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Wynwood's Puerto Rican Character Fading

Wynwood has long been identified as the heart of Puerto Rican Miami. But as developments loom, those roots may disappear.


24 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Puerto Rican spirit survives at the De Hostos Senior Center in Wynwood.

On the patio, liver-spotted men, their fingers gnarled by time, clack dominoes under a string of undersized Puerto Rican flags. Inside an administrator's office, an army of plastic coquís -- the noisy frogs known as the island mascot -- guard the shelves.

But like the neighborhood that surrounds it, the De Hostos center is more Puerto Rican in legacy than in reality. While a sizable population remains, in truth, Puerto Ricans have been leaving Wynwood for decades.

That much is clear to Roberto Arcelay, 67, who sits watching a deliberate game of bingo in Spanish, reminiscing about when he came to live in Wynwood in 1978.

Today, many of the corner store bodegas where he once bought milk, eggs and yucca are gone. His property values seem ridiculously high.

That Puerto Rican vibe, he says, has vanished.

''All my Puerto Rican friends here are gone,'' said Arcelay, whose first job after his arrival was as a dishwasher at a Lincoln Road restaurant. ``They've all gone.''

He ticks off their new homes: ``Broward. Hollywood. Orlando.''


Indeed, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans and then Central Americans arrived to this neighborhood just northwest of downtown. Most recently, trendy art galleries have appeared, hipsters and urban pioneers in tow.

Now, as developers start building a massive big-box retail and condo community here, many fear Wynwood's Puerto Rican identity will finally slip away.

Wynwood has been home to Puerto Ricans like Arcelay since the 1950s, when air travel opened up in San Juan, spurring a massive migration to the United States.

The Cubans had Little Havana. Wynwood was informally dubbed Little San Juan.

By the 1970s, as the urban cores of Miami and other big cities plunged into poverty, other Hispanics began moving in and the Puerto Rican population began slipping.

Still, Wynwood cemented its place as the cradle of Puerto Rican Miami. In 1974, the name of the local park was changed to Roberto Clemente, after the beloved Puerto Rican baseball Hall of Famer who died in a plane crash two years earlier.

Organizations such as the Borinquen Health Care Center and the Puerto Rican Opportunities Center emerged, forging a sense of ethnic pride in a town so overwhelmingly Cuban in identity.

Back then, the best Wynwood house parties, or parrandas, usually started after Thanksgiving, remembers Carmelo De Leon, 67, a Puerto Rico native who moved to Wynwood in 1967.


De Leon and his friends jumped from house to house, drinking and eating lechón (roasted pig), and the Puerto Rican specialty arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas.

With guitarras and maracas, they would play jibaro-style music, typical from the Puerto Rican countryside.

''I miss those days, my old friends,'' De Leon said. ``It was all very typical Puerto Rican.''

As De Leon lounges as the De Hostos centers, he proudly points to his red-white-and-blue cap, a gift from his wife. It reads, in Spanish: ``Puerto Rican at Heart.''

Today, while the state's Puerto Rican population has increased, in Wynwood it is shrinking.

In 1990, 28 percent of the Hispanics there were identified as Puerto Rican. In 2000, the last year for which data is available, it was only 17 percent, according to the census.

Gone are the bodegas and other businesses with names like La Boricua Coffee Shop and Discoteca Borinquen. Instead, visitors driving down 36th Street might spy Honduras Maya Restaurant, or the Objex Artspace gallery.

Wynwood's Puerto Rican heritage remains visual. Nearby at the Borinquen Health Care Center -- Borinquen is the Indian name for Puerto Rico -- an outline of the island serves as the organization's logo.

Murals of Clemente adorn a wall at the park bearing his name. Puerto Rican flags billow from the occasional home.

And Wynwood's Puerto Rican-founded organizations remain strong, though many of their members live elsewhere.

''The growth of the neighborhood has been spawned because of the Puerto Ricans who work here, whether we live in Miami Lakes or Kendall,'' said Paul Carl Velez, an administrator with the Borinquen Health Care Center. ``This is a vision that has been promoted by Puerto Ricans. We don't always get the credit, but we should.''

Many of those Puerto Rican organizations have been trying hard to preserve Wynwood's legacy in the face of midtown Miami, the 56-acre former rail yard just east of North Miami Avenue slated to become a neighborhood of condominiums, town houses, shops and big-box retail stores.

Construction has already begun. Neighborhood activists succeeded in getting developers to agree to offer neighborhood residents, many of them Puerto Ricans, first priority in getting jobs at Midtown Miami stores.

And last year, when talk surfaced that the developers were planning a wall to separate midtown Miami from Wynwood, the South Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce organized a town hall meeting to dispel the rumors.

''I think with the gentrification issue, any community runs that risk,'' said Louis De Rosa, the chamber's president. ``But I believe we've got to look at the bigger picture. The community is stabilizing itself.''


The specter of midtown Miami and impending development has not gone unnoticed at old El Bajareque Bar, a blue-collar dive in the 200 block of Northwest 36th Street.

Under the click-click-click of a rickety fan, owner Amarilis Fernandez, carrot-haired with a somber demeanor, watches customers play pool. Her family has owned the bar for more than two decades.

The harsh afternoon light penetrates the open door.

A New York-born produce driver plays pool with his brother. The cartoon mural of a coquí grins from a smudged wall.

Here, patrons toss back Medalla, Puerto Rican beer and eat alcapurria, plantain and tanier root fritters filled with ground beef.

''But there are lot more people who come here from Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic,'' Fernandez said in Spanish.

Over the throb of jukebox salsa tunes, midtown n Miami is mentioned often here.

Of course, because it is change, and change is exciting.

But change, Fernandez says, also feels very cold.

''It's less family-like here today. It makes me feel bad, like we're being left behind,'' she said. ``You just feel that everything has disintegrated.''

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