Diana's View: Latin Immersion
I grew up just North of Miami, and had lots of Cuban friends as a teenager. But as a serious competitive swimmer, I never found time enough away from the pool to explore the Latin culture that had grown in Miami since 1960. Well, this year I've decided to fly down to Buenos Aires to meet my nephew, who's traveling throughout South America. A friend of mine in Miami, Wendy Feliz, had a great idea - that I should spend 24 hours in Miami as sort of a Latin Immersion experience before going down to Argentina. I took Wendy up on her offer to be my guide.
There are literally dozens of Spanish courses in Miami, for people moving to or visiting other Latin countries. But Wendy chose the Padovan school for me because their method is geared to educate you for the particular accent and culture of your choice, from Mexico to Chile to Columbia to Spain. I already had a fairly good facility with Spanish, but Maria Padovan was willing to spend two intensive hours with me to prepare me for the eccentricities of the Argentine dialect.
Diana: "When I meet somebody, what do I say? Mucho gusto? Is that corny?"
Maria: "No. Mucho gusto is good. Encantada."
Diana: "Encantada. What does that mean?"
Maria: "Enchanted to meet you. And placar de concerclo."
Diana: "That's a little much. Encantada. I can get that one. I say it with an A on the end because I'm a woman, but a man would say encantado?"
Maria: "Yeah, best student."
Diana: "I get at A so far?"
Maria: "A-plus, maybe."Maria covers quite a bit of ground in two hours. She suggests that Wendy take me right from the lesson to the famous Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, which is the heart of Little Havana. It is said that no community in the States, not Chinatown in San Francisco, not Little Italy in New York, replicates a home country as Miami's Little Havana does Cuba.
With salsa music blaring from every street corner and hand-rolled cigar shops on nearly every block, Little Havana is teeming with people, moved by the music to the point that they stop mid-stride to raise their arms, wind their hips and yell out "Eso! Eso!." It's like a big party on the street.
The signature sound of Calle Ocho is the clicking of hundreds of domino tiles. From sun-up to sundown every day here in Maximo Gomez Park, older Cuban men smoke a good cigar, sip some strong Cuban coffee, gossip, and play dominos. The domino players chat and throw down their smooth tiles onto round cement tables under fruit trees, just as they do throughout Latin America.
I'm invited to play a couple of games myself and I meet one of the few in this park who speaks English. His name is Jose DeLoPino and he left Cuba at the age of 10 on a makeshift raft with his entire family. Jose says Calle Ocho, with the statues of Cuban hero Jose Marti and the lingering clouds of cigar smoke, brings some comfort to the Cubans who left home forever.
It is something that reminds them and maybe brings back a little piece of Cuba but it never will replace it.
Wendy and I order lunch at a little café and I have trouble with the word for boned, as in boned chicken, and our waitress sticks with me until I get it.
Back out strolling the festive Calle Ocho, I keep noticing these stores called "Botanicas." We're again in front of one, this one called Botanica Mistica. Wendy says we should go in.
Wendy: "We have to check this out...it's a very typical Latin American thing. It's a spiritual store. You can buy esoteric things. Candles, herbal remedies, religious artifacts. It's a spiritual store."After looking over the love potions and healing ointments, we meet the 81-year-old woman shopkeeper.
Her name is Caridad Alvarez and she says from the time she was a little girl in Havana, she heard voices, spirits talking in her ear. She says she is hearing things about me. Wendy translates for me.
Caridad Through Wendy: "You were from Germany in another life. You had a lot of money."
Diana: "After she said I'm very intelligent, which I agreed with, what did she say?"
Wendy: "She said you suffered a lot in childhood which is why you want to help people now."That was an eye-opening reading from Senora Alvarez. Now I have an excuse for my authoritarian streak. I was once a German!
In just five hours, I learned enough new Spanish that I could express myself pretty well in Little Havana, I got the hang of rolling a fresh cigar, played a fierce game of dominos, and had the best watermelon juice of my life. But night was falling and it wouldn't be a true Latin experience without a salsa lesson.
Wendy took me to the premiere salsa club in Miami, Star Fish, where the hottest Cuban bands come over from Havana to play to wild, sold-out crowds. Tonight Isaac Delgado will take the Star Fish stage. Others, such as Los Van Van, have rocked the place in recent months.
My dance teacher is the music director at Star Fish, Omar Caraballo. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Omar has classes of more than 100 people, many business people in Miami for a couple of days, learning to salsa.
They say if you can salsa, you will make friends anywhere in Latin America. My nephew has already e-mailed me that we'll be going to salsa clubs in Buenos Aires. This time, the trip back home was different. I always feel immediate comfort when I feel the balmy night breeze, wade into the warm ocean, heated by the Gulf Stream. But this time, the Latin Miami I always knew existed as a kid came alive for me. In just over half a day, thanks to my guide Wendy Feliz, I fell in love with a city that is All-American enough to sport the Miami Dolphins, but so foreign to seem unlike the United States at all. Dancing my way back to my rental car, I was talking to myself in Spanish. And looking forward to my next pollo deshuesado.
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