989 by three Latin-American artists found to have performed at some time on Castro's island: Puerto Rican salsero Andy Montañez, Spanish duo Los Españolisimos, and Brazilian singer Denise de Kalafe. But the pan-Latin conga veered out of control; Kalafe sued the Kiwanis for damages to her career resulting from the cancellation -- and was awarded three million dollars. The lawsuit cooled the Kiwanis's efforts at exerting exile politics.
Then in 1996, two weeks before Calle Ocho, the Cuban government shot down two planes being flown near the island by Brothers to the Rescue, killing four members of that exile group. In mourning, the Kiwanis cancelled Carnaval Miami outright.
The next year, with emotions still raw, a second Calle Ocho performance slated for Andy Montañez was cancelled after the salsero was photographed embracing Silvio Rodriguez, the Cuban balladeer friendly with Castro. "We had nothing to do with that," insists Manny Rojas. "We're not political." Convinced that sponsor Miller Brewing Company -- not the Kiwanis -- was to blame for the cancellation, Puerto Rican leaders in South Florida called off a planned protest march, but the Puerto Rican pueblo determined to show the island's colors at Calle Ocho.
Police lounge with little to do along the three-mile stretch of Calle Ocho 1997. Puerto Rican flags fly everywhere. All along the street, groups of young men chant the indigenous name for inhabitants of their island: "Boricua! Boricua!" Amid a proud yet peaceful crowd before the stage headlined by Jerry Rivera, another Puerto Rican salsero, a pair of trigueño -- wheat-complexioned -- dancers respond to the slow rhythm of salsa romantica. The woman follows her partner's delicate lead with a subtlety that can only be cultivated by years of intimacy on and off the dance floor. Their smiles are meant for each other, but in an instant, as the man executes intricately crossed footwork, he takes in the appreciative spectators surrounding him and his smile broadens.
Unaware of any controversy, three tourists watch the dancers. Jules Delgado, a 23-year-old Chicana hairstylist down from Pennsylvania for spring break, has been sampling liberally from the Bacardi and Budweiser booths, mustering up enough Spanish to answer the eager young men who pass in packs: "Te quiero, too. I love you, tambien." Her friend Elisabeth, an Argentine career girl up from Buenos Aires for a two-week shopping spree, scoffs at what she considers the greasy food, the relentless rhythms, the dark-skinned celebrants: "If I wanted to see this," she sulks, "I would have gone to one of these countries." Her travel companion Laura Segade gamely observes the scene beneath the undulating tide of Puerto Rican flags -- and in smaller numbers the flags of Colombia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, and even Cuba. "This is supposed to be happy, but it makes me sad," she confides. "I get the feeling all these people had to come here -- that they would rather have stayed in their own countries."
When protestors marched down SW Eighth Street on April 29, 2000, after the INS repatriated little Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez, the scene seemed familiar. The organizers of the event had turned to the Kiwanis for help with logistics. "We're a non-political group," Rojas reiterates. "We helped them with the stage, with coordinating with the police and departments, with deciding whether to run repeaters or speakers with wires along the street." Look quick and it's 1978: 100,000 Cuban exiles on Calle Ocho again, colors flying.
Then this past autumn the Kiwanis flew a new flag when they organized a prayer vigil for the September 11 victims at Bayfront Park. "Guys, we gotta do something," Rojas implored his fellow Kiwanis at a board meeting on the ninth floor. "We have to rally behind our country."
This newfound reverence for Old Glory did not end with the September 11 vigil. Mounting the stage at a press conference for Calle Ocho 2002, the co-chair announced a new strategy for the street festival: "Since 1978, we've asked people to come dressed in the colors of their countries. This year we are planning a celebration of America."
Rojas can already picture the view from the ninth-floor window. "Can you imagine 1,400,000 people dressed in red, white, and blue?" he wonders. "I never thought I was this patriotic."
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