As a native Midwesterner, my husband and my move to southern Florida in the early 1990’s was quite a cultural shock. We had no idea how greatly the Cuban-American community had influenced so many aspects of the city and in addition to the obvious language barriers, we knew immediately that we had a lot to learn about the Cuban culture. Many of my co-workers were second generation Cuban exiles and news of a plane or boat arriving on US shores was always a cause for celebration. After some of my new friends shared with me their own families’ stories about leaving Cuba I noticed one common thread was the desire to one day return. This was my inspiration for “Calle Ocho.”
In the streets the crowds gather as excited children pull their parents to the curb in the hope of seeing the street performers throwing candy. Women, who had spent the previous day in beauty salons having their hair teased and nails manicured, dance the salsa to an old Tito Puente tune in high heels and flowing skirts, their elaborate jewelry glistening in the sunlight. At the home of Ricardo Veda, men congregate on the front porch, sipping café cubano and playing dominoes, seemingly oblivious to the activity on the street. Their caged parrots chatter happily to the sounds of the bands in the distance. Inside, Ricardo’s wife Ana was scrambling in the kitchen, creating a banquet of Cuban cuisine: vaca frita, fried plantains, yuca, black beans and rice, and the mojo, which had been marinated overnight and slow cooked to reach its height of perfection.
“There are times when I could do without Calle Ocho,” Ricardo said, as he played his last domino.
“Aye. You should enter the tournament this week!” Guiermo replied. “What do you have against the festival? It’s a celebration of our heritage and everything you love: musica, dominos, salsa…pretty ladies,” he teased. Guiermo craned his neck to get a glimpse of the street, catching a glance from an aging woman in a tight dress.
“I wonder if Fidelito watches us,” Ricardo replied. As so
often happened, Calle Ocho reminded him of home. Not this place that had
become his home from necessity, but his real home, where he had grown
up and married. Where his children were born.
“Fidelito has problems of his own. Why do you continue to let him
worry you? He is an old man. You are an old man,” Guiermo said.
“Because he is there and we are not,” Ricardo sighed. “I
never thought we would stay in this country so long..” As Ricardo
poured himself a tiny cup of the hot sweet café, he remembered
the Nicaraguan street vender he had seen that morning selling café
cubano. Even the Cuban district was changing. What once was a refuge for
the first wave of Cubans was now rapidly becoming a melting pot of Marielistas,
Jamaicans, Haitians, and South Americans. Whenever there was a government
upheaval, Miami grew in numbers. Then there were the touristas, who had
come just to sample Cuban food and buy t-shirts. He found himself resenting
their presence as much as his own.
“Castro will die soon. Who knows what will happen then,”
Jorge said in Spanish as he turned the dominoes over for another game.
“Things may change. They did in Europe.”
“By that time we may be dead and gone, Jorge,” Ricardo replied
in kind. “Do you not think about your family there?”
“Sometimes, Ricardo, but what good does it do? We cannot go back.
They cannot come here. Yes, I am still angry, but I have learned to bury
my anger and go on with my life. To do otherwise is to let Castro win,”
Two little girls passed in front of the porch step eating snow cones and
giggling among themselves, their ruffled dresses swaying in the tropical
“I still worry about my sisters. It would be good to at least know…”
Ricardo said, as his thoughts wandered to his own childhood and he wondered
if he would ever be able to speak with his sisters in again. The last
letter he had received had come from Margarita years ago. “Mariella
and I share a small house with our families in Tapaste, just outside Havana.
It is difficult to find the things we need,” the letter had said.
He had sent money, medicines, and clothing for the children but had never
heard from them again. He wondered if they were still alive and felt that
familiar pang of guilt. He and Ana had escaped but much of his family
remained. He had accepted the fact that he would probably never visit
the graves of his parents, but the lives of his sisters remained a mystery
that haunted him.
“I was in the army when Castro took power,” Ricardo said
finally, “We should have been able to do more.” He remembered
the feel of his military uniform, stiff and starched, his shoes spit polished
to shine in the tropical sun. Never would he have believed that life would
change so much for so many. “Now I am an old man, living in the
shadows of the past, spending my days playing dominoes and drinking café.”
“There are worse ways to spend your golden years, Pop. Think about how many people come here to retire.
Besides, is it really so different in Florida?” Guiermo asked.
“The gringos call Miami the northern capital of Cuba. We do what
we want here. We speak Spanish at home. It’s not so bad.”
“It is not said with respect. They don’t want us here. I
don’t want us here. It’s not Habana,” Ricardo said.
