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It’s the morning symphony of Hialeah. Roosters crow, steam hisses out of pots of espresso, and truck engines roar on Okeechobee Road. The city doesn’t officially wake up, however, until Ño Que Barato is open for business.
Hialeah’s famous department store tempts shoppers at its entrance with plump tropical fruit and super-sized sweet onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and garlic cloves that beg to be turned into a sofrito.
If shoppers can resist buying a sweet, cool guarapo, they walk up the ramp and meet the store’s official greeter, a life-sized statue of San Lazaro cloaked in a purple cape that welcomes you to the Walmart of the Cuban diaspora.
The man behind all of this is Serafín Blanco, who has built an empire out of cheap goods. Ño Que Barato is both a place where Cuban exiles can feel at home and an integral part of the island’s supply chain. It’s a story of the American dream come true, with sabor criollo and unbelievable bargains.
Blanco left Cuba as a teen in 1967, arriving in Miami in later that year after a pit stop in Spain.
“When I first got here, I lived with some relatives but at the age of 16, I started living by myself,” he said. “I needed to work, so left school early and took a job at a knitting mill. I could speak English, so I was the middle guy between the American owners and the Cuban workers.”
Hialeah had a thriving garment and textile industry back then and Blanco quickly learned the tricks of the trade. But globalization – specifically cheaper production in China and South and Central America – decimated Hialeah’s textile industry, turning the district into a ghost town.
Filling a void
Blanco had the same knack for ingenuity that so many Cubans do. He began selling surplus fabric lots from closing knitting mills to manufacturers who made clothes that fit the needs of his fellow exiles – inexpensive items, many of them Cuban mainstays they couldn’t find in the American stores, like batas de casa, the housewife mumu every abuelita wears.
In 1992, Blanco opened his first store next door to a popular store named Sneaker Machine, calling his shop Clothing Machine to bank on the neighbor’s success. He set out to give the exile community a marketplace that made them feel like they were back on the island. The American stores of the 1990s, like Burdine’s, didn’t carry Cuban creature comforts like Violetas Rusas baby cologne and miniature dashboard San Lazaro statues. Guayaberas weren’t yet trendy.
Soon, he needed a bigger space. In 1996, he found a spot on busy Okeechobee Road and painted it bright yellow so it would stand out in otherwise drab surroundings. He named the store Que Barato (How cheap) because his loyal Clothing Machine customers often told him how much they loved the bargain prices.
Blanco was inspired to add the word coño to the storefront wall in 1997. He had just enough space to accommodate its two-letter abbreviation. “I thought the ño would sound more interesting to Cubans,” he said. “All my customers had been telling me ‘Serafin, ño! que barato esta todo!’ (Damn, it’s all so cheap!) for a long time.”
The inspiration came from Alvarez Guedes, an exiled comedian who was a household name for his generation. Every self-respecting Cubiche in Miami owned at least one copy of his best-selling vinyl LPs. Guedes helped los exiliados soothe their nostalgia with good laughs on Saturday nights. An emphatic “ño!,” the abbreviation of coño, was the comedian’s trademark word, and is one of the most common words in Cuban Spanish. Its rough equivalent is “damn,” as in “Damn! What a bargain.”
“Coño can’t be defined,” Blanco explained. “Maybe the word ‘wow.’ But it all depends on who’s saying it and why.”
At the bigger store, Blanco expanded his inventory and stocked uniforms for kids in Cuban-owned private schools and denim overalls for laborers and mechanics. A second store, Que Caché (“How Classy!”), sold fancy dresses for quinces as well as canastillas, a trousseau of sorts for newborns.
In 1998, when dollar stores where gaining in popularity, Blanco opened El Dollarazo, and in 2002 Blanco’s daughter opened Baby Caché, an offshoot devoted exclusively to canastilla.
The store has also become part of the island’s supply chain. Miami Cubans with relatives on the island know that Ño Que Barato will provide them with hard-to-come-by official government school uniforms in white and garnet, mosquito netting, flints for disposable and cheap plastic Bic lighters that are jerry-rigged to be refillable, and white blouses and skirts for anti-Castro protesters Las Damas de Blanco. Shoppers can even add pre-paid minutes to cell phones used in Cuba.
Before, these goods were mostly shipped to the island in durable duffle bags, but today, as relations thaw, more often than not they’re packed into suitcases accompanied by exiles going home for the first time, or by Cubans still living on the island who are now visiting the US.
“Cuban nationals who are arriving now, who heard about our store in Cuba, visit whenever they come to Miami,” Blanco says. “And now with things opening up, many more Miami Cubans are taking our goods to the island themselves.”
Ño stuck. Today, it is synonymous with low prices and has gained a reputation among international shoppers as well.
“People come from all over Florida and Latin America just to take a picture in front of the sign,” Blanco said. “Ño que barato, el nombre lo dice todo. That’s the store’s slogan. The name says it all.”