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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 had been among the first in Latin America to study at the university. Laura Martínez Carbajal y del Camino López received a degree in Physical and Mathematical Sciences in 1887 and one in Ophthalmology the following year becoming the first Cuban woman to graduate from the university1888.FN By 1897, the first three women graduates officially walked in the University of Havana graduation ceremonies.

In addition, women 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, many were active participants in the public sphere founding and participating in a number of important cultural organizations such as Pro-Arte and Lyceum, later Lyceum and Lawn Tennis Club. 

     An early example of women’s role in the public sphere and of early Miami-Havana connections can be reconstructed from art exhibit flyer and two letters from Denman Fink (1880-1956) to Concha Barreto de García found in the Lyceum and Tennis Club collection held at the University of Miami Libraries, Cuban Heritage Collection. The Lyceum organized in 1935 the first individual exhibit of Felipe Orlando, who would later become a famous modernist painter. Barreto married Orlando in 1937. In 1939, she wrote to Denman Fink, Professor of Painting at the University of Miami, asking for space to present an exhibit of Felipe Orlando’s oil painting. Fink was the uncle of Coral Gables' developer, George Merrick. He joined Merrick in 1924 and designed all the plans for the city of Coral Gables as well as its four portal entrances, plazas, fountains, and the Venetian Pool.FN Fink’s letter from June 7th to Barreto underscores Miami as the entry point to the United States. And his July 7th letter suggests the dependency of early Miami’s cultural life on tourists’ visits during the winter months: “Between October and the last of March would be the best to attempt to command any kind of response in the way of visitors to an art exhibit here in Miami.” 

     Throughout the 20th century, women 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. In addition to education, 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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