Guiermo, just doesn’t understand, Ricardo thought. He’s the
youngest and Miami is the only home he has ever known. “You were
a baby when we left. All we had was what we could carry,” Ricardo
said. He remembered how Ana had so hated having to leave the crib that
her father had made for the babies. There were no choices then, just the
lesser of two evils and opportunity for their children. So much of the
past was lost forever. “I wish we had at least been able to bring
some pictures with us,” Ricardo said. “You would have liked
growing up with grandparents. Alicia looks a bit like my mother,”
Ricardo told Jorge in Spanish. No pictures, no heirlooms--only memories,
most of them sad.
How do you explain these feelings to a generation that knows nothing
of heritage and culture, but believes it does? he wondered. His children
were no longer Cuban but Cuban American, raised in a foreign country,
taught English in foreign schools, acculturated into this melting pot
of a city. Yet, they considered themselves Cuban, even though they couldn’t
even write in Spanish and it was only spoken at home. Even though the
nuns had made them learn the school work only in English and had made
them lose all traces of their Cuban accents.
“You don’t remember Habana. You were too young when we left.
It was a wonderful city. The ocean is a more beautiful blue than any other
place on earth…”
“Aye Ricardo, have a pastelito. I make queso y guayaba,”
Ana said as she placed the overflowing platter of pastries on the table.
Ricardo remembered Ana too and the way she looked in her black cocktail
dress serving drinks at her father’s club, her hair in a tight chignon,
earrings sparkling in the candlelight.
“Don’t you long to go home, Ana? It’s been forty years,”
Ricardo said, reaching for a sticky pastry, its cheese and guava filling
oozing out one side.
Anna stopped and considered for a moment. “I long to live, Ricardo.
You know that is not possible in Cuba. Not as long as Castro is in power.
Besides, this is home now. We have raised two children here.”
Ricardo’s memory of Ana transformed from the young girl in the cocktail dress to that of a young mother, patting her belly softly at night, feeling the baby within her move. Their first child. A boy.. And following the Cuban tradition he had also been named Ricardo, after his father. That pain still haunted him as well.
It had always puzzled Ricardo how easily Ana had adapted to Miami. Perhaps
it had been her wish to leave Cuba, although it didn’t seem apparent
at the time. Perhaps it was the desire to provide a better life for her
children that drove her. Perhaps there was something within her that allowed
her to forget, even little Ricardo.
Ana reached across the table to pour the sweet, thick café cubano
into the tiny cups as Guiermo opened the humidor of cigars. He motioned
it to his father, but the old man merely shook his head.
“Dominicano,” he said with a sigh.
“Ricardo, please,” Ana scolded. “You should get out
and get some air. Guiermo, go with your father. I hear Celia Cruz is playing
today. You always liked her.”
“Oye, Pop. I have someone I would like you to meet. She should
be working down in one of the booths,” Guiermo said with a smile.
“Guiermo, a girlfriend? What is her name?” Ana asked.
“Erin,” Ricardo repeated, “and she is..”
“A gringo,” Ricardo sighed. He wasn’t surprised. Guiermo
had dated gringos before, but he was never pleased.
“She’s a nice girl. I think you will like her.” He
reached into his pocket to hand his father a photograph. Ricardo waved
his hand away.
“Can’t you find a nice Cubano girl, Guiermo? Jorge’s son Jose seems to find a new one every week”
Ricardo said in Spanish
and giving a half-hearted grin to Jorge, who smiled widely and helped
himself to a pastry.
“Joe dates lounge lizards, papa,” Guiermo said in English
while smiling to Jorge, knowing he was not fluent enough in English to
understand. “Erin is a nice girl. She can’t help it her hair
is blond and her eyes are blue.”
“And I can’t help it that my son is an Americano,”
Ricardo said. “I don’t feel like going to the festival. You
go ahead without me.”
“Don’t let Papa upset you, Guiermo. I would like to meet
this girl. You bring her home to see us anytime,” Ana said.
“She’s Catholic, Papa,” Guiermo said.
Ricardo made the sign of the cross and rolled his eyes, returning to
his domino game and motioned to Guiermo to leave.
“I’ll be back for dinner, Mamacita,” Guiermo said kissing
her cheek and giving his father a sideways hug on his way down the steps.
“I should be going home as well.” Jorge said in Spanish.
“I’m sure Fatima has been cooking all day.”
Ana waited until Jorge had left before clearing the table.
“Ricardo, what’s all this about today. You hate the festival
even though you haven’t gone yet this year. You hate Guiermo’s
girlfriend even though you haven’t even met her. What is wrong?”
Ricardo said nothing and looked away from her.
“You have been talking about Cuba a lot today,” she began.
“It’s Calle Ocho. How can you not think about Cuba?”
“Is it only Cuba that is on your mind?”
He rose from the table and went into the living room wishing to be alone
with his thoughts. She followed him into the house and walked toward the
“Alicia will be here soon,” she said over her shoulder. “She
is bringing Angelina. Maybe the little one will cheer you up.”
