Forgotten Gods: The Cuban Influence on the Miami Art Scene

They came at first in small groups, and later in secret, smuggled in by boat-lifts that always seemed to go wrong. They brought with them a cultural identity so strong, so persistent, that it changed the very structure of the place. Ask anyone on the street in Wynwood or South Beach, and they will tell you there was Miami before the Cubans, and there is Miami after the Cubans. The Miami before, was a Southern city populated largely by northerners drawn there by the heat, and men who made their living from the sea. The Miami after the Cubans was a city in which multiculturalism had become an industry; it was a place constantly in flux, a veritable wonderland where any dream seemed possible. The Cubans did not assimilate into Miami’s existing culture, instead they carved out a niche for their own culture within the already existing one. Over time that niche grew larger, shone brighter, and, like a supernova, consumed the sleepy Southern city. Miami’s identity was inextricably linked to the identity of Cubans in exile. Some of their most significant contributions were made in the arts: The arrival of Cuban musicians, artists, and writers in Miami formed the basis of the the city’s rich modern creative scene.

Carlos Alfonzo was exiled. He came on the 1980 Mariel boat-lift. Alfonzo was a painter with a style like Picasso on acid. He surveyed inner landscapes, and came back with scenes of bloody scissors and screaming insanities. He looked at the jungle and saw fractured trees and mosaic birds. His style was impressionistic; he coated tropical landscapes in wild colors: incendiary blues, haunting reds; greens so vivid they cause vertigo. His work was postmodern—wild. The subject matter was often gritty, the lines were frenzied, shapes were distended, angles warped: it was an art born of violence, suppression, and torment. He translated onto canvas the chronicle of a man perpetually in search of his own singularity, his own ideas of being: himself.

There were many identities to reconcile. He was Cuban, and homosexual, living in a society where division of the two was policy. He was also an artist, and this meant he inhabited a third identity: The Other, an outsider—a threat to be feared, gotten rid of as quickly as possible. After time spent under house arrest (during which he painted on the walls), and semi-exiled in the Peruvian embassy, he landed in Miami, picking up another identity: social outcast. The luxury of being discriminated against in one’s own country was stripped away. In Miami, he became a foreigner, an exile, tolerated but not necessarily welcome by the locals. Alfonzo translated his alienation, and struggle to reconcile these identities, into his work. He crafted some of the most emotion-shattering paintings ever committed to canvas.

Celia Cruz’s route to Miami was smoother. She was touring in Mexico when Revolution broke out in 1959, and came to America rather than return home. Aside from a performance on the US military base at Guantanamo, she never returned to Cuba. Her dramatic flair, larger than life persona, and distinctive brand of salsa, Latin American, and Caribbean-inspired dance music, gave the Miami nightclub scene its pulse, and its style. It is impossible to go into Ball & Chain, or La Covacha, or any club on Ocean Drive, and not feel—in the haze of 808s and synthesizers—the volcanic, atomizing heat of Cruz’s musical energy.

Cruz was not exclusive to Miami, she lived and traveled throughout the United States, and the world, helping popularize Cuban and Latin American music. But she returned often, and became a kind of surrogate mother to the Miami club scene. She stands as the most identifiable manifestation of what is called the Miami spirit.

Like Carlos Alfonzo, playwright/poet/actor René Ariza, landed in Miami by way of the Mariel boat-lift. His arrival in the Magic City followed time spent as a political prisoner, convicted and sentenced to eight years for writing material “plagued with the highest ideological subversion and filled with counterrevolutionary propaganda.” He came to the United States in February of 1979, one of a group of political prisoners granted asylum under an international amnesty deal.

Ariza was changed by his experiences in prison. He called Cuba “a tragedy that will live inside me always.” His suffering informed his work. But, unlike Alfonzo, he translated this suffering politically. His plays were witty, satirical; at once absurd, and relevant. His stories overflowed with magical realism. In his poetry, he pulled images from the loneliness inherent to life in a large city. He satirized society, created absurdist pieces that drew logical conclusions to current political trends. He introduced into Miami’s burgeoning theatre du politique the concept of self-actualization as a political act.

On any given weekend, there are at least five plays being performed on the subject. Like Ariza, local playwrights seem to be interested in self-actualization as a political act. Their work comprises an ethnographic record of Miami, a raw analysis that questions not only the society, and the identities we are forced to inhabit—but also the self. 

Cuban identity is one of the pillars upon which the Miami art scene was built. Each of these artists contributed, in their own way, to its nurturing and development. Their influences are never far. Go to opening night at the Colony Theatre and you will see the impact of René Ariza; walk into any gallery in Wynwood and there are the shadows of Carlos Alfonzo’s influence; tune in to 94.9 FM and, between the advertisements, you will hear Celia Cruz’s spiritual descendants.

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