What Art Thou, Little Havana?

"Ay, que cómico," observes an elderly Cuban woman watching the man on the sidewalk spin and twirl a life-size rag doll above his head. The doll, with her straggly blond wig, grotesquely painted face, and limp limbs, is the man's dance partner. Holding her around the waist and balancing her amputated sock-stub feet atop his own, he punctuates the dance by kicking up her legs. The crowd that has gathered around the man and his doll on this Viernes Cultural (Cultural Friday) on SW Eighth Street applauds politely, then moves on, past the sketch artists, caricaturists, and musicians who have positioned themselves on either side of the street. In front of a packed Casa Panza restaurant, mayoral candidate José Garcia-Pedrosa distributes signed copies of his election poster as if they were works of art. The neighborhood arts and entertainment fair that since last year has been held the last Friday of every month on these three blocks of Calle Ocho, between Fourteenth and Seventeenth avenues, is in full swing.

Circling the action is the chiva, a brightly painted open-backed truck that shuttles Viernes Cultural visitors between Eighth Street and nearby artists' studios and galleries. One of these, lab6, an exhibition space for experimental and avant-garde art, is hosting a small gathering tonight.

"I absolutely love these," says a young woman in a sleeveless black top, eyeing a collection of charcoal drawings by Carlos Suarez de Jesus, who, along with his wife, Vivian Marthell, operates lab6. Mounted on small wooden boxes and arranged in diptychs and triptychs with titles like The Clinton Years and Election Debate, the drawings depict contemporary Amerika ("with a k," insists Suarez de Jesus) as a small, bald circus performer in tights. In successive drawings the Munchian acrobat dangles from a hanging ladder, walks a tightrope, preens for an unseen audience. The high-concept drawings criticize the bread-and-circus aesthetic of modern American life and are a radical departure from the easily digested art and entertainment being offered just four blocks away.

Since the late Nineties, when artists like Suarez de Jesus and Marthell began relocating to Little Havana, hopes have been high for transforming the neighborhood, still one of the poorest in the city, into a true arts district. Viernes Culturales, initially conceived as part of that cultural revival, has become, say the artists, an increasingly commercial, artistically bankrupt exercise. With business owners and developers lined up on one side, serious artists on the other, and civic leaders stuck in the middle, the question of exactly what kind of arts district Little Havana might become appears, like the dancing doll and the ironic acrobat, to be up in the air.

"I was standing right here when it happened," says Carlos Suarez de Jesus, remembering the afternoon he and his father walked out of El Pub, the popular Eighth Street restaurant, just in time to witness a shooting. "A crowd started to gather, so my father dragged me across the street to get a better look at the scene," recalls the 41-year-old. "I'll never forget it. All the way home my father complained about the bloodstains on his gray suede shoes."

That was the late Sixties, when, Suarez de Jesus' story notwithstanding, Little Havana was a thriving, relatively safe place, a central business district catering to the growing Cuban exile population. It wasn't until the late Eighties that the area fell on hard times. By then, boarded-up storefronts served as a backdrop for drug dealers, prostitutes, and street-corner hustlers. Some legitimate businesses survived, serving the new immigrants from Central and South America who had replaced Kendall-bound Cubans, but the area, poorer than it had once been, became both tougher and more dangerous, a place largely avoided by anyone who did not live there.

It was precisely this neighborhood of dollar stores, bodegas, pawnshops, botánicas, and dive bars that three years ago began to attract serious artists, including Suarez de Jesus and Marthell. "You can get breakfast any place around here for two bucks," says Suarez de Jesus, continuing his stroll down Eighth, before ducking into his favorite botánica. "This guy," insists the artist, pointing to a middle-age man behind the counter, "is one of the most respected santeros in Miami. I mean, he has shrunken heads back there."

Suarez de Jesus and other artists from the "Blood-on-the-Shoes" school find the grit and grime of the neighborhood to be a source of inspiration. "Little Havana is very exciting," says Carlos Alves, who, before moving into his current studio on SW Sixth Street, occupied a gallery on Lincoln Road. "There's culture here." He's not necessarily referring to other artists. By culture Alves is talking about the organic, street-level variety: the sounds and smells floating out of people's apartments, the day-to-day interaction of neighbors, the spontaneous political debates among old men slinging fichas in Domino Park. "My clients didn't want to go to Lincoln Road anymore," says the ceramist, who owned the space that is now, ironically, a Pottery Barn. "They didn't want to have to walk past a Williams-Sonoma to purchase art from me."

