Updated: Aug 27, 2022
I strongly believe the etymology of words expresses a hidden sentience that transcends language. If true, Miami – or “allies” is a haunting theme whose spirits continue to whisper the city’s elusive identity. The word comes to us from the Seminoles or “Cimmarrones” as the Spaniards called them. Miami – like much of Florida – emerged as the spoils of a geo-political contest between a rising United States, Tequestas (Native Americans) in retreat and an aged Spain. After brutal fighting, Magic City was claimed and absorbed into Florida. Through the decades, Miami's amorphous phenotype has shown many facelifts and stands to have many more.
Miami was an underdeveloped outpost until a shrewd businesswoman Julie Tuttle (“the mother of Miami”) put it on the map. Here is some trivia for you, Miami is the only big city in the US founded by a woman. In 1896, Tuttle and friends Mary and William Brickell successfully convinced Henry Flagler (the Godfather of Florida) to extend his railway, and it was then that the city officially incorporated. Early builders were visionaries like George Merrick who built the lavishly scenic Biltmore Hotel and conservationist James Deering famous for Viscaya Gardens. A chance meeting with William Brickell in New York brought yacht designer Ralph Middleton Munroe down to Biscayne Bay where he purchased what became the Barnacle Historic State Park (now a tourist attraction in Coconut Grove.)
Yankee patrons like John Collins and Carl Fisher shaped Miami’s early chapters. The two combined efforts to attract visitors by opening fancy restaurants, beachfront resorts and tourist shops, the works. The investment paid off. Miami saw a development boom that even a nasty hurricane mid-decade could not stop. Much of the city’s Art Deco was constructed post-hurricane in the second half of the 1920s. Impressive how turn-of-century American cities like San Francisco and Miami bounced back so quickly after natural disasters. One wonders how they would fair today?
Miami’s musical prowess – heretofore unknown to me – is memorialized in Overton’s Historic Lyric Theater. A strong Afro-Caribbean influence congealed into Doo-wop, a sub-genre of R&B that hums slowly like Blues but pulsates with rock-and-roll. The theater was built in 1913 as a music and entertainment center for the local black population. It’s hard to list all the greats who graced its halls so here are some of the biggies: Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Billie Holiday.
Overton’s golden age was the 50’s when the boisterous district of musical verve became known as “Little Broadway.” In those illustrious days, legends like James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald revved up audiences. More than a few sports icons like Jackie Robinson and Joe Lewis caroused there too. Overton was a nest egg for homegrown favorites like Flip Wilson, a famous local comedian. Things changed in the 60's when racial strife forced the theater to close its doors. It reopened in 2000 so stop by if you can.
El Exilio y La Lucha
Perhaps the most fateful year in Miami’s history was 1959 – when Fidel Castro Ruz took power in Cuba. Cuba’s upheavals almost guaranteed that Miami would be a place infamous for subterfuge, espionage, shadow-banking, money-laundering and whatever garden-variety illicit operations your mind can fathom. In fact, Castro came to Miami in 1955 to raise money for his coup against Fulgencio Batista – the president who previously wrestled control from Carlos Prío Socarrás. It should not surprise you that it was Carlos Prío who bankrolled Castro. Vengeance always squares the circle is the lesson.
Insecurity is a cultural mindset for Cuban-Americans, and comes close to defining Miami's garish, almost jejune ethos.
Many of the wealthiest Cubans departed for Miami when Batista fell in what became known as el exilio – the exile. Leaving was a wise move. Castro immediately consolidated power by purging opposition – perceived or real – through arrests, executions, and torture, the Communist trifecta. Another less known factoid is that the United States was the first government to recognize Castro’s Cuba, one of many dubious act by the US government Cubano’s would not soon forget. What became of Cuba's diaspora?
Insecurity is a cultural mindset for Cuban-Americans, and comes close to defining Miami's garish, almost jejune ethos. Joan Didion’s Miami published in 1987 captures the forlornness of a people separated from home and caught in an in-between land of limbo. For the first wave of Cubanos - Didion tells us - the country of their forebears was “a kind of collective spell, an occult enchantment, from that febrile complex of resentments and revenges and idealizations and taboos which renders exile so potent an organizing principle. They shared Cuba not just as a birthplace but Cuba as a construct.” Well said.
For older Cubanos, Miami is less an American city than a floating island orbiting Cuba the way the earth orbits the sun. Magic City's sequined coastline is a permanent staging ground for the inevitable Reconquista. Such is the nature of La Lucha – the struggle. La Lucha is in their blood, a heritage of resistance to Spain, then to Castro, now perhaps a struggle to find their way back (Didion - 18). Many Latinos find Cubans haughty, others downright rude. My speculation is that much of this pugnacity exists because of La Lucha, the fighting spirit of uneasiness and wounded identity that bursts to the surface like a geyser, appearing unpredictably and often thunderously. Can you blame them?
The Next California?
In contemporary America where politics equals identity, I cannot think of Florida without the specter of California hovering over me. Go with me on this – you might say that both states are locked in chirality, mirror images of one another like left and right hands. Both are coastal, sunny, expensive, and feature year-round vacation-style-living. However, both are on vastly different paths tacking left or right based on political headwinds; to mix metaphors, as one seemingly exhales (California), the other breathes in (Florida). Oxygenation through population, business, culture etc.
While California is hemorrhaging core competencies and eminent personalities (Joe Rogan, Elon Musk etc.) Florida is fast becoming the trendy spot to live in America. When New York hedge funds start buying residential real-estate you know demand is high. (Locals are not happy about that!) Both states are becoming more expensive but for vastly different reasons. California taxes are going up as are regulations, crime, and poverty. Florida has no state-income tax and as a result businesses, remote workers, and middle-class families looking for refuge in a state bereft of bureaucratic strangulation are flocking here. A recent Twitter squabble between Governors Gavin Newsome and Ron DeSantis caps the rivalry.
The Florida - California contrast only becomes starker when you consider Miami versus LA. Having spent time in both, I can tell you that to say LA is trending in the wrong direction is a gross understatement. Stultifying traffic chokes the life out of you, the poverty is pathogenic, the gap between rich and poor is inter-dimensional, and the politics are worse. Miami – as documented here – is far less cramped, far more livable, and city policies (save for parking) are strewn with nectar to attract adventurist tourists, crypto futurists and the nouveau riche. Make no mistake, it’s not just New Yorkers moving to Miami, there are Californians here too.
Miami is not perfect by any means and has a checkered past that might surpass LA’s Gangsta’s Paradise. The unsuspecting transplant is likely unfamiliar with Miami’s harrowing 80’s crime wave. Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” probably offered restrained depictions of street shootouts between cocaine cowboys and Marielitos. To get the full effect watch Scarface. To this day, homes in wealthy Miami neighborhoods are often barricaded with reinforced walls, guard dogs and first-class home-defense systems. Lethal legacies die hard. Fortunately, those days appear to be behind us, at least for now.
Latinos absolutely adore Miami. For those who have traveled to Latin countries it is easy to understand why. Miami comes fully loaded with sought-after First World amenities: it is well-policed and safe (for the most part), outfitted with modern infrastructure, tropically beautified, governed by a sensibly laissez faire municipality, and yet – for Latinos – Miami evokes a kind of rhythmic nostalgia. The perks of Yankee stability so sorely lacking back home are enmeshed in a modus vivendi that is unmistakably Latin.
From the Latino perspective Miami offers the best of both worlds. To use an anatomical analogy, the city has distinctly American extremities – well kept highways and skyscrapers, and policed waterways – offered by the United States but the heart and soul of Latin America. DJs spin in restaurants, the nightlife is rowdy, Spanish is the lingua-franca, the food and street-culture and even the traffic races to a Latin beat. Truly, a home away from home. Further, the contrast of lived experience for recent arrivals gives them a robust appreciation for the gifts America has to offer. Unfortunately, such gratitude is scarce among America’s spoiled urbane elite; too privileged to understand what they have been bequeathed.
This brings us back to allies. Cubans and the Latinos who venture here are unified on one point, anti-Communism. There is no better teacher than suffering and no worse temptress than utopianism. As we speak, Venezuela has collapsed economically and is unlivable, street protests engulf Buenos Aires (Argentina is well versed in monetary ruin), and there are similar flare ups in Brazil, Mexico and Peru. What a mess, indeed, but a fire ignited by the same inflammatory - Communism - the nationalization of industry, government corruption, street violence, financial fraud, and broken promises. Cubans still feel the scars and so viscerally oppose the rising socialism in America. Allies indeed!
Where does that leave present-day Miami? Who or what is this place all about? Is La Lucha still simmering in Little Habana? Do Miami side-streets and alleyways belie the “wicked pastel boomtown” of the 80’s? If those influences are muted, perhaps Miami is best described as the Latino Mecca. Or, simply a rich man’s tropical Vegas and Sin City for recreational drug users, club ravers, Instagram flexors, and yacht groupies.
Of course, it is all of those things spliced together. It reminds me of Nick Caraway's character fromThe Great Gatsby. Caraway says repeatedly in the book that he feels “within and without,” both spectator and participant ensnared in someone else’s Harlequin romance. Miami feels both attached and noticeably detached from the United States; it is both Latin and American, both Magic City and Vice City. Whatever path you take here will dictate where you stand on its underlying identity. Just remember, if you feel conflicted, at once familiar and estranged, then you might understand Miami better than you think.