Florida has long been home to Spanish heritage and Caribbean descent immigrants. The state has experienced many waves of colonization and immigration. Florida was under colonial rule by Spain in the 16th century. In 1763, Spain exchanged the colony to Great Britain for Havana, which the British had recently captured. In 1784 Britain returned Florida to Spain who then agreed to transfer Florida to the U.S. in exchange for a payment of Spanish debts. In 1821 Florida became a U.S. territory, thus ending nearly three hundred years of Spanish rule. The colonial powers exited, but Spanish heritage and influence remained. Florida’s map is sprinkled with Spanish names hinting at a shared history and culture that has transcended time.
In contemporary history, other waves of immigration have enriched the Spanish heritage. In the present day, immigrants comprise about 21% of the Floridian population, with 23% of these immigrants being of Cuban descent, making Cubans the largest group of immigrants to Florida, followed by Haitians, who comprise 8% of all Floridian migrants. More specifically, one could note that the large number of Cuban communities in certain parts of Florida today are a result of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.
This revolution brought about many political refugees from this nation, yet these individuals were notably different from other immigrants seeking refuge. These immigrants were seeking to escape a communist regime, one in which Castro attempted to equalize the number of resources available to all members of the Cuban community, but in actuality led to the scarcity of many valuable resources, from healthcare to the number of slices of bread one could acquire on a daily basis.
Therefore, the main group of individuals with the means and longing to escape were those in the upper classes of Cuban society, making this era immediately following the Cuban Revolution known as the “Golden Exile,” where Fulgencio Batista, the former president of Cuba, and other high ranking politicians, government workers, and entrepreneurs were the first to leave the communist regime. These individuals were among Cuba’s wealthy and educated. They settled in Florida and created jobs for themselves.
Many Cuban immigrants settled in Miami, and the term “Cuban Miami” was coined following the mass influx of Cubans moving to this city. Within the city of Miami, these groups built their own businesses. Federal aid was also extended to them by the U.S. government since they qualified as political refugees seeking asylum.
Not all Cuban immigrants were rich and powerful. Another large wave of immigrants were also former laborers in Cuba, artisanal workers, small-scale vendors, and clerical and sales workers. “Freedom Flights,” transported Cuban immigrants to Miami daily from 1965 to 1973. Over the span of this 8 year stint, over 300,000 Cubans flew to Miami, expanding the influence of Cubans and Spanish-speaking individuals within this metropolitan area.
Little Havana: The Nation in a Neighborhood
This influence reigns true today, with various aspects of Cuban culture-from language to food-ever present in Florida’s every day life. The community of “Little Havana” is an excellent depiction of just how Cubans have made their mark in Miami, Florida.
Home to just over 50,000 Cuban immigrants/descendants and named after the capital of Cuba, Havana, this small neighborhood in Miami is home to a mini-Cuba, being lined with various Cuban-inspired bakeries, restaurants, fruit stands, art galleries, and anything else one could think of! Not only are these various shops Cuban-inspired, but they are Cuban-owned, as Cuban immigrants and the descendants of Cuban immigrants are the heads of these various locales, providing a true sense of authenticity throughout this town.
This neighborhood is not only the heart of Cuban shops, but it is the heart of Cuban culture that extends beyond economy, from social to political discourses, as these individuals hold various festivals and events to commemorate the beauty of Cuba and the Cuban struggle on the infamous, Calle Ocho.
A popular site is the local Máximo Gómez Park, also known as Domino Park; a communal space where neighbors play Dominos, and engage in social and political discourse with one another. Surrounding this park and this entire neighborhood, one will see various tiles and artwork depicting Cuban culture, from artwork of cigars and tropical fruit, to murals of infamous Cuban artists like Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan.
Cubaocho Museum and Performing Arts Center
One space where individuals can see a collection of Cuban art, is at the Cubaocho Museum and Performing Arts Center. This is a space where people can come and see a variety of 19th and 20th century Cuban art, take time to use the research library on site, or have a Cuban cocktail and dance the night away to Cuban music! The possibilities at this location are endless, truly providing one space where individuals can converge not just to have fun, but to appreciate and learn more about Cuban artistry and culture all at the same time.
Calle Ocho Festival
The Calle Ocho Festival is a yearly festival in March that attracts millions of visitors nationwide to see the beautiful showcase of Cuban and Pan-American cultures. In this festival, 28 city blocks of Southwest 8th Street are shut down in order to host a variety of events, from dancing, food vendors, to a multitude of live Latin entertainment!
This event is sponsored year after year by various news stations like Univision and Telemundo, to brands like AT&T and Lowe’s, but mainly this festival is organized by the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, an affiliate of Kiwanis International, which is a worldwide organization created and designed to serve children all over the world.
The organization has also provided the children of Little Havana with an array of resources, from providing over 1,000 scholarship awards to undergraduate students, over 200,000 children with health and educational needs, to four new playgrounds for over 300,000 children to enjoy themselves. This non-profit organization strives to continue to serve the children of this community who need it most, and they do so year after year.
The first Haitians arrived by boat to Miami in 1963. Jean-Claude Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship of the 1970s led more of Haiti’s working class to make the voyage to Miami, and by 1977, Haitians regularly arrived at Miami’s shores. Between 1977 and 1981, more than 70,000 Haitians migrated to South Florida this way. The Haitian migrants of the 1960s represented the professional and upper class and settled in cities like New York, yet toward the late 1970’s this group moved south to Miami to join a growing Haitian community. Under President Carter’s Cuban-Haitian entrant program, Haitian refugees were granted asylum, an opportunity that allowed them to make the U.S., more specifically Florida, their new home.
