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Hispanic Heritage 2019: Served in a Box or as an Ajiaco?

Hispanic heritage month celebration

In September and October, Miami holds its annual celebrations of “Hispanic Heritage.” The tradition recognizes that most Latin American nations celebrate their independence days in September. It also commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas back in October of 1492.

What is Hispanic heritage?

“Hispanic” is one of those words that carries a lot of baggage, however -- historical and otherwise. Who is “Hispanic”? And what is “Heritage”? And here in Little Havana, what do we understand as “Hispanic heritage,” anyway?

 Is the label “Hispanic” based on Spanish bloodlines? What about Brazilians, then, since they were colonized by Portugal? Is someone Hispanic because their family comes from Latin America? If that’s the case, then Anglos who moved to Cuba in the 20th century should count as Hispanic, as should English-speaking Belizeans from Central America. What about people who speak Spanish and have ancestors from Latin America, but have little or no Spanish “blood” because they are primarily of African, indigenous or Asian descent? Or what about, on the other hand, people who do not speak Spanish but whose ancestors hail from Spain, and whose families have lived for generations in what was once part of Mexico but is now the Southwestern U.S.?

My point is that no matter how we try to pin one another down with labels and categories, and within boundaries and borders, we are not so easily put into these boxes. Consider Spain itself. For more than 700 years, it was the territory of North African Moors and a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side. But after the Reconquista (defeat of the Moors in Spain) in 1492, Christians expelled Muslims and ordered Jews who wanted to stay to convert to Christianity. Citizens had to prove their “blood purity” (Limpieza de Sangre), and thus the absence of Jewish or Muslim ancestors if they wanted to stay in Spain or obtain social and economic advantages. For obvious reasons, Spanish citizens (and colonizers) were very concerned about their blood “heritage.”

In the colonies of Latin America, people of Spanish descent who were born in Latin America were concerned about more than just proving they had no Jewish or Moorish ancestors. They also worried about losing out on social privileges because they had a relative or ancestor of African or indigenous descent. Casta paintings depicted people as more advanced than others depending on how much they were mixed with Spanish blood versus African or indigenous blood. Many people in the upper classes of Latin America, including Cuba, bought titles of Spanish nobility (after all, money talks!) in order to “prove” that their lineages were “purely” Spanish. In other words, they bought their “heritage.”

There’s a famous saying, however: “El que no tiene de Congo tiene de Carabalí,” which suggests that a lot of people were likely hiding some ancestors in their actual family lineages. Afro-Latinos, however, or people who claim pride in African heritage, complain that they’re often assumed to not be “Hispanic” at all, in the sense that they are often treated with surprise if they say they are Cuban, for instance, or Colombian: a scenario that is well documented.

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Who counts as “Hispanic”?

Truly, all of us may have a variety of ancestors who are not easily put into boxes or categories, and yet these ancestors are a part of who we are. Our ancestors moved across geographic borders, sometimes against their will, sometimes in hope of a better life, sometimes because they had few other options. This thing called “heritage” is never fixed in place. 

“Heritage” can also refer to buildings or cultural traditions, and so forth. But these, too, are not easily pinned down. I encounter many people who believe that Little Havana is a place “owned” and “built” by Cubans who arrived in the 1960s, as if it were a theme park exclusively of Golden Exile heritage, and yet there were people living here before 1959, including Jewish residents and people of Italian, Greek, Syrian descent—and Cubans already living here, some of whom moved to Miami in the 1930s, during the Machado regime. And what about the Tequesta who once lived along the Miami River? Moreover, much of the recent boom in  Little Havana’s popular Calle Ocho heritage district and beyond can also be credited to Cubans and Central Americans who arrived in the decades after the 1960s -- including those who arrived relatively recently--and to Miamians of diverse backgrounds, and not just earlier emigres. 

