The Culture of Calle Ocho

Leif Parsons

Cubans may rule the political roost, but in the area of Sweetwater, Nicaraguans are proving to be a far bigger force.

A surging, sudden influx from Latin America: thou­sands of new arrivals, driven to Miami by a revolution and roiling political turmoil that trans­formed their country. This isn’t just the story of the Cubans in the 1960s—it was also the narrative for Nicaraguans two decades later.

Since then Nicaraguan-Americans’ influ­ence in the city has grown, although it’s rarely noticed—or even acknowledged. Unlike the moneyed Brazilians or Venezuelans jetting in to snap up waterfront mansions on Key Biscayne or penthouse apart­ments in Edgewater high-rises, the Nicaraguans have had an impact that most likely touches ordinary, everyday Miamians’ lives. 

Outsiders who stroll around Little Havana might not real­ize that those fritangas aren’t Cuban institutions but rather Nicaraguan: 24-hour buffet-style cafeterias doling out delicious homemade food for a few bucks. (Two fritangas tussle for the title of best in the city: Yambo Restaurant [1643 SW First St.] and Pinolandia [119 NW 12th Ave.]). Farther along Little Havana’s central strip, Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), is the area officially known as Sweetwater, just west of SW 102nd Avenue; most now call it Little Managua. Raspados Loly’s (10404 W. Flagler St.; 305-227-0488) is always thronged with expats waiting for shaved ice layered with thick homemade syrups like strawberry or tamarind. The framed picture behind the counter­ is of founder Eloisa (nicknamed Loly) and her husband, who opened their first store in Nicaragua; it’s her expat daughter who masterminded the Miami outpost.

Loly may long have been a local mascot among expats, but Nicaraguan-Americans are growing more prominent in the wider community, whether via local politics, business or culture. Take Ana Navarro, who fled her homeland in 1980 and is a rising Republican star; moderate and witty, close to both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, the former advisor to John McCain is now a TV pundit. The band La Cuneta Son Machín travels from Nicaragua regularly to Miami for shows, while local performance artist and dancer Rudi Goblen, another childhood immigrant, is a favorite at the avant-garde arts space Miami Light Project. Alfredo Pellas Jr. leveraged the fortune he inherited via his family’s sprawling Grupo Pellas conglomerate to found the American Nicaraguan­ Foundation, aiming to support development projects back home.

The most joyous way to experience Nicaragua’s impact on Miami, though, is during December, when families celebrate La Purisima with a series of parties honoring the Virgin Mary. La Griteria, on December 7, is the rowdiest, when the streets of Sweetwater and Little Havana will be full of Nicaraguan-Americans shouting to the virgin (griteria roughly means “yelling”). It’s a celebration topped with fireworks and firecrackers filling the night air.