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Calle Ocho Street Festival Depicts The Real Miami

April 22, 2009 By Carlos Miller in Miami: Local News  | 3 Comments

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It started out as a way to mend race relations in a city that was experiencing increasingly high tensions between white, black and Hispanic residents.

And it quickly turned into the largest Hispanic street party in the country, earning a distinct sport in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest conga line in 1988.

But today, after 31 years of its inception, the Calle Ocho street festival has earned a reputation among locals as a ghettoized orgy of sweat, beer and gold teeth.

In fact, many locals refuse to go near Little Havana during the festival.

“I used to go every year but it seemed that the quality of people got worse each year,” said Mario Mendoza, a Cuban-American accountant who was born and raised in Miami.

“It’s become much more ghetto.”

It’s not that the Calle Ocho street festival is dangerous. But it is crowded. And loud. And drunk.

And for many, it is just too damn foreign.

And that’s coming from somebody born in Cuba.

“I was backstage at the Coca Cola stage this year and it looked like a prison yard because of all the tattoos,” said Alex Barreras.. “It’s become much more of an urban crowd.”

The Coca Cola stage was one of several stages throughout the block party this year.  It’s where hip hop artists Pitbull, Fat Joe and Ace Hood performed.

Barreras added that it wasn’t necessarily a criminal crowd, but a hip hop crowd, which emulates prison fashion. 

“The festival has become much more hip hop and reggaton oriented,” he said.

So maybe this is a sign that the Calle Ocho festival has become more Americanized, which in Miami, is a sign of foreignness.

Or maybe not.

“Calle Ocho used to be a mostly Cuban event but now it’s more of a Latin American event and includes people from everywhere.. Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela.”

Indeed, the Calle Ocho festival represents the Miami that is not included in the tourist brochures. The underbelly of the city that is more working class than working on its tans.

“Miami is a poor city,” said Barreras, who works in Hispanic advertising. “It is a blue collar city. “

It is also an immigrant city, which is why one of the most common sites at the festival is to see people walking around with their respective flags draped around their backs.

The Calle Ocho festival is hosted by the Kiwanis of Little Havana (who did not return calls seeking comment for this article).  It is the grand finale of a month-long series of events that make up Carnaval Miami.

According to a 1982 Miami Herald article, the idea for the Calle Ocho festival was conceived at the now-defunct Red Coach Inn across the Omni Mall, also now defunct.

It was 1977 and tensions among Miami’s different ethnic groups were tense. Eight Cuban-Americans, mostly from the Kiwanis of Little Havana, were trying to come up with ideas to address the situation.

Here is an excerpt from the Herald article:

The idea of a concert was rejected because finding music agreeable to all would be difficult and because Hispanics would probably sit with Hispanics, blacks with blacks, and whites with whites.

They considered a bicycle race on SW Eighth Street. It was turned down because the organizers feared that it would pit one ethnic group against another.

According to (Leslie) Pantin, it was (Willy)Bermello who then came up with the idea of doing something similar to the block parties and street festivals of Philadelphia. That was the start of Calle Ocho .

The first year it was called Open House Eight. They were careful to avoid using any words in Spanish in the event’s title. “We didn’t want to turn anybody off with any words in Spanish,” Pantin says. “The idea was to invite our non-Hispanic neighbors to visit our house in Little Havana.”

While many of the non-Hispanic neighbors have since fled Miami, many more have since relocated to Miami and have enjoyed the multiculturalism aspect of the festival.

“I found it to be a beautiful display of style and dress,” said Rachel Scharf, a non-Hispanic woman who has attended the event two years in a row.

“It’s very family oriented and it’s great to see people taking pride in their culture.”

But Scharf has lived in a Miami only a few years, so perhaps she is not as jaded as some of the locals. Or perhaps she is just not as discriminating.

“I think it’s wrong to give a blanket statement about something before you experience it,” she said.

The truth is, despite its rowdiness – or even its “ghettoness” -  it is mostly a jovial event. And it’s a safe event.

In fact, Miami police reported only 39 arrests, mostly for disorderly conduct, during last month’s festival, where more than one million people attended.

But there is no denying that a certain portion of locals stay well away from the festival.

“If you go to the Kiwanis party at Vizcaya on the Friday before Calle Ocho, you see all the movers and shakers of Miami,” said Barreras. “It’s a fancy event and everybody is all dressed up. The men are in suits and the women are in gowns.

“But you don’t see these people at the festival.”

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Related Categories: Miami: Local News,

Carlos Miller is a featured writer at Miami Beach 411. He also operates Photography is Not a Crime, a blog about photographer rights, New Media and First Amendment issues.

See more articles by Carlos Miller.

See more articles by Carlos Miller

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3 Comments on

"Calle Ocho Street Festival Depicts The Real Miami"

pod says:

This Barreras guy sounds like he has a stick up his butt. Get the tow truck. Calle Ocho is a reflection of the local element. I’m sure if you weren’t a PJ and a writer, his words would have been chosen a lot less carefully.

Posted on 04/22/2009 at 9:13 PM

tana says:

i went to calle ocho and had a great time and im panamanian!

Posted on 04/30/2009 at 8:32 PM

Brad Schenck says:

I went last year and love the event. I think it is one of those events every Miamian should go to every few years. We’ll see you there!

Posted on 03/13/2010 at 1:41 PM

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