How did Miami’s Little Havana become the home for Cuban immigrants? We took a look at the history

“What exactly was the cause of the neighborhood becoming the anchor point for Cuban immigrants?”

That’s the question from reader Johann Ali that won the most number of votes, which means we’re answering it for you today.

How did it happen?

The cause was mostly proximity. As huge amounts of Cubans fled Miami during the Cuban Revolution and in its aftermath, in the 1950s and 1960s, they mostly settled in and around Downtown Miami.

A big reason for that was the U.S. government establishing the Freedom Tower (known then as the Miami News Tower) as the Cuban Assistance Center. That move came after the passing of the 1962 Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which provided additional funding and government programs for refugees. It was meant to help people fleeing political or religious persecution and to provide “urgent need of assistance for the essentials of life.”

As Cubans transitioned into American life they settled in and around the tower and Downtown, and naturally started to branch out and settle into other nearby areas including just west of Downtown to what eventually became known as “La Pequeña Habana” or “Little Havana.”

Miami historian Paul George says that it was a matter of convenience for many of the newly settled Cubans in Miami.

“These were folks who came from a largely pedestrian community so you’ve got to be close to churches, you’ve got to be close to hospitals and downtown was the center of everything at that time,” George says.

And entertainment at Bayfront Park or houses of worship like the Gesu Catholic Church were just a bus ride away.

The older housing stock also made the area affordable for Cuban immigrants who actually, according to George, initially settled in along Flagler Street before establishing homes and businesses along the neighborhood’s landmark road, Calle Ocho.

What was there before?

Before the neighborhood became Little Havana, the area was essentially divided by Southwest Eighth Street. Most of the area north of Eighth Street had been known as Riverside since the early 1900s, and the area south of Calle Ocho was Shenandoah.

Prior to Cubans making their mark in the area it was  a mostly Jewish neighborhood. Jewish residents eventually moved farther west and north up to Northeast Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. And as this new Cuban community settled in the following decades, they established businesses, and left a cultural imprint on their new home.

And once that mark was set, the neighborhood became THE place for newly arriving Cubans to settle for a while. It even had some national appeal as at one point, according to the Florida Archives, about 40 percent of all Cuban immigrants to the U.S. made their way to Miami because of “climate, proximity to friends and family, and the cultural environment.”

How have things changed?

In the decades that followed, the community started moving across Miami-Dade County to cities like Hialeah and areas like Kendall, Westchester, and other stretches of Southwest Miami-Dade.

Over time Little Havana has still been home to a large Hispanic population, but it’s expanded beyond Cuban Americans to immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean and Central America, including a growing Nicaraguan and Honduran population.

And even with all the change, and encroaching gentrification,  the Cuban legacy remains.

Thanks again to Johann for posing the question and to all of you who wrote in with questions of your own! Stay tuned as we explore other South Florida neighborhoods this year.