Local leaders, certainly, were happy to facilitate the artists' migration into the area. "When we first got here," Suarez de Jesus remembers, "the city was desperate for new businesses to move into the neighborhood. At our first opening, on a Friday, they asked what they could do for us, and we mentioned the damaged sidewalk outside our door. On the following Monday, there were workers out there fixing it."

According to Suarez de Jesus and others, though, what once appeared to be a burgeoning collaboration between civic leaders and artists to transform the area into Miami-Dade County's premier arts district has become just another gentrification scheme that threatens to use artists as window-dressing, then leave them behind.

The area's artists cite Viernes Culturales as a bad omen. "The goal," says Susan Caraballo, executive director of Artemis Performance Network, a support group for South Florida-based artists, "is to turn SW Eighth Street into a Hispanic Lincoln Road." Suarez de Jesus, who has glimpsed dark forces at work in Little Havana before, is more emphatic. "Viernes Cultural," he offers, "is a merchants association. They're lighting velitas to the Lincoln Road fairy."

Whether or not local businessmen are able to summon such a radical transformation of Little Havana, it is true that they have dramatically altered Viernes Culturales. As originally conceived by Sergio Fiallo, executive director of the Dr. Rafael A. Peñalver Clinic, the monthly event was to be part of the institution's health-education initiative. "The vision was to make the clinic a community center, with a big accent on art and culture," explains the administrator, whose casual office attire -- wine-colored guayabera, khakis, and brown Doc Martens -- is more suggestive of his other career as a singer-songwriter.

Viernes Culturales was not designed as a moneymaking venture. Indeed Fiallo rails at the suggestion. "Coño," he exclaims, leaning back in his chair and opening his arms wide, "aqui tenemos clientes hasta para hacer dulce." His use of the Cuban expression -- translated literally, "We could make dessert with the clients we already have" -- brings a smile to Fiallo. The objective, he says, was cultural uplift: "We wanted to integrate the arts into working people's lives."

The "we" to which Fiallo refers is a group of local artists that included sculptor Ramon Lago, painter Mario Valladares, and dramaturge Frank Quintana. In October 1999 the artists, with the support of the clinic, founded ALAS de la Histórica Pequeña Habana ("WINGS of Historic Little Havana"). The name, according to Fiallo, came from the artists' collective desire to give "wings," culturally-speaking, to the area. The Peñalver Clinic, located on the northern edge of Little Havana, became the group's chief exhibition and performance space. Events included a courtyard reading of Shakespeare's soliloquies. "It wasn't Stratford-on-Avon," says Fiallo, referring to the great bard's birthplace, "but I'm sure it was the first time many people here had seen such work."

Slowly these cultural transfusions grew in scope and attendance, evolving into the first Viernes Cultural, held on SW Eighth Street in May 2000. The level of the artistic productions at these events was quite high, says Fiallo. And always accompanied by some component of health education, performances designed to instruct the public on HIV/AIDS prevention, cancer detection, and hypertension control.

As the monthly festivals gained in popularity, local businesses, looking to cash in on the increased street traffic, became more and more involved. "This is where the problems began," says Fiallo, pointing to a Ford Motor Company logo on the back of the October 2000 Viernes Cultural program. With the increased presence of business owners and entrepreneurs, the Peñalver Clinic's sponsorship of the event was no longer needed. Plainly speaking, the clinic was squeezed out. In February 2001 the board of directors of Viernes Culturales, Inc., a group that included, besides Fiallo, a number of local businessmen, decided that ALAS would no longer coordinate the monthly event. Instead that job would fall to independent artist Lee Cohen, who had once been an ALAS staffer.

Predictably the emphasis of the monthly event shifted. Health education was one of the first casualties. The other, according to Fiallo, was the quality of the artistic work being presented. "Since ALAS was shut out," says Fiallo, "the quality of the art has declined." Lee Cohen doesn't deny that, in terms of artistic accomplishment, there is a wide spectrum of work being exhibited on the street. "Twenty percent of the artists are professionals," she estimates, "and another twenty percent are hobbyists." The remainder presumably are everything in between. Fiallo does not fault Cohen personally. ("She's only one person. She does her best.") It's just that the people now running the show, he says, have objectives that don't necessarily include fostering an artistic community. (Fiallo resigned from Viernes Culturales, Inc., following the July 2001 event.)

Certainly the application form potential exhibitors are required to fill out places as much importance on the artists' attitude as on their work. "If you participate in our events," reads the final condition, "you agree to be present on the proper day and time ... and to have FUN!" Disney World might include a similar boilerplate in their employment contracts, but a festival looking to lure talented artists?

