Frank Rodriguez Melo’s biggest clientele are new arrivals, mostly from Nicaragua. The real-estate broker rents out apartments on the east side of Little Havana that are sometimes 40 percent below fair market rates. His one-bedroom apartments have an average rent of $700—well below increasingly unaffordable units in other parts of Miami, and matching the needs of a community that has a median household income of $15,000, according to Census figures. The only Cubans Melo rents out to, he says, are in their late 60s. “The young population of Cubans do not live here because they associate it with their past, their beginnings,” says Melo. “Within the Cuban population, if you have the option you don’t live in Little Havana. The Hispanic culture is about pride. Moving up and on is the goal.”
Most businesses here are still owned by Cuban Americans, even if many of them don’t live in the neighborhood anymore. But the waves of immigrants from different countries in recent years has led to a new generation of business-owners, like Marco Incer, who are capitalizing on the Little Havana brand. Incer left Nicaragua in 1985 when he was 16 during a time when Sandinistas were recruiting young men out of parks, schools, and theaters, pulling up in a truck and taking them to the mountains to fight for them. He fled to Mexico and soon after illegally crossed the U.S. border. Since then, he’s earned a visa, gone to school, and built a career as a civil engineer.
On the side, Incer runs Art District Cigars, a cigar lounge in Little Havana that he opened in 2008. Paintings from local artists decorate the burnt orange walls of the dimly lit lounge, as a dozen or so patrons smoke cigars and lean back in leather couches. Around 70 percent of his business comes from tourists, who come to his lounge to seek out the cigar culture that’s synonymous to Cuba. “This is the closest thing to Havana,” Incer says. “Everybody thinks this is the capital of the tobacco industry, and everybody who comes in here asks for Cubans.” He has Cuban flags around the shop, knowing he survives off the Little Havana identity, even though he’s not Cuban.
Local tour guide Corinna Moebius, who also isn’t Cuban, wants to show the diversity of Little Havana. Just a few hours before the 10-block section of Southwest 8th Street dubbed “Calle Ocho” transforms into a chaotic showcase of Cubanness for Viernes Culturales on the last Friday of the month, I met with Moebius at Los Pinareños Fruteria. Soon, dancers performing the mambo pour out of restaurants into sideways, where vendors sell Cuban food and cigars to wide-eyed tourists, clumsily dancing to music from street performers. While the neighborhood as a living community may not be Cuban, Little Havana as a brand is distinctly Cuban.
Often, how businesses in Little Havanna use “Cubanness” to market themselves frustrates Moebius. (This is a phenomenon that Grenier, the FIU professor, calls “created community”—an ersatz sense of community that people are using to sell goods.) When we met, she was about to start a tour about the cultural influence of Afro-Cubans, a topic that can be “passé” to locals, she says. Moebius tries to tailor her tours what she sees as the “real Little Havana.” But that’s not what people always want to see. “It’s less sexy if you’re not Cuban,” she says. “It’s so hard for me. I’m a tour guide. I want to share my neighborhood and all the cultures. But the demand is literally a little Havana. That’s the perception, and people want to consume this idea of it being traditional and stuck in the past.” They consume that idea in large quantities, it seems, as tourism accounts for a massive chunk of the local economy—$23.7 billion in 2014—Little Havana being a major part of that revenue.