Some time later he joined her in the kitchen. He opened the cabinet and
brought out a box of seed for the porch birds.”
“I’m sorry Ana. Sometimes the memories comeback…”
“I know, Ricardo. Are you thinking about the baby again?”
“We could have had three children to raise in Miami,” he
“Yes,” she said softly.
“Ricardo, our first son. He still haunts my dreams,” Ricardo
“It was years ago, Ricardo. Mourning him will not bring him back,”
Ana said, turning away to avoid the tears. She reached for a dish towel
and began to dry the pots and put them away in the cabinet.
“I should have…” Ricardo said.
“It wasn’t your fault. The boat was full of people. It was
an accident, that’s all. Things like that happened to so many families.
Not everyone made it out of Cuba.”
“But we don’t have a grave. Nothing to remember him by. Not
even the crib.”
Ana placed the last pan in the cabinet and inserted the towel into its
handle. “Perhaps it is better that way. It was years ago, Ricardo.
Put away your guilt. We have two beautiful children who love us. We have
a grandchild who can’t wait to see her abuelito. Concentrate on
the living. Cuba is dead to us,” she said.
“It’s the festival. It just brings back too many memories.”
“We have good memories of Cuba as well. There have been good times
in Miami. Those are the things to remember, Ricardo. The sadness will
only make you bitter.”
As Ana began to wipe off the counter, they heard the clacking of patent
leather shoes on the porch step.
“Abuelitos!” the child called.
“Now don’t you be so gloomy while Angelina is here,”
Ana said. “She has been looking forward to the festival for days.
Don’t you ruin it for her.”
“I won’t,” Ricardo replied.
He had to admit if there was anyone who could bring him out of his mood
it was Angelina, with her shiny black curls and pretty smile.
“Abuelitos! She repeated as she hopped into the kitchen.
“We’re here,” Alicia said, following behind her daughter.
“This child has been absolutely hyper today. All I have heard is
‘Calle Ocho Calle Ocho’ since we got up this morning. Billy
got her worked up the last time we were here. Where is my baby brother
“He’s already out there. I’m sure we can catch up with
him later,” Ricardo said.
“He has a new ‘friend’” Ana said with a smile.
“Does he?” Alicia said.
Ricardo shot a quick glance to Ana which told her that it was best to
change the subject. Angelina knew immediately that her father did not
“Are you ready to go to the festival, Angelina?” Ana asked
hugging the little girl and pointing her toward the table where she had
placed the leftover pastries.
“Mom, don’t give her those. It’ll ruin her appetite
for dinner. Besides she doesn’t need sugar right now,” Alicia
said, knowing that it was no use. Angelina was already removing the plastic
wrap from the tray.
“She’s a little girl. Let her have a pastelito,” Ana
said as Alicia shook her head.
“That’s right, Alicia. We only have one niña in the
family to spoil. We may as well do it right,” Ricardo said determined
not to show his sadness.
As Ana placed a glass of milk on the table, Ricardo pulled out a chair for the child and placed a booster seat on it.
He then pulled out the chair beside it and sat down himself. Instead
of using the chair, Angelina crawled on her grandfather’s lap.
“I have been trying to explain the real meaning of Calle Ocho to
Angelina,” Alicia said. “I still don’t know if she gets
it. Can you try?”
“Calle ocho!” the little girl said. “I wanna dance!”
“See what I mean?” Alicia said. “I want her to know
she has roots in Cuba. I want her to be proud.”
Angelina snuggled in closer to her grandfather, dribbling bits of milk
and pastry on him as she did. As she chewed she flashed an open grin at
“Angelina, where is your front tooth?” Ricardo said with
“The tooth fairy took it,” she said. “I got a dollar
“You did? Well good for you!” Ricardo said.
“And if Mommy keeps feeding her sweets she will have more for the
tooth fairy,” Alicia said.
“What is Cuba?” the child asked, staring at her grandfather
with big, brown eyes.
“Cuba is a place, honey. Remember how I told you that is where
your abuelitos came from?” Alicia said. “I can’t seem
to make her understand.”
Ricardo sat and thought for a moment. Perhaps he could try.
“Cuba is an island, Angelina. Do you know what an island is?”
“It’s a place with water all around it,” she said.
“That’s right, Angelina, but Cuba is a special place,”
“It’s where our family comes from. That’s why we celebrate
Calle Ocho. To remind us that we come from Cuba,” Ricardo said.
“Remember we talked about Cuba?” Alicia said.
“Did you like it in Cuba, Abuelito?”
“It’s a magical place, baby,” he began with a sigh.
He stopped for a moment to collect his thoughts. “I hope you will
get to see it one day, Angelina. The ocean is a more beautiful blue there
than any other place on earth…” Ricardo said.