"Viernes Culturales has taken a turn that doesn't bode well," warns Pedro Pablo Peña, director of the Miami Hispanic Ballet and the Creation Art Center on SW Eighth Street. "The events and the art presented should have merit," says Peña, whose cultural center recently staged a critically acclaimed Spanish-language adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. The problem, according to Peña, is that the arbiters of art, or at least the people who decide what hangs where and who performs what, are primarily restaurant and store owners whose tastes run toward tropical cheese and who are more interested in luring visitors to their establishments than they are in exposing the public to challenging art.

Peña, with his closely trimmed beard, designer eyewear, and meticulous wardrobe, is an aesthete. His pronouncements on what constitutes art may be dismissed by some as snobbery. But what cannot be discounted is Peña's point that all the "art" being displayed in and around Eighth Street -- before, after, and during Viernes Cultural -- does not belong to the same family. The range of art reveals different sensibilities and radically different visions of what kind of arts district Little Havana may become: avant-garde or rear guard.

Just across the street from Peña's window, for example, is the historic Tower Theater. Refurbished at a public cost of almost three-and-a-half million dollars, the Art Deco moviehouse was supposed to reopen last year as the Tower Arts Center, providing a venue for original stage productions, independent and arthouse films, and other thought-provoking artwork. Instead the Tower reopened as a second-run movie theater and makeshift gallery (see "Small Screen, Big Bucks," October 5, 2000). A few weeks ago, the most prominently displayed painting, located on the wall just inside the main entrance and visible through glass doors from the sidewalk, was a work titled El Gallo del Celular (The Rooster of the Cellular Phone). The background was a vaguely pastoral scene: a wooded lane running toward a full moon. In the foreground a cock rooster clutched a black cell phone lying on the green earth at his feet. This example of exile surrealism may make an interesting conversation piece in someone's den (someone willing to part with the asking price of $1000), but it will hardly bring committed art patrons to the area.

What it will bring, insists Peña, are lowbrows, people interested in nothing more than giveaways, free corporate knickknacks, and cheap beer. This last possibility is, for him, the most odious. "The last gasp of Viernes Cultural as a cultural endeavor," stresses Peña, "will come with the Budweiser concession."

If Peña fears Viernes Culturales deteriorating into a monthly Calle Ocho-type affair, other artists believe it already has. Sitting in lab6, Suarez de Jesus ticks off the artistic genres he says receive the most exposure at the monthly gatherings: "Black velvet paintings, embroidered paintings ... that's my beef. They say Cubans are reactionary, “Elian Nation' and all that. Now they're going to say we're tacky, too."

Marthell, whose own work tends toward irreverent pop art, is more tolerant of the objets d'kitsch on display down the street but no less frustrated by the general unwillingness on the part of Viernes Culturales organizers to provide exposure to nontraditional and experimental forms. "You could have the costumbrillo ("traditionalism") in one place," says Marthell, her eyes growing wide behind her octagonal frames, "but then expose the public to other kinds of art as well." By "other art," Marthell means forms of expression that would force an audience beyond a simple "I like it/I don't like it."

The problem, of course, is that such a thing is unlikely to happen while shop and restaurant owners double as art curators, primarily displaying the kind of work that will most appeal to conservative, middle-class Cubans and vacationing tourists. Cuban landscapes, drawn from memory, yes. Straw-hat still lifes, of course. Scenes of prerevolutionary Havana night life, indeed. But something along the lines of Marthell's homage to love in the age of mechanical reproduction, sexually explicit images of cunnilingus and blowjobs with captions like "double-click to activate?" Eh ... no.

City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who has been an active sponsor of Viernes Culturales, admits there is resistance from residents and visitors to some forms of expression. "One gallery right off Eighth Street had a statue of a naked man," explains Sanchez, "and people were complaining to me about their kids having to see such things." He smiles. "I told them: “Art is art.'" Sanchez's pleas for tolerance don't end with fostering respect for artistic freedom. "I also heard from people in the neighborhood," he adds with some hesitation, "that art would bring the wrong element here. I asked if they meant criminals. “No,' they told me, “homosexuals.' I said, “People, please, this is a free country.'"

If Sanchez has championed the cultural revolution in Little Havana, however, it is also true that he, like most other city officials, sees it as a means to an end. "The point of Viernes Cultural," he says, "has been to show potential visitors that Calle Ocho is safe." Success for the artists, as for the businessmen, is measured by sales receipts. "I call the Tower Theater the “Super Bowl of art,'" says the commissioner, unaware this is a metaphor that would send serious artists and their followers screaming from the building. "Every artist that exhibits there has sold their art."

