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THE MIAMI HERALD
Artistic Bohemians Are Turning Little Havana Into Cultural Mecca
BY OSCAR CORRAL
October 5, 2003
J.J. Freire's garage in Little Havana harbors certain treasures. Some are tangible, such as the gilded American Grammy stashed in a cardboard box. Others are more ethereal, like the fact that Freire's band, Bacilos, used the joint to record its award-winning album Caraluna.
You'd never know that by looking at the house from outside. Sandwiched between the homes of two working-class Latino neighbors, Freire's house has no outside indicator of the artistic lifestyles that thrive inside.
Bongo drums line the wall. A giant wooden xylophone sits in the middle of the family room. The garage has been converted -- not into a fourth bedroom for abuela, but into a high-tech music studio.
''My work time is any time,'' the Puerto Rican-born Freire said in a recent interview. ``I could be on my phone at 10 p.m. doing a business deal. I could be recording at midnight.''
Freire, 32, is at the top of a cultural explosion of sorts taking place in the Little Havana area, which is attracting young, educated people from around the hemisphere in pursuit of artistic ambitions.
Many major cities have thriving young bohemian communities, but Little Havana's is one that is leaving a clear mark on American culture.
The area's top artists win Grammys, tour with blockbuster acts, and are in the process of establishing Miami as the leading magnet for artistic talent from across the Americas, observers say.
''There is a community of artists that have taken Little Havana by storm,'' said Florida International University Professor Damian Fernandez, who heads the Cuban Research Institute. Fernandez is conducting research into the phenomenon.
``It is not only Cuban. It is Latin American in a broader sense. It's part of a transformation of Little Havana into a real cultural mecca.''
The artistic rise of Little Havana began around the mid-1990s, when the original Café Nostalgia -- now called Hoy Como Ayer -- opened its doors on Southwest Eighth Street and 22nd Avenue.
The scene jelled in the late 1990s with the advent of Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays) at the end of every month and the opening of more than a half dozen art galleries along Calle Ocho.
Since then, investment has begun pouring in. New apartment units are cropping up in neighborhoods that haven't seen new development in decades. Business people are opening trendy bars and clubs.
And artists, many times the early pioneers in an area's resurgence, are gravitating there in droves.
''I don't believe there is any other place in the county that you have this happening,'' said Tony Wagner, founder of the Latin Quarter Cultural Center of Miami.
``Architecturally, the area is very interesting. We have such an inventory of buildings with character and Mediterranean flavor. It's very attractive to artists because they find that emotionally supportive.''
One of them is guitarist Adam Zimmon, who has been playing with famed Colombian performer Shakira for the past six years, as well as with the Spam All Stars. Zimmon, 32, lives in a 1930s house with beamed cathedral ceilings and wood floors, where he says the acoustics are fantastic. His roommate is Shakira's drummer, Brendan Buckley.
Their house, which includes two bedrooms converted into studios, is a makeshift warehouse for musical equipment. The living room, lined with amplifiers, sports only two chairs for visitors.
Zimmon moved to South Florida from New York to attend the University of Miami and never left. His life consists of a series of financial ups and downs, part of the territory that comes with choosing to make a living from his music.
''I have some vices, like equipment, guitars, but life is pretty simple -- it's music and that's it,'' Zimmon said. ``It's not the traditional nine to five.
``If I had to start eating Raamen noodles five days a week, that's fine. There's a point when you decided to pursue an alternative career that involves a certain amount of risk, and having a more uncertain future. And that becomes something you're comfortable with.''
Like many other artists who have moved to Little Havana, Zimmon was attracted by the cheap rents and central location. For some, though, it's as much a cultural and emotional decision as a logistical one.
Singer/songwriter Javier Garcia, a Spaniard whose self-titled debut album has done well, said he moved to Little Havana seeking tranquility and inspiration. When he lived on South Beach, his neighbor was a drug dealer, he said. His neighbor in Little Havana now is a police officer.
Garcia's wife is expecting their first child, and he says the family-oriented, immigrant feel of Little Havana is more conducive to his life today. He also has an extra bedroom which he converted into a studio.
''In the Beach it's a different story, there's too much hustle and bustle,'' said Garcia, 29. ``Constantly your senses are bombarded and you have to react to what's outside. Here you can relax a little bit, the people are more real.''
Artistic photographer Maria Martinez-Cañas moved into the area in 1993, a couple of years after falling in love with the house of artist Carlos Alfonso. She said prices are already going up in the area.
''The area has afforded us to be able to buy homes that were large,'' said Martinez-Cañas, 43. ``I have my studio in my home. I love the history and the character. But once artists start moving in, an area becomes hot. The prices have changed.''
While some of the young artists in the area have found financial success, most of them are still striving for it.
Yanelis Cortes, 23, arrived from Cuba via Mexico about four years ago. She opens the Fernando Hidalgo show on Chanel 41 every night at 7, singing traditional Cuban songs. Although she likes it, she says she wants to try something new, like rap.
''It's just such an expressive form of music. And that's what sells,'' she said.
Cortes lives in a small house off 22nd Avenue with a roommate and two dogs. In the mornings, she does yoga and writes songs with her guitar in hand. Some days she goes to the beach.
''I'm like a gypsy,'' she said. ``I stay where the night takes me. I'm very practical.''
Along with waking up late and surviving on meager income, some Little Havana artists cross more serious boundaries. Some might sell drugs to supplement their income, or consume them in search of inspiration. Others will marry undocumented immigrants to help them get citizenship.
Some transcend social conventions by dating outside their age range.
Mara Diaz, 32, a dancer of Bomba and Plena from Puerto Rico, shares a two-story house with several other artists. One is her younger boyfriend, Panamanian sculptor Miguel Ramos, 22. They met at their day-jobs at a Coconut Grove restaurant, and fell in love.
''This is where the wind brought me,'' Ramos said when asked how he ended up there. He makes sculptures out of electric wiring.
Added Diaz: ``This area is very much like home. The chickens in the back yard, the dogs, the big trees.''
Diaz and Ramos share the house with guitarist Phil Maranges, 29, who was born to Cuban parents in New York. Maranges said he is struggling financially, but has hopes of making it big with one of the bands he plays with, Suenalo Sound System.
Fabio Patiño, a Mexican drummer, is also living tight. Patiño, who lives in a tropical oasis in the heart of Little Havana that artists nicknamed the ''Monkey Village,'' doesn't have a car at the moment.
All of the people he used to rely on for rides moved out of the Monkey Village because the owner has decided to sell it. Patiño said he is considering moving to San Francisco, but he just can't seem to tear himself away from Little Havana.
For Venezuelan percussionist Alan Reyna, there is no other choice.
''This is my zone, man,'' Reyna said. ``Forget Bal Harbour or Miami Beach. I like it here.''