Miami: Images of a Latinopolis

September 25, 2007

Back in the mid-1960s, when I was applying to colleges, the University of Miami had a reputation for majors in basket weaving and volleyball. Miami itself was known for its retirement communities, spring break beach parties and bargain vacationing. Back then if there was something definitely not associated with Miami, it was “culture.” The city was perceived as lacking culture in three senses: the institutional one of museums, concert halls and the like; the more everyday sense of community cultures (ethnic cultures, cuisines, festivals, etc.); and the culture and creative industries (music recording, television, fashion, design).

This image has changed radically. Miami is now considered a “Hollywood East” or “Hollywood Latin America,” due in large part to the media and entertainment industries dedicated to Latin American and U.S. Latino markets. These provide the visuals and the soundtrack to the city’s more economically and demographically based slogan: “Gateway of the Americas.” To be sure, the change is much more than cosmetic; Miami is a “world city” in the mid-level company of cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Geneva, Montreal, Shanghai, Taipei and Washington. Its inclusion in this category is due to the concentration of command-and-control headquarters for banks and transnational corporations and the concomitant critical mass of complementary advanced producer services—particularly accounting, advertising, banking and law.1 Although these services are found in all cities, sociologist Saskia Sassen notes that only in advanced “postindustrial production sites” do we find the innovations in services that play “a specific role in the current phase of the world economy.”2

Its standing as a world city is also borne out by Miami-Dade’s ranking as fifth in the world among telecommunications centers, which enables it to be the gateway for 60% of all U.S. trade with Central America, 46% with the Caribbean and 27% with South America. In fact, Miami’s Free Trade Zone is the world’s largest privately owned and operated foreign trade zone, reflecting the increasing centrality of cities vis-à-vis nation-states in setting the terms of global trade.3 Much of this economic activity takes place in the services sector, but it is important to recognize that this is a bifurcated sector, with the highly educated and well-paid professionals at one end and the miserably paid, working poor at the other end. The demographic transformation of Miami, particularly since the late 1980s, tends to be portrayed in this confusing image of the city. It is projected either as a city of successful Latin(o) American entrepreneurs, professionals and celebrities (e.g. Ricky Martin, Shakira, Julio Iglesias), or as a city of destitute immigrants, frequently bearing a Haitian face. Indeed, diaspora in Miami can be inflected in either direction, depending on the ideological aim of the projection. On the one hand it is celebrated as a successful multicultural Latino-infused culture that presumably wields power. On the other hand, the emphasis is on a critique of the power relations that relegate the majority to dire living and working conditions. (According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Miami was the poorest large U.S. city, with almost 28% of residents below the poverty line.)4

The confusion or contradiction implicit in the image of a city comprised of either affluent or destitute diasporic groups has material consequences as cities attempt to attract tourists and advanced producer industries. As in Bilbao, Spain, cities are boosting their image and seeking international recognition by commissioning remarkable iconic buildings and cultural/entertainment centers, and linking them to their business and natural amenities.5 According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), tourism is the world’s largest employer and now accounts for 35% of global services exports.

It takes both ends of the spectrum—service professionals and workers—to support the image and tourism industries, yet projections of city life and ethno-racial belonging tend to be drawn exclusively from the upper level of service professionals. Absent from these glossy projected official representations are those who do the drab domestic work, office maintenance or the intensive labor involved in restaurants and bars that nevertheless give urban life in prosperous areas their luster. In contrast to this luster, most academic writers on urban development and immigration in Miami chronicle ethno-racial strife among whites, Cubans, African-Americans and, more recently, Haitians. But whether we look to the image-spinning boosters of so-called creative cities or the academics and critical journalists who write about urban poverty, Miami’s diasporic communities remain the central protagonists of the story.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has argued that creative cities are those in which there are “life-giving” activities, adding that “alongside technological innovation, extraordinary levels of urban activity have mushroomed … fortifying the social fabric of bars, restaurants, chance encounters on the street, etc. that give life to a place.” Enhancing the quality of life in this way enables a city to attract and retain the innovators indispensable to the new “creative economy.”6 Talk of Latinos “giving life” to Miami is part of the multicultural rhetoric emanating from the press and image industries. The following excerpt about Miami from the July/August 2003 issue of Hispanic Magazine is emblematic:

This multicultural metropolis has got it all. A thriving Latino community, a strong job market, good schools, striking streetscapes, and a voice that’s loud and clear across the country…. More than 150 U.S. and multinational companies have their Latin American headquarters there…. There are also the posh beach sections nearby which have become home to movie stars, bikini models, and fashionistas. And, a group of chefs known as the Mango Gang started Miami’s New World Cuisine and a style of cooking filled with sultry sabor…. There are countless Hispanic heritage festivals, film series where you can catch the work of the most recent Latin immigrants, museums, dance clubs, social events, Carnaval in March, and enjoy other nights out. Whatever you want to call it—the new New York, the American Casablanca—it’s simply a city bursting with flavor.

The entertainment and tourism industries have become major players in Miami, and they are at the heart of these “life-giving” activities. Charles Landry, a leading authority on urban development and culture, writes: “Culture provides insight, and so [it] has many impacts; it is the prism through which urban development should be seen. The cultural industries, hotbeds of creativity, are significant economic sectors in their own right and employ between 3-5 percent of the workforce in world cities such as London and New York or Milan and Berlin.”7

Miami’s cultural policies—both official and de facto—can be considered indicative of current writing on creative economies programs: culture breeds innovation, which, in turn, produces economic growth. This scenario was precisely the one sought by the city government of Miami Beach, which created a “Liaison for the Entertainment Industry” in its Economic Development Division, thus bridging culture and economics.8 This office considers the arts, media and entertainment industries—especially music, television, Internet portals, fashion photography and arts institutions—as the major economic engines of Miami. Initially located in the city to take advantage of both Latin American and U.S. Latino markets, these industries have also amassed cohorts of cultural workers who have taken an interest in Miami itself and have begun to transform the city. This transformation is part of an internationalization rendering Miami a post-Cuban, post-Caribbean city. But this internationalization is problematic, because the enthusiastic fusion of U.S. multiculturalism with Latin American mestizaje, while more encompassing than the traditional U.S. racial order, nevertheless intensifies historical inequalities, especially of black immigrants.

The most enthusiastic advocate for urban revitalization on the basis of diversity is Richard Florida, who claims, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, that diversity, like other natural and cultural amenities, attracts innovators who contribute to the production of intellectual property rights, improving the dynamism of these cities in the so-called new information, knowledge and experience economies. “You cannot get a technologically innovative place unless it’s open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference,” writes Florida.9 Workers presumably settle in cities that offer the highest-paying jobs in their fields, but according to Florida, creative-class workers look for more tolerant places and diverse populations in addition to well-paying jobs. Diversity—the code word for racial and cultural differences—plays a central role in this analysis. Florida notes the presence of large numbers of gays and bohemians in the so-called creative cities, a point frequently made about Miami. Their presence, Florida argues, suggests that open-minded and diverse communities are attractive to software engineers and entrepreneurs. Of course, while discerning a supposedly new class, Florida seems to neglect the class position of the “diverse” populations, who tend to get displaced as the “creative class” gentrifies areas that were historically lower-class communities.10 This is a recurring, serious tension in the dynamics between creative cities and racialized minority populations.

Waves of gentrification are washing over miami’s poorest neighborhoods, precisely those where the service workers of “life giving” activities reside. According to a real estate newsletter, the midtown area, where these neighborhoods are clustered, began changing “as creative types in search of inexpensive space and a culturally rich environment began relocating to there from the trendy Design District over the last five years…. The area is becoming an enclave for independent film, video and post-production facilities as well as modeling agencies.”11 As it currently stands, median family income in these neighborhoods—Allapattah, East Little Havana, Liberty City, Little Haiti, Overtown and Wynwood—is not even high enough to afford a zero-bedroom apartment.12

The redevelopment plan for Overtown, for example, claims the neighborhood’s decay will be transformed with attractive areas for reinvestment—a change that should be lauded. But planners cite rents that will require an income significantly higher than the median income of neighborhood residents. One report states that “workforce housing” projects “aimed at working-class people” will require an annual income of $36,000, when the median yearly income in Overtown is $14,161.13 Given the difficulty of current residents in Overtown and elsewhere to generate the income for the cheapest apartments, it seems unlikely that they will be able to remain in an upgraded real estate market like the one depicted in the artistic renderings of developers.

The centerpiece of the Overtown Redevelopment Plan is the Promenade, where a bustling after-hours club scene has already taken root. The Plan describes the Promenade as a “24-hour environment where people can be entertained, work, and reside—a place that celebrates Miami’s diverse popular culture and music scene.” Similar to the already mentioned academic boosters of cultural revitalization, the Plan seeks to transform the area into a “‘celebrated place’ of street culture, ethnicity, and artistic diversity. This vibrant street life is what makes city living attractive, exciting and decidedly different from a passive suburban lifestyle.”14 The developers’ rendering of the Promenade makes quite evident the middle-class, largely white, albeit multiculturally decorated space. What it not clear is how people from Overtown, Little Haiti or Little Havana will be able to inhabit these spaces.

What we see in miami’s redevelopment plans is a physical, urban replication of the telenovela, the most cherished