Ultimately the only art appreciation in Little Havana may be for the art of the deal. "The last ten years belonged to Miami Beach," says developer José Fernandez, speaking on the phone from his office on SW Eighth Street. "The next ten years belong to the city of Miami." Fernandez believes Little Havana specifically will be the area's next residential and commercial hot spot, a hunch he began banking on a few years ago. "I got here at the end of 1994," remembers Fernandez, who previously had been active in South Beach's redevelopment, "and realized that property values were still dropping. I didn't really start buying until 1998."

Fernandez's shopping spree coincided with the arrival of artists like Suarez de Jesus, Marthell, and Alves. The timing was not coincidental. "Art brings retailers and retailers bring shoppers," recites the developer.

Fernandez uses the word art like the character in The Graduate used plastics: as a one-word key to unlocking the door to untold riches. He admits that, with the exception of a handful of artists, he doesn't think "the quality art thing" has been worked out. But then again it also seems to make little difference.

The mainstream press has jumped on the Little Havana art wagon with both feet. A two-page color spread in the July 23 Miami Herald "Living and Arts" section extolled the virtues of the "Bohemian, go-with-the-flow, all-night party" that is Viernes Culturales. It is an odd piece, by turns boosteristic ("It's one zany scene after another"), touristic ("It's not a bad idea to consume a little free wine while visiting the Little Havana art galleries"), and overly optimistic ("Here, artists rule"). The Little Havana described in the story bears only a passing resemblance to the neighborhood as it actually is, and no resemblance whatsoever to anything approaching a genuine arts district. Significantly the one truly vital cultural institution mentioned in the piece -- a weekly intellectual jam session nicknamed Café Neuralgia, which the Herald accurately describes as having featured "artists, poets, photographers, university professors, curious locals, foreign tourists, and friends of friends" -- lasted less than a year, disbanding this past February.

Still the idea of a cultural oasis in Miami-Dade continues to be an enticing one, and it's entirely possible that, in a city where image is everything, Little Havana will be successfully sold to investors and to the public as a vibrant arts district without ever becoming one.

Already rents and property values are spiraling upward. "I've been offered double what I paid for my Little Havana properties a few years ago," boasts Aaron Lichtschein, who owns five buildings in the area, including the complex at the corner of SW Twelfth Avenue and Sixth Street that artists such as Suarez de Jesus, Marthell, and Alves currently call home.

It is a development that will make it increasingly harder, if not impossible, for the few legitimate artists in the area to remain. Tony Wagner, director of the Latin Quarter Cultural Center, a nonprofit arts group, recently received a $300,000 Knight Foundation grant, money with which he intended to purchase the Arting Together building his organization currently shares with the Miami Hispanic Ballet and the Creation Art Center. However, the asking price for the property at the corner of SW Eighth Street and Fifteenth Avenue, which a few years ago could have been had for roughly the amount of the grant, has climbed, according to its owner, to $895,000. "My vision has always been for the art institutions now located in the building to have a permanent home here," says Wagner, who also is the city's Coral Way Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) administrator. "I'd like to be able to stick around."

Even if the Latin Quarter Cultural Center could come up with the money, Wagner's co-tenant, Pedro Pablo Peña, says there's a good case to be made for passing on the property. "To spend a million dollars on a cultural center and then have the powers that be turn this neighborhood into a bachata (a constant street party) doesn't make any sense," reasons Peña. "The way things are going, I don't think anything culturally important will happen here," he continues. "The area will become something else. Other activities, other interests will dominate."

Some area artists and arts entrepreneurs hold out hope things will be different. "I'd like to see a boulevard lined with painters," says Jesus Fuertes, himself a painter and the proprietor of Café Gallery 2000, a combination exhibition space/frame shop/tapas bar on Eighth Street. "Real painters, professional painters." Tony Wagner dreams about one day seeing " a multiplicity of businesses, open-air cafes, and artists throughout, like SoHo, like Ybor City."

There is talk among city officials of district designation, similar to the one South Beach enjoys, for the stretch of SW Eighth Street recently repopularized by Viernes Culturales. Their immediate goals for the area, however, are commercial in nature. Joe Sanchez eventually would like to see a Starbucks with a Latin theme open directly across from Casa Panza and not far from Little Havana to Go, a souvenir shop featuring T-shirts, caps, and even espresso serving sets emblazoned with the Cuban crest and flag. But that, according to José Fernandez, would only be the beginning. "Right now, our Lincoln Road is SW Eighth Street from Fourteenth to Seventeenth avenues," says the developer, "but the nucleus will keep expanding."

For his part Carlos Suarez de Jesus wonders how long it'll be before artists are forced out completely from yet another neighborhood they've helped bring back. "I don't have anything against anyone making a buck," he says. "But as an artist, I'm just waiting to be crushed."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >