Mar 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Ventanitas are key to Miami's culture and politics

Four men stand outside the Versailles ventanita.

Photo: Gaston De Cardenas/AFP via Getty Images

Just about every Cuban restaurant in Miami features a small walk-up window — a gathering point for Miamians to stir and shape ideas that influence national politics and conversations far beyond South Florida.

Why it matters: Miami's ventanitas are a cultural pillar in a metro area whose voters have enormous political sway. The city's Hispanic voters have shifted right in recent years and carried former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis to victory and reshaped the GOP.

State of play: When many people think of Miami, much of what comes to mind is South Beach and tourism, says Julio Capó Jr., deputy director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab at Florida International University.

  • But "Miami has been critically part of the national conversation on so many levels, whether it's mass incarceration, immigrant detention [or] the climate crisis," Capó says.
  • "Yet there's such little effort to take this city seriously or [conduct] outreach to the community to understand what they want to see."

Zoom in: Driving around Miami, it's not unusual to see people standing outside a restaurant's window, sipping a coffee or eating a pastelito. There's usually an orange Gatorade cooler perched on the windowsill, and if you're lucky, a local or state politician — maybe even a presidential candidate — will walk inside to order at the counter.

  • Local photographer Gesi Schilling describes Miami's ventanitas not only as a microcosm of the city but "a cultural phenomenon" and "more important than anyone has ever given them credit for."
  • Schilling and Daniela Perez Miron — in collaboration with the nonprofit O, Miami — last week published "Ventanitas: A Window Into Miami's Coffee Culture," a coffee table book that pays homage to the unique culture of the city's ventanitas.

Zoom out: Ventanitas, particularly the one at Versailles restaurant, have hosted everyday conversations among locals and also pivotal moments in history.

  • The Cuban restaurant and window have welcomed former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
  • After then-President Barack Obama announced he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, politicians and residents swarmed the restaurant.
  • When the Miami Heat won two back-to-back championships, Miamians gathered on Calle Ocho and paraded in front of Versailles and other windows.

Between the lines: Ventanitas represent a culture that wasn't born from snowbirds on the beach but immigrants who shaped the city, says Guillermo Grenier, a professor of sociology at Florida International University and author of "A History of Little Havana."

  • They're "cultural anchors'' and a safe space for immigrants, Grenier says. Perhaps more importantly, though, they are destinations for people to interact with a cultural product, even if that product is a conversation.
  • Similarly, Capó says, ventanitas are where debates are created and ideas are exchanged.
  • People want to know about Miami, whether it's when a hurricane is developing or when an election year rolls around, Grenier says. The city has "power beyond its confines."
  • "There's a reason politicians come here," Capó adds.

Yes, but: Historically, Miami has been minimized or caricatured and handled with a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to national politics.

  • It's one reason why people haven't been able to "pierce into South Florida. They fail to understand us," Capó says.

The bottom line: Miami has already faced many of the issues the nation is grappling with today, Capó mentions, and people can look to the city to see how it played out or how to do it differently.

  • "If we were to take Miami seriously as a shaper of culture, but also as a signal for where the country is headed, we would all be better for it."
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