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Miami Through its Spanish Performing Arts Spaces

Lillian Manzor, Author

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Introduction: Miami, 1959 - 1980 (Socio-historical Overview)

Before 1959, when the first wave of Cuban exiles arrived in Miami, there were other Cuban communities in the United States, chiefly the enclaves that developed in the 19th century around the cigar factories in Ybor City, Tampa, and Key West, in Florida, and more recent enclaves, in places such as Union City, New Jersey, nicknamed “Havana on the Hudson,” and New York City. But no one could have ever predicted the mass exodus that would take place from the island to the US in the aftermath of the Revolution that propelled Fidel Castro to power. During the twenty-year period that I am studying, from 1959 to 1980, Cuban immigration to Miami drastically changed the city's composition. In 1950, Miami's total population was 467,830. Only 10.8% were foreign born, and of the foreign born, 11.9% were from Latin America and the Caribbean. By 1980, Miami had grown to 1,625,781 inhabitants of which 35.7% were of Hispanic origin, 70% of which were of Cuban descent. You can watch the demographic shift in Dade County here.

Cuban immigration has been divided into three distinct waves. The first wave, primarily from the upper classes, started in 1959 and ended in 1962 with the stalemate produced by the Cuban Missile Crisis; it brought an estimate of 280,000 Cubans. The second wave took off in 1965, when by agreement between the Cuban and the US governments, Cubans with relatives already in the US were allowed to leave the island in what became known as the Freedom Flights.


By the time the Castro government ended these flights in 1973, close to 300,000 Cubans had arrived in the United States, largely representing Cuba’s working class.  The third wave was triggered by the takeover of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana in 1980, which led to the migratory movement known as the Mariel boat lift.


This major evacuation brought nearly 125,000 Cubans mostly to South Florida.  The overall population of Cubans in the United States before 1959 has been estimated to be 100,000 persons; nearly half of them were residents of Miami. By 1973, the city had grown to include an estimated 450,000 Cubans. According to the 2000 census, the 526,000 Cuban refugees living in the city of Miami had settled primarily during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s mass movements.

Prior to the Revolution, Cuba’s leading class enjoyed the highest standards of living, along with having the largest middle-class, than any other Latin American state.  Women in particular were among the first to obtain voting rights (1934), and even though societal expectations assumed that (white) women should stay home and take care of the family, they slowly and steadily entered the labor force. By 1959 women represented 17 percent of this force, filling nearly half of all jobs in the professional field. One of the factors that contributed to foster a more open stance toward the role of women in Cuban society, absolutely necessary for their success in their new life on American soil, was the influence that American culture and the “American way of life” had on Cuban culture through the existing economic ties with the US and the ever present entertaining media already charged with US products.  The class origin of the first waves is important for the future development of the theater in the city of Miami in as much as it was the leading classes’ uses of art and culture which set the expected parameters for directors and producers to follow. In this respect, even though their economic and social conditions were dramatically changed by the brutal and definite setback caused by exile, their life-style reflected in their theater choices was successfully transplanted to their new milieu.

In the early 1960s, Cuban exiles arriving in Miami typically settled in the city’s southwest section that came to be known as Little Havana. Cuban businesses quickly sprang up to cater to the particular needs and interests of the growing émigré community, including everything from flower shops to restaurants to funeral homes.  Little Havana would become the heart of Miami’s Cuban exile enclave. Cubans also moved to nearby Hialeah, drawn by jobs at Miami International Airport and in the area’s nonunion garment industry.  In both of these geographic areas, entrepreneurial exiles also established venues for entertaining the Spanish-speaking Cuban community.  Movie houses, supper clubs featuring musical performances, and theater venues quickly joined the ranks of Miami’s emerging Cuban exile economy.

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