Long overshadowed by the image of Margaritaville, Cuba’s legacy is starting to thrive in Key West.
KEY WEST - The tacky tourist T-shirt shops on Duval Street carry trendy cigar-box purses, old watering holes sport a ‘‘mojito madness hour,’’ and the quaint shop Cuba! Cuba! sells arts and crafts by Cuban artists and the kind of nostalgic memorabilia seen only in Cuba-obsessed Miami.
On Mallory Square, at the traditional Sunset Celebration, Antonio Rodríguez, a Cuban artist who came here as a child on the 1980 Mariel boatlift and stayed, sells his nostalgic watercolors of chickens and tropical fruits—anon, papaya, coconuts—as a small salsa band plays Top-40 salsa hits nearby at Don Pepe’s patio bar.
Last Sunday, the controversial dance band from Cuba, Los Van Van, performed outdoors at a bar on Simonton Street.
Cayo Hueso (Bone Key), as the Spanish named this island when they came upon it and found bones scattered everywhere, is embracing its Cuban heritage with unusual fervor. Even Key West’s famous Ghosts and Legends tour now makes a point to incorporate references to the practice of santería on the island.
These days, the Key West of Mel Fisher and Jimmy Buffett shares the stage with the historic Cayo Hueso of Jose Martí and Havana ties that predate the Cubanization of Miami-Dade.
‘‘The Cuban influence has always been here—it’s just more visible these days,’’ says Larry Winters owner of Cuba! Cuba!.
Winters opened the store eight years ago when he realized Cuban culture—via the food and the music and, he notes, the popularity of Gloria Estefan’s Mi Tierra—‘‘was making a resurgence’’ in the United States.
‘‘The only images we have of Cuba is Fidel Castro and the balseros coming over on rafts,’’ Winters says. ‘so when I went over the first time and saw the architecture [of Havana]—a combination of Rome, Madrid and Miami Beach all rolled up into one—I said, `Here is this beautiful, old culture Americans have no knowledge of,’ and I wanted to do an upscale presentation of it.’‘
His store carries some items you can get in Miami, like estampillas, prayer cards of Our Lady of Charity and the Virgin of Regla, but also some rare finds like posters of Cuban classics hanging in Cuba’s National Museum and landscape paintings and wood sculpture by Cuban artists from as far away as the eastern city of Holguín.
‘‘You’d think a Cuban would have come up with this idea, but no Cuban had, so I did,’’ Winters says. “It’s such a great idea for Key West. There have been Cubans here for over 100 years. It was a natural.’‘
His store is an eye-catcher.
‘‘Every Cuban that goes by comes in out of curiosity, but most customers are plain vanilla Americans,’’ he says.
Winters says he completely stays out of Cuban politics. A sign at the store says so. ‘‘It’s part of our mission statement to present the culture of the island and not get involved in anything political,’’ Winter says.
The renewed interest in Key West’s Cuban heritage also has been fueled by the 1992 restoration of the San Carlos Institute. An architectural crown jewel on Duval Street, it had been abandoned for almost two decades.
The San Carlos, named after Cuba’s San Carlos Seminary and in honor of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, father of Cuba’s independence, opened in 1871 and hosted exiled Cuban leaders like Jose Martí during their bid for independence from Spain.
It’s now used primarily for educational conferences, many with a Cuba-related focus.
‘‘The restoration served as a catalyst to reopen the historical ties of Key West and Cuba,’’ says institute president Rafael Peñalver, the Miami lawyer who led the restoration. “For a long time, the cayohuesanos were quiet about their Cuban heritage. It used to be something negative, but now it has become fashionable to highlight your Cuban roots.’‘
Peñalver, however, laments that not all the interest in Cuba is based on historical ties and culture. Many in the business community, he says, want to do business in Cuba—“with Fidel Castro and without any regard to supporting a repressive regime.’‘
GATEWAY TO CUBA
People with business interests want Key West to ‘‘distinguish itself from Miami, to create an image that it is a gateway to Cuba,’’ Peñalver says.
Hence, the free Van Van concert at the Sands Beach Club, organized by travel-to-Cuba impresario John Henry Cabañas, unlikely in Miami because of the band’s close links to Cuban government officialdom. The band did play at the Miami Arena in 1999, but not without a rowdy crowd of protesters outside.
Citing public safety concerns, Key West police canceled the concert’s first venue at Mallory Square. At the beach-bar concert, the only reported incident involved a WLTV-23 Univision reporter who scuffled with security to interview band members. When he asked about the mix of music and politics at a recent Havana concert where singer Mayito Rivera chanted ‘’¡Viva Fidel!,’’ Rivera angrily answered:“I repeat it here, viva Fidel, viva Cuba. I say it three times . . . in Cuba, in China, Japan.’‘
Politics aside, to the Margaritaville visitor, Cuban Key West—old and new—is in the details.
As in Cuba, you wake up to roosters crowing and they’re seen all over, crossing even busy Duval Street. Cuban Conchs, however, call their cafe con leche only ‘‘a con leche.’’ They accompany it with the traditional Cuban bread and butter for breakfast and eat it standing up at little cafeteria counters. And regular visitors from Miami swear that the anon (sweetsop) and guanábana (soursop) ice creams at the Flamingo Ice Cream shop are the best anywhere.
At the bodega in the Casa Cayo Hueso y Habana complex can be bought a Christmas tree ornament that’s a set of bongos. One drum top says ‘‘Key West,’’ another “Cuba.’‘
At the outdoor Don Pepe’s bar, where an old sign boasts ‘‘Fly to Havana in 30 Minutes,’’ a bartender named Rob mixes a mean mojito.
‘‘soy Roberrrrto!,’’ the old Conch says, proudly showing off how well he rolls his r.