It’s impossible to live along the Gulfshore and not cross paths with Cuban culture. In the restaurants we frequent, in the salsa on the radio, in our friends and neighbors—la vida Cubana is everywhere. Yet even here, it’s still not as present as it is in Miami, the epicenter of Cuban-American life. I wanted a taste of its particular vibrancy, so on a recent Friday afternoon I visited Calle Ocho, Southwest Eighth Street, the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.
I arrived late in the afternoon, a drowsy time between lunch and dinner when the morning rush had already passed but the after-work crowd had yet to arrive. Like on many of my day trips, I showed up with a certain looseness, willing to let the adventure take me where it might lead. This felt especially right in the Latin neighborhood.
I began my exploration in Moyi’s, an antique store stuffed with goods. The owner, Christian Ocon, had just sat down to a late lunch when I walked in, and I tried not to ogle the bite of sweet plantain speared on the end of his fork. Have I mentioned how much I love Cuban food? He showed me around his shop, and I admired the many treasures—an old metal cash register, a painted wooden screen, a porcelain washbasin. The antique chandeliers and stained glass detailing made me think of Cuba’s pre-revolution glamour.
When I had finished browsing, Christian pointed me down the street to an art gallery, Futurama.
“Just behind the giant rooster,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding about the rooster. It stood shoulder-high, painted in bright reds and blues.
Inside the gallery, I examined a series of portraits by Haitian artist Nathan Delinois. The paintings featured women wearing animal masks in a palette of turquoise and magenta, and they had both a fierceness and a vibrancy. Here was Caribbean culture, I thought, distilled and reconfigured, turned out with a hip new urgency.
After the gallery, I stepped back onto Eighth Street and looked in both directions. There were several restaurants to my left, and I thought about stopping in for some of those sweet plantains. But before I could reach either, I found myself standing in front of the plate-glass window for Art District Cigars. The lettering said “Lounge and Factory,” and when I pressed my face to the glass I saw an interior that made me think of a lavish smoking room, all leather and brass, the kind of place my grandfather might have if my grandfather were Cuban and liked to smoke cigars and drink rum and play dominoes with his friends.
I hesitated outside. I’d never smoked a cigar in my life, but the place seemed too inviting to pass by. Finally, I decided to enter. Just inside, I breathed in the smell of old tobacco, a rich, pleasant scent. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior, and I saw I was the only customer. Alex Garay, part-owner and manager, came from behind the bar to greet me. He had a dark beard and a gold hoop in his left ear.
“I have to confess,” I told him. “I’m new to all this.”
Alex laughed. A Miami native whose grandfather owned tobacco farms in Puerto Rico, he led me to the walk-in humidor.
“For your first time, I’d go with this one,” he said, handing me a slim cigar. “It’s a Canimao, handmade locally. This is very close to what a Cuban is.”
I followed him back to the bar, and he gave me a quick rundown on the different ways to slice a cigar. Then he clipped and lit the corona for me.
I took a deep inhale and coughed.
“Puff it,” he said. “Like this.”
He lit his own cigar and showed me how to take a mouthful of smoke. Soon we were both smoking and talking. He poured us each a glass of rum with a slice of lime squeezed over the top, and we debated whether cigars made from strains of Cuban tobacco grown in Nicaragua could still be called Cubans. Buena Vista Social Club played over the stereo, and I was sure I’d found the center of the Cuban-American universe.