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The Cuban Memorial Boulevard in Little Havana and its history

Cuban Memorial Boulevard

If you had to describe the neighborhood of Little Havana, it would be hard to pin it down in just a few words. But collectively, the phrases would for sure connote liveliness. Most of the district is turbo-charged with high energy from the lusty beat of Cuban music, to the spirited sounds of gabby street conversations, to the melodious shake of a well-mixed mojito. No one would ever accuse Little Havana of being a snoozy enclave.

But there is one small pocket of the area that has a peaceful purpose, the reticent attraction of Cuban Memorial Boulevard. Stretching southward from SW 13th street and the main strip, Calle Ocho, this ceiba tree-lined, 4-block parkway, is divided by a pedestrian walkway that takes you though various memorials dedicated to those that fought for the island of Cuba. Here, it’s all hush-hush on most days as it pays solemn homage to the original birthplace of the residents. And speaking of the inhabitants, the denizens that live in the very attractive pastel-colored homes that face the boulevard are all too happy to share their journey from Cuba to Miami with you. So, grab a stoop and let’s explore this sanctuary.

The most prominent monument of this strip is the Eternal Torch commemorating the bravery of Brigade 2506, the troop who seeked to regain control of Cuba from Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. This CIA backed operation was one of the most disastrous in US military history. Let’s back up a moment to what led to such a fiasco.

In 1959, a young rebel named Fidel Castro wrestled control of Cuba from the dictator, President Fulgencio Batista. The overthrow made the US government very nervous, even though Batista was a corrupt dictator, he was pro-American, anti communist, and many US companies had interests in the island. On the other hand, Castro disapproved the interests the Americans had on the island and wanted Cubans to take more control of their island. Castro used to lament -Cuba si, Yanquis, no!

As soon as Castro came to power, he nationalized just about every aspect of Cuban life and significantly reduced American influence. In response, in early 1960, President Eisenhower approved a plan to recruit about 1400 Cuban exiles living in Miami to prepare for invasion. They became known as Brigade 2506.

By May 1960, Cuba developed diplomatic relations with the former Soviet Union. In retaliation, the US placed an embargo on the importation of sugar from Cuba to the US. In order for the Cuban economy to survive, the USSR agreed to buy the sugar. Thus Cuba began a relationship with the enemy of the US during the Cold War.

Eisenhower’s plan was inherited to the new Kennedy administration in 1961. President Kennedy was not 100% sure that Castro posed a threat, but he did want to show the Soviet Union and skeptical Americans that he was serious about winning the Cold War. But he did have some reservations of an all out overt assault, as he was concerned that the Soviet Union would see the invasion as an act of aggression and would retaliate. The CIA assured Kennedy that the US involvement could be kept a secret and if all went well, it would spark anti-Castro sentiment across the island.

But things went terribly wrong. The first part of the plan was to destroy Castro’s Air Force. The Cuban exiles took off from Nicaragua in US bombers painted to look like stolen Cuban planes so that the US could hide it’s involvement. The bombers were set to target Castro’s airfields. Then, disaster one took hold. Castro and his advisers actually knew about the plan and moved their planes to safety. This first debacle had Kennedy so worried that the plan might fail, but it was too late to apply the brakes.

On April 17, 1961, Brigade 2506 landed at the Bay of Pigs, an area in the southwestern part of the island, and were trapped on the beach by Cuba forces. As it turns out, a beach radio station broadcasted the operation throughout Cuba, which the CIA failed to spot. Coral reefs sunk some of the exiles boats as they pulled into shore. Backup paratroopers landed in the wrong place. Exiles surrendered within a day, 114 killed outright and over 1,110 taken prisoner. Brigade 2506 was completely decimated.

The looming Eternal Light memorial dedicated to the brigade is usually met with a few people at a time that come for quiet reflection, but it can go from its usual tranquility to something more vociferous. Occasionally, the area around the monument is used for the locals to protest and voice their strong opinions concerning policy and humanitarian issues in Cuba that affect their lives in Miami. It’s that outspoken spirit, filled with a range of emotions, that has come to define the Cuban community as a deeply passionate people.

As such, Cuban people are not shy of literally putting honorable people on a pedestal. As you make your way southward on the boulevard, there are two important statues-one of Nestor Izquierdo and the other of General Antonio Maceo. Izquierdo was a passionate anti-communist fighter his entire life. He was part of Brigade 2506 and survived the Bay of Pigs operation. His constant devotion to the cause of fighting communism and for his bravery, in 2001 a statue created by famed Miami sculptor Tony Lopez was erected on the boulevard. Izquierdo continued the resistance of communism long after the Bay of Pigs by fighting against the Sandinistas when he ultimately met his demise in 1979.

People sometimes forget that Cuba was long occupied by the Spanish before there was even a thought of Castro. General Antonio Maceo’s sculpture honors him as one of the fiercest fighters against Spanish domination in Cuba in the 19th century. Maceo, a Cuban mulatto, rose to prominence to the rank of General under the tutelage of General Maximo Gomez. Throughout the late 1890’s Maceo fought tirelessly and finally around 1896 did Cuba finally rid itself of the Spanish conquistadors. He died in that same year in December in a small battle in San Pedro, a small town near Havana.

After you pay your respects to these two luminaries, you’ll then find yourself approaching the looming aforementioned giant ceiba tree. It is here under the tangled branches that you might catch a Santeria ceremony in progress. Santeria is a Afro-Cuban religion, born out of the beliefs of the Yoruba people, West Africans brought to Cuba to be slaves. In order to preserve their religious beliefs in the face of a hostile Catholic environment, they created a syncretic religion with Catholicism and their own beliefs.

When they wanted to worship their own deities, Orishas as they are called, they would synchronize each orisha with a Catholic Saint, hence the name Santeria. It is understood through ritual and ceremony rather than a central creed. If you miss seeing a actual Santeria session, you might stumble onto offerings, called Ebo, of cooked foods, fruit or the deceased carcass of a small animal lying on the bumpy ground. No need to recoil at the latter. Small animals like chickens are killed in a respectful and humane way. Occasionally, a major ebo will require a blood sacrifice known as eyebale. Without blood sacrifice, you do not have orishas in that ritual and thus you do not have a legitimate consecration. Most often, the meat of the animal is cooked and serve to the community while the blood is sacrificed to the deity. It’s an act of communion with the spirits.

But the best way to experience this little oasis, is to end your visit by having a relaxed seat under the cool shade of the tree and consult with your own favorite deity-for most likely there is a celestial spirit for empanadas, pastelitos, cafe cubano…

By Robyn Webb