Little Haiti – The Fraternal Twin
Much like the Cuban immigrants that came to Miami to start their own neighborhood filled with Cuban culture, Haitians did the same. Little Haiti is a neighborhood in Miami, Florida, that was created to emulate Haitian culture through its city blocks lined with Haitian restaurants, art galleries, record stores, bars, and many other family owned enterprises.
Little Haiti is the heart and soul of Miami’s Haitian community. Local venues, businesses and bookstores are devoted to Haitian literature in French, Creole and English. Located about five miles north of Downtown Miami, Little Haiti’s main attractions are centered around the Northeast 2nd Avenue corridor. A thriving arts scene is alive here.
The neighborhood is a fabulous place to sample authentic Haitian and other Caribbean cuisine. It is of great cultural significance to the Haitian Diaspora as they support their community through opening and frequenting Haitian-owned and operated businesses.
In 2010, Little Haiti reached a population of 30,642, as noted in the most recent community assessment.
The Yeelen Group located in Little Haiti is an art gallery where various artists of Caribbean and Latin descent showcase their beautiful art, and voice their opinions and experiences. These artists are given the platform to display their experiences as individuals of color, both good and bad, in a beautiful form of artistic expression. This art is ever changing, and displayed in the gallery for thousands of individuals to gather and see, providing another perspective to the lives and culture of these groups for the world to take in.
Life for Immigrants in Florida Today
Today, these immigrant groups still make up a large portion of the population of Miami, with current legislation seemingly working against them. The current governor of Florida is Ron DeSantis, an extreme right-wing conservative who has expressed open hostility towards immigrant communities. Most recently, he stated,“It is not the responsibility of Floridians to subsidize aliens to reside in our state unlawfully, we did not consent to Biden’s open-borders agenda,” DeSantis’s office said.
The governor often speaks out against immigration and any policies working to provide any form of relief to immigrants entering this nation. DeSantis made negative comments toward the Biden administration’s termination of Title 42, a policy that closed the border to migrants and asylum seekers. Following the termination of this policy, DeSantis stated, “Joe Biden’s reckless border policies have allowed more than 2 million foreigners to enter our country illegally via the southern border.”
Negative ideologies toward immigrants have translated into the policies supported by DeSantis. In early March of this year, 2022, the Florida House passed SB 1808, a bill that aims to stop the transportation of immigrants into the state of Florida. This bill is in the process of becoming a law, and the result of this is harmful in at least two ways. Firstly, finding a way to stop the transportation of migrants and asylum seekers into the state of Florida is borderline immoral. Coupled with the sentiments being vocalized by DeSantis to the people of Florida, this bill is also harmful to the way individuals perceive immigrants, effectively worsening the divide and increasing the level of marginalization amongst these groups.
Resources in Higher Education
Thankfully enough, despite these negative implications made toward immigrants, there are an immense array of resources available for these marginalized groups at the university level. One clear example of this is the creation of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, located in the hub of these former and current Cuban migrants/descendants. We also see this level of support for Haitian students as well, with FIU’s Digital Library of the Caribbean being awarded a $2 million grant to revitalize and further develop the digital library. In turn, this only extends the amount of resources available to these FIU students, providing them with more access to Caribbean culture, historical and research materials, and private collections. Not only this, but the University of Florida has a Center for Latin American Studies, with a specialization in Caribbean Studies, a program designed to immerse students in Caribbean culture and diaspora.
Organizations Working to Support Immigrants
Further support for these groups is provided in a variety of ways, with one being the multiple advocacy groups that work to support immigrants and refugees, but truly equalize the level of opportunities they receive compared to other residents of the United States, and more specifically, Florida.
The Cuban American Alliance for Leadership and Education (CAALE) is one of these groups, as they strive to accelerate the professional and personal development of Cuban Americans by administering merit-based college scholarships, a leadership development program, and facilitating a space for cultural education. This wonderful opportunity not only emphasizes the importance of education, but it also emphasizes the importance of connecting to your roots, imploring Cuban Americans to immerse themselves in the beautiful Cuban culture that they are descendants of.
A similar group for Haitian Americans is the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), which provides lower income families with a wide range of resources from mental health support, crisis and domestic violence intervention, health care access, financial literacy courses, and much more. The number of resources provided is endless, as this group’s mission is to truly uplift Haitian American families in any way they possibly can.
Regardless of current legislation or the current individuals holding office, Florida has been and will continue to remain a wonderful space for immigrants and refugees to come together. The mix of cultures found in major cities like Miami is a clear instance of the beauty of resilience, as these groups originally fled to these cities as political refugees seeking asylum and created a wonderful landscape that truly represents the culture they left behind, but also brought with them.
Hi, my name is Enzo Pallette! I grew up in North Hollywood, California and have a Guatemalan and Ecuadorian background. I am currently pursuing a B.A. in Public Affairs, with the intention of attending law school in the future. My end goal is to become an immigration attorney, because growing up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, I recognize and empathize with the struggles of individuals within my community. Because of this, I aspire to give back in any way I possibly can, and I am excited to begin my journey with Latina Republic by not only giving back, but acting as a voice for immigrant policies across the United States and individual personalized accounts as well!