Editor’s note: Pedro Damian died on April 18, 2016, shortly after the publication of this story.
In 1960s Cuba, young Pedro Damian would sneak out of his home so his father wouldn’t catch him doing something he didn’t approve of: taking art classes. His father, who managed a bodega, thought the arts were mariconerías — “a gay thing,” a flighty vocation.
“My dad wasn’t a monster,” Damian recalls. “He just wanted to make sure I’d have security. He wanted me to be a doctor.”
“He wouldn’t even give me bus fare to go to art school,” he recalls. “But I did it anyway.”
At 12, the director of the local art school saw him drawing on his front porch and encouraged him to apply, even though the minimum age for enrollment was 16. While in school, he moonlighted as a graphic designer. He went on to take courses in Havana’s School of Design and after graduation, he worked as an illustrator for Juventud Rebelde magazine, then the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, where he designed award-winning Soviet cinema posters. He was 21.
But like many Cubans, Damian yearned for political and artistic freedom. First he moved from his provincial hometown of Cienfuegos to big city life in Havana. In the 1980s, when he was 28, his aunt bought him a boat ticket to South Florida and he settled in Miami with some of his extended family. His uncle in Miami had long been bragging about his talented nephew, and Damian quickly got work.
“Within a few days I had work. I call it the big three. I designed album covers for Latin music stars Willy Chirino, Lissette and Bertha María.”
He scored a string of solid graphic design jobs for local businesses, including brochures for furniture giant El Dorado and the Navarro pharmacy chain, but Damian felt burnt out.
“It used to be you’d work a lot with other people,” he says. “After digital printing gained ground, I didn’t interact as much. It wasn’t as personal.”
One day in the early 2000s, he spotted Coral Gables’ whimsical pink flamingo sculptures, repurposed from Mardi Gras parade floats for a privately-sponsored project called Flamingos in Paradise. He had already heard of Chicago’s Cows on Parade — fiberglass cows painted by local artists.
Reinspired, he started designing a mold for a rooster sculpture that same night. “I wanted something to represent Cubanidad,” he says. “But it was more than just Cuba. Roosters are also a Latino and Caribbean symbol.”
An idea is hatched
Damian has since received commissions for roosters from as far away as Canada, Chicago and Puerto Rico, either from other Cuban immigrants or companies who want to remind people of their connections to Miami and Cuba.
But the majority of the roosters roost right here, on street corners throughout Little Havana.
Before it was cool to hang out in Little Havana, he brought color to the streets, commissioning artists to paint murals for the fence around the empty lot where Cuba Ocho is today. His first roosters, a 2002 project called Miami Rooster Walk, were installed along downtown Miami’s Flagler Street, thanks to a revitalization program for the area.
Downtown Miami wasn’t a happy place for the roosters.
“They’d get vandalized by outlaws,” he explains. “They thought that spying cameras were hidden inside the glass balls I used for their eyes. The sculptures were treated violently. When I would take them back to the workshop for repair, I’d find them a new home elsewhere in Little Havana.”
In Little Havana, they had a warm welcome.
Damian has since produced more than 80 roosters, 20 of which remain here in Miami. Most of them were commissioned for businesses. A first major client was Leon Medical Centers, which wanted all its roosters to be doctors. Felipe Vals, owner of Miami’s iconic restaurants Versailles, La Carreta, and Casa Juancho, was another client.
He’s particularly fond of the two roosters at Casa Juancho on 8th street. Don Juanchín the bullfighter stands proudly next to Doña Adalgisa, the Flamenco dancer, who is also the only hen in the pantheon.
“For me, it’s been a way to connect art with the place where I live. I identify with this cultural connection. People call me ‘the rooster guy.'” It’s also my way of paying tribute to the people who live in Miami – everyone from Latinos to North Americans.”
But working on these sculptures almost took his life — twice. Breathing in the acetone he used to clean brushes led to cardiovascular problems. A scar on his chest shows the site of two heart bypasses.
Soon their popularity became a liability. Over the years, some of the roosters were trafficked on the black market by a ring of thieves.
“Having a rooster was like a status symbol,” he says. “One client’s rooster was stolen. I suspect it was by a competitor’s business across the street.”
An International House of Pancakes rooster was stolen from Bird Road near the Palmetto. Yet another rooster mysteriously disappeared in Miami, only to reappear in Key West, according to a friend who tipped him off.
“Today, it’s no longer a fad to steal the roosters,” he says. Referring to Friday night cultural celebrations in Little Havana, he adds, “After Viernes Culturales got popular, that phase ended. These days the roosters are not only coveted, they’re also loved and appreciated by the community.”
What’s being stolen, Damian claims, is the sense of place in Little Havana. New developments and gentrification aren’t doing much for artists.
“They’re going to eat artists up like monsters,” he says. “They’ll use artists as means, not an end.”
Today Damian lives in West Kendall. He has two sons, a daughter, and five grandchildren. His youngest son, the artistically inclined Ernesto Damian Gonzalez, works in video production at Telemundo and is his right-hand man.
Today Damian is working on limited edition smaller-size roosters to sell as souvenirs. His son and local sculptor Lazaro Valdes steer production. It was his son’s idea to make the roosters smaller and more accessible for fans to take home.
“Tourists love them. If I could get a $1 for every photo that’s ever been taken, I’d be rich,” Damian says. “It’s an icon now. Florida’s symbol is the orange. Miami has its roosters. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to know someone was in Miami if the photo has a rooster in it.”