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Exploring the Culture of Little Havana

A  Learning Community Project (School of Education, the College of Arts and Science and Eaton Residential College, University of Miami)

Gene-wierd copy
Gene-wierd copy

E. Provenzo and R. Montes

Overview and Philosophy Underlying this Project

As professors living and teaching in Miami, Florida, we are acutely aware of cross-cultural and racial issues within the classroom as well as in the community at large. We are also aware of the fact that our students, coming to Miami from a variety of locations, and with varied experiences and cultural backgrounds, bring with them stereotypes and misconceptions about cultures that may be different from their own.

The initial intent of our learning community was to expand the cross-cultural sophistication and awareness of our students. We undertook this process of cultural examination by focusing on the Cuban community in South Florida, paying particular attention to Miami's Little Havana, the historical and geographical center of the Cuban exile community in America. Centered around SW Eighth street, known affectionately as Calle Ocho, Little Havana is a 25 block enclave populated by restaurants, botanicas, small shops, car dealerships, record stores and cigar factories. However, the neighborhood is much more than just shops and cafeterias selling strong Cuban coffee. Once off the strip, the neighborhood is comprised of a variety of single family homes, duplexes, and apartments. These homes provide the people who give life to Calle Ocho's many shops and restaurants. Areas of great cultural and historical significance, such as Domino Park and Cuban Memorial Boulevard, offer these residents a focal point for community gatherings, celebrations, day to day socializing, and political demonstrations.

Visitors to this web site should also realize that Little Havana's reputation as the center of the Cuban-American community in South Florida does not alter the fact that Cuban culture suffuses many other areas and communities in the region. Hialeah, one of Florida's larger cities, is a major Hispanic enclave and is a good example of one of the many sites for Cuban culture in Dade County. Such sites can also be found in suburbs such as Kendall, Westchester, and Miami Lakes. For this project, our focus is much narrower and looks primarily at a two or three block area of Little Havana. Our reason for choosing this area was because of the incredible, cultural richness of this small strip.

In fact, for example, within just a few blocks of the area we studied, one can find a significant enclave of recently arrived Central Americans, emerging in what was previously Northeast Little Havana. This enclave has come to be known as Little Managua and in its own way is as distinctive from Little Havana as other ethnic neighborhoods (e.g. Little River's Haitian community or the North Miami Beach Jewish community) found throughout South Florida. We hope, in future classes, to explore these other neighborhoods as well.

Eventually, we plan on creating a network of cultural webs, similar to our current Little Havana project. The purpose and intent of these prospective projects is both educational and archival in nature. Our wish is that our students in the learning community will become more aware of the variety of cultures that surround them during their stay in a major, urban center like Miami. In doing so, we believe that we can contribute to the creation of individuals better suited to work as competent educators in the schools and thrive as active, insightful citizens in the complex multi-cultural society emerging within the United States.

The essays included as part of this web site are the work of first semester students at the University of Miami. The students worked diligently throughout this fourteen-week period. They selected their own area of study, spent significant amount of time researching Cuban culture in the library and out in the field, and wrote and revised several drafts of the papers included within. What are presented here are the students' voices speaking a new idiom the language of cultural analysis.

Becoming more culturally aware was one of the main purposes of both the TAL 101 course and ENG 105. At times, this was a difficult process. In our first field trip, for example, we visited a Bahamian-American cemetery. Many of the Hispanic students on the trip were upset over the idea of visiting an historical cemetery. They felt, walking through the gravesites, that this was a disrespectful and maudlin activity. With the help of Dr. Paul George, a local historian, we tried to convey how burial customs and attitudes are different across various societies. For example, Professor Eugene Provenzo grew up with the belief that, in the northeast, cemeteries were memorial places and parks to be visited and appreciated. In contrast, Professor Rafael Montes grew up with the belief that cemeteries were places to visit briefly, leave flowers, pray, and exit as quickly as possible. Our experience at the cemetery provided a valuable teaching moment that allowed us to begin to explore the differences each of us brought to class as both teachers and learners.

Another revealing moment over the course of the semester was when Professor Provenzo sat in on one of Professor Montes' classes and the latter began to teach exclusively in Spanish. Students who had been highly articulate throughout the semester suddenly became silent. One of the shier students in the class, a young Puerto Rican woman, suddenly became animated and engaged in a way that class had never seen before. Although the composition course was not focused on the process of teaching, Professor Montes was imparting a lesson about inclusion and exclusion as part of an exercise in language and cultural fluency. It was this type of experience that provided the framework for the development of the essays and cultural explorations that make up the main content of this website.

The two of us strongly believe that our being paired as part of a learning community significantly expanded not only the experience of our students but our own experience as well. Teaching is by definition a dialectic process. It involves the interaction between the teacher and the student in hopes of achieving a synthesis of ideas and perspectives. By having not just one but two expert voices, separated by disciplines, we were provided with a unique, shared perspective. This was a benefit not only to our students, but we also believe to ourselves.

In addition, the matching of a senior professor with a talented beginner in the field infused energy in both directions. As a senior professor, it is not considered appropriate to talk too much about improving one's skills or renewing oneself as an instructor. Yet, there is the inevitable weariness that sets in after a certain number of years of teaching the same course regardless of interest and knowledge of the field. The perspective of teaching with a younger colleague and sharing an alternative vision and discipline is perhaps one of the most useful aspects of any learning community. For Professor Montes, the perspective of an older and more experienced colleague motivated him to engage in new teaching methods, gain perspective on his own teaching, and be introduced to new aspects of technology that had not been part of his teaching up until this time.

Other opportunities from this particular collaboration include the fact that while Professor Provenzo had studied various aspects of Cuban culture throughout the years, he was not a member of the Cuban-American community. Professor Montes, on the other hand, was an "insider" who could act as a cultural guide through many of the more subtle aspects of what we were trying to accomplish with our students throughout this examination of Cuban-American culture. By combining these two voices, the students of our learning community were able to view multiple perspectives on the culture we were exploring with them. This ultimately made them unafraid to add their own particular points of view and to add their voice to the dialogue.

Professors Provenzo and Montes would like to thank a number of individuals who've, through their expertise, generosity, and support, made this project a viable enterprise and we hope a compelling, cultural document: Dr. John Masterson, Vice Provost; Dr. Liz Rothlein, Associate Dean, School of Education; Dr. Ron Newman, Assistant Provost for Instructional Advancement; Dr. Jeanne Schumm, Chairperson, Dept. of Teaching and Learning; Dr. Tom Goodman, Chairperson, Dept. of English Composition; Dr. Diana Valle-Riestra, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Teaching and Learning; Dr. Paul George, Professor, Miami-Dade Community College; Alan Whitney, Computer Specialist.