The street and the gods

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I haven't been to the Calle Ocho Street Festival, going on today, in many years. I used to go often, even before I lived in Miami, though, come to think of it, I never went when I lived in Miami. I would go to it and ancillary events when my wife and I worked in Hispanic media, she in advertising and I for a magazine published by the Univision TV network. It was work.

I had fun. But I could not help being troubled by its commercial crassness. According to the festival founders, there was a cultural component built into the original event, but the public was not interested. I can believe it. Miami is the capital of Latino commercial enterprise and that has set the tone not just for Calle Ocho but for this chunk of the Hispanic US.

Every vendor in that market would come to Calle Ocho. They'd set up in a section of the SW 8th Street strip and market their wares and their brand along with sponsoring performances by Latin acts, many of them playing music that would set the crowd dancing. And crowd it was. I remember walking the length of the festival at the speed of one block per hour. At the end, my associates at the Univision-owned magazine Más took back streets back to the car we'd rented and drove to the beach, where I felt I was washing off a layer of garlic-scented pork fat from the treats offered that had clung to my skin. Not that I'm complaining. I like garlic-scented pork fat.

Another time I took the backstage tour. My brother-in-law Pedro, the most connected person I know in Hispanic marketing, took me along the back alleys of SW 8th Street, where he had no trouble getting access to the VIP areas, sometimes tents, sometimes entire restaurants on the strip, and we drank good top shelf, ate fine snacks and schmoozed with artists and execs.

This section of Miami, where the first Cuban exiles settled, now mostly gone, gets called Little Havana. Underscore Little. Where Havana is a capital city, this is a Sun Belt neighborhood of no distinction -- the original exiles could not be choosy -- and its heart is a strip, which though now walkable, particularly on certain designated nights, it was meant to be transited by car. The Festival is the big exception. It's open to throngs of pedestrians who come to party.

I recall on my first visit to San Francisco stumbling on an Asian street festival in that city of political correctness and good taste. Not a single commercial vendor brand in sight. Not the latest pop groove either; instead, I heard Japanese drumming for the first time. And the food was something else too. I had wonderful snacks made by Filipino grandmothers. Better? Different. As elsewhere in the city, everything was tasteful and muted, even if those drums were loud. No raucousness. And it's not that the Calle Ocho event is gross compared to others. The San Gennaro affair in New York also leaves a layer of garlic scented pork fat on your person, from all those frying sausages. I mean no disrespect. Honest. If you know what I mean.

In my day, the street festival was preceded by a huge black-tie party at the Vizcaya mansion, one of those hallucinated Xanadus that dot the American landscape. Everyone is Hispanic media and marketing was there. At first, the event was held the Saturday night before Calle Ocho. A veteran of Hispanic marketing told me once the reason all these companies invested in the market was that we were more fun -- even more than Mad-Men madness. The companies interested in the market would send their representatives to events like this one, and the americanos would have such a blast that they'd go back to Cincinnati or wherever and convince their bosses that, yes, this was important. Then they'd come back to the endless party.

When the Vizcaya affair was over, the Latinos would escort the Anglos to the Miami club scene. More drinks, more music, and more of what makes engines run on empty. Sometime in the morning, the sleepless revelers would shed their black-tie and go set up their posts on SW 8th Street, ready for the onslaught of the crowds and to keep up the good times in those VIP areas I once cruised.

Eventually, they decided their health was at risk, so the Vizcaya party was moved to Friday night, leaving Saturday for recovery. Even the party toned down. "Everyone is in good behavior in front of the Anglos", a seasoned magazine editor, a fellow Cuban, told me one night. "This party's gotten too damn white."

I have two distinct memories of that party. One is the night that there were forged Vizcaya invitations and the number of guests was amazing. Every bit of the mansion and the huge grounds was full of people. I ran into everyone, I mean everyone, I knew back in New York. Later I heard that the party organizers themselves made and distributed the forged invitations in order to command a record-shattering crowd. A rumor.

The other time was a musical moment. Practically all the times I went, the band that played at the Vizcaya party was Carlos Oliva and Los Sobrinos del Juez. Carlos was the father of what was called in Latin music "the Miami sound", a fusion of Cuban dance music with other grooves, like rock and Brazilian and Latin pop. The band was performing on a permanent platform on the bay and at the end of one of their catchy tunes, the percussion section started an Afro-Cuban religious drum beat, the kind played at Santeria rituals. Then one of the singers began a chant in African language, what we Cubans call Lucumí, the Yoruba tongue used in sacred ceremonies. It was electrifying.

The drums and the chant bounced off the water of the bay and soared across the tropical night sky. I was glued to my spot in front of the band, tripping on this unexpected musical turn. When it was over, I realized I was alone in my moment. No one else had paid it much mind. They were busy schmoozing as usual. Though this music is heard many a night in homes in Little Havana and other parts of Miami, it makes no dent on this nexus of Hispanic commerce. Later Carlos, modest as always, responded to my enthusiasm for what his band had done almost dismissively, like, yeah, it was cool but no big deal. 

But I knew it was a big deal. For him and for me. Calle Ocho, that amalgam of American boosterism and Cuban hoo-hah, meant something for the length of a chant. I never went again.