Flying home to visit my family in Miami, I often wonder who among my fellow passengers is visiting the “Magic City” and who is returning from a European vacation. For me on my last trip in February, the answer was simple. Winter is high season for snowbirds and they come for a reason: it is warm.
I am quite used to and somewhat proud of people’s wide-eyed reactions when I say I come from Miami. Imagery of sandy beaches, fruity cocktails and trendy nightlife awaken in my listener’s imagination. For my European friends, Miami is a shimmering neon light reflected on the water, but as you move inland and drive west, the city reveals itself in layers, horizontal bands of architecture, languages and people.
This cosmopolitan city with a never-ending influx of new Latin American residents, tourists and retirees from the North, has much more to offer than its world famous South Beach and around-the-clock fleets of cruise ships.
Miami was once a tropical wetland. The domain of alligators and snakes, the land was drained by canals in the early 20th century to make way for agriculture and real estate expansion. The city grew westward from the coastline, Art Deco buildings and Coral Gables in the downtown area are the last vestiges of a quaint charm from a quieter time. Further inland, Little Havana, ground zero for the first wave of Cuban immigrants in the 60’s, is now home to our Central American neighbours. As the Cuban community grew and expanded its political and economic reach it moved out. Spanish is not just a second language; in many neighbourhoods it is all you hear. “Spanglish” is the unofficial language, giving us gems like “textiando, janguiando and lonchando,” colourful synonyms for the English texting, hanging out and having lunch.
As our westward drive continues past the airport, which has long been engulfed by the city, front yards with palm trees give way to standardized housing developments. The three million residents of Greater Miami don’t drink espresso but “colada,” Cuban coffee so strong it has given the jitters to many unsuspecting newbies. A tip for the uninitiated: coladas are supposed to be shared. That is why they give you a handful of tiny plastic cups when you buy it.
The city ends as it began, when you reach the Everglades National Park. Beyond this federally protected land, it is like looking into the past, a vast swamp and tourist attraction for those interested in airboat rides and Crocodile Dundee characters performing shows where they put their heads inside alligators’ open mouths.
Once derisively called the town connected by highways with no history and culture, Miami has matured. Immigrant families now in their third or fourth generation have created a true melting pot of cultures. It is no longer a cliché, but an integral part of Miami’s identity that goes far beyond beach resorts.
If you are planning a holiday visit to this tropical paradise, enjoy the tourist traps, but don’t forget to find a little time to venture inland, dig a little deeper and discover a city and a culture enriched by the diversity of its people.
By Armando Gonzalez Besa
A Cuban-born, Miami-bred dancer with the Ballet of the Grand Theatre de Geneve. Before embarking on a successful international dance career he studied Journalism at Florida International University.