Despite its reputation, the Mariel boatlift brought many artists, musicians, and other creative people to Little Havana, as well as entrepreneurs, who had a significant impact on this neighbourhood. The extremely talented musicians who arrived held their descargas, or jam sessions, here on Calle Ocho, at Café Nostalgia, later called Hoy Como Ayer, which tragically closed its doors just recently. Artists from the Mariel also opened studios and galleries and helped fuel the beginnings of Little Havana as an arts district and the site of Viernes Culturales. Emigres from the Mariel (and later) also contributed to Little Havana’s vibrant theater community. Some of Little Havana’s most thriving restaurants, cigar factories, music venues and shops in Little Havana are not owned by early arriving Cuban emigres but by Cubans who arrived relatively recently, and by Miami-born residents from a variety of backgrounds. 

Numerous Central American immigrants have opened restaurants, churches, bakeries and other venues in Little Havana, honoring their own cultural traditions. Yet our Calle Ocho district does little to celebrate the heritage of these residents, apart from the Southwest 14th Avenue mural by the late Archie Nica, born in Nicaragua. Most residents of Little Havana were born in Central and South America, not Cuba, according to U.S. Census data. As much as Little Havana is represented as if it could fit in a box (the heritage district), it shifts as people move in and out, just like bloodlines.

There’s a nostalgia, though, for Little Havana, and its “Hispanic heritage,” which puts heritage in a box--literally. This nostalgia reduces Little Havana to things that can be bought and sold: A cigar. A mojito. A Cuban coffee. A guayabera shirt. Dominos. All of these “things,” however, have no meaning if they are just put in a display case and bought and sold. They are simply products. The cigar? It would not exist were it not for the tobacco smoking tradition of the Taino Indians. Cuban music? Most of it derives from the blending of African, Spanish and other influences. Dominos? They were invented in China. Cuban coffee? Many Cuban coffee plantations were owned by French immigrants. Sugar? The name – azucar – is a legacy of Moorish rule. The Spanish word is borrowed from Andalusian Arabic, spoken in the region of the Iberian Peninsula that was then called Al-Andalus, and that is now part of Spain and Portugal. 

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Perhaps we need to re-think this whole idea of heritage. Perhaps its better not to imagine it as if it were a museum exhibit (the ways some people describe Little Havana), but as something made splendid constantly shifting, changing and bringing together. It’s not the single cigar that matters. It’s the conversations that one has in the cigar lounge, lasting for hours, bringing friends and strangers together. It’s not the Cuban coffee that matters. It’s the lady at the ventanita who knows exactly how you like your cortadito, or the woman who makes tortillas at a bodega in East Little Havana, and who always remembers your name. The guayabera hanging in the shop comes to life when it is “activated” on the person who really uses it, filling pockets with phone numbers, lottery tickets, and of course cigars, or who wears it with a smile and style, like Fidel at the Havana Collection. The domino tiles don’t matter as much as the delightful slap they make on the table and their ability to animate spirits, stimulate minds and keep friends connected. Our historic buildings matter because of the stories, and memories, we tell about them, and the ways in which we interact with them: they matter because of the way they make us feel.

Is it “heritage,” when you embrace the whole ajiaco that is Miami? The famous Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz famously described Cuba as an ajiaco—a stew. What if you don’t settle for the “heritage” that is stamped onto you, as if you were an item put in a display case or a flag on a pole, but instead embrace the whole swirling mix that you get in the crossroads of this city: the tumbao of timba, the groove of bachata, lively konpa or merengue, intimate danzón or tango, funky Miami-based electronica Latin jazz, vibrant Caribbean soca, pounding house music, smooth old school soul? When we release ourselves from limiting notions of heritage, we can stop judging others’ ancestors--and our own.

Perhaps, in this day and age, we should focus less on our own and others’ “heritage” as something stuck and fixed and ordered and consider all the ways we flow together, and mix, in the great ajiaco or stew that is our lives, our neighborhood, our city, and our world. Hispanic heritage

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