By Lia Seirotti
Writer Lia Seirotti collaborated on a project for Little Havana Me Importa, an interactive museum exhibit in Little Havana, Miami, a National Treasure of the National Trust. Here, she reflects on her experiences in the neighborhood she calls home, her time documenting the stories of 10 local residents, and why Little Havana matters.
In the morning, a rooster crows and the smell of fresh Cuban bread flows through the one-way streets. As some people turn in for the night, others are just waking up and stepping out onto their balconies. Pedestrians walk in and out of two-story apartment buildings, whose tropical aqua and tangy coral paint is fading from years of neglect. Melancholic Latin music blares from one apartment building and harmonizes with the clatter of pots and pans of another, and the smells of breakfast waft through an open window. Outside, passersby greet each other as they walk to work, school, or church. This is Little Havana, the place that I call home.
My connection to Little Havana sprouted organically. Growing up, I frequented the neighborhood with my family. This was where my parents did their shopping and where we made friends. It may have been because the language most frequently spoken here was also my mother’s native tongue, or because the fruits sold in the open-air market on Southwest Eighth Street were imported from the same tropics my family left behind when we moved here from Venezuela. Something about Little Havana, however, has always felt like home.
That was one reason why, years later, I purchased my first home in this place that for so long had offered me a sense of belonging. I’ve lived in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood for over a decade now. And yet, Little Havana continues to surprise and inspire me: It’s constantly evolving, pushing the limits of convention to maintain and foment a social connection to history.
Unfortunately, Little Havana is often misrepresented. At their best, the people who live and work here have been turned into caricatures. At their worst, they have been villainized by stereotypes. That may be because many who visit Little Havana come seeking remnants of Cuba without fully understanding the complexity of exile.
Even worse, those who are best equipped to understand the beauty of Little Havana—the second- and third-generation adult children of immigrants—shy away from the neighborhood due to its reputation of dramatizing Cuba’s history. But as an adult, that was the very reason I came back time and time again. I would walk in the parks and through the neighborhood, summoning the muses of Little Havana’s past. I fell in love with the hopeful possibilities the neighborhood’s history offered. And I shared those through my conversations and stories, hoping my enthusiasm would inspire anyone who would listen to give Little Havana another chance.
For me, the real narrative of Little Havana has always been that of a thriving, inclusive community. Unlike any other place I have experienced in Miami, people on all sides of the political and social spectrum converge here to form a symbiotic microcosm. It is a place where culture is fluid. The vibrancy of its buildings, streets, and people transcends poverty and status, creating a welcoming sense of community that millions flock to annually.
Working on Little Havana Me Importa, a temporary museum exhibit on display in Calle Ocho, gave me a unique glimpse into the lives of the locals I had admired for so long. If Little Havana is home, its residents are family.
I asked each of the ten subjects I interviewed for the exhibit to define Little Havana. Most found it difficult to articulate in a few words what distinguishes it from every other neighborhood in Miami, or even in the United States, often describing it as an emotion, an attitude, a circumstance, or a moment in time.
I also asked each person to take me to a place in Little Havana that meant something to them. They took me to parks, schools, local shops. The result was a non-linear narrative deeply rooted in the streets of the neighborhood, where Little Havana comes alive not just as a setting but as the protagonist in the story of every local. It is within the narrative of the locals and their connections to these complex places in Little Havana that the real treasure lies.
Some of the historic structures that still stand in Little Havana are unrecognizable, while others are so ignored they feel unsafe. It saddens me that buildings which had survived time, hurricanes, and fires have been defaced or even demolished. Especially because often, Little Havana is criticized by outsiders for living in the past and replicating an environment left behind in Latin America. But this project taught me that, if anything, the opposite is true.
Learning how the Tequesta Indians originally settled by the Miami River made me feel deeply connected to them, even though there’s no visible trace of their existence left in Little Havana today. That feeling of connection replays itself in my mind every time I sit by the river. I identified with the plight of the Jewish community who endured The Great Depression and the horrific hurricane of 1926. And listening to firsthand accounts of exiles who left their homes under unbearable circumstances, trading up a spacious foreign countryside to find refuge in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, made me want to advocate for them.
Perhaps the best way to get to know Little Havana is to walk its streets, meet its people, and learn the mundane rituals they practice every day. Everything in Little Havana—from the larger-than-life rooster sculptures on street corners to the iconic coffee that is served religiously—provokes conversation. In that way, Little Havana is capitalizing on the human connection.
With the passing of each era, Little Havana evolves and reinvents itself. In the years to come, maybe Little Havana will change again and maybe it will be renamed. But as in the past, the people who inhabit it take on an intrinsic responsibility to leave pieces of their history as a legacy for those who follow. The caveat for us today is to do so while carefully preserving the stories of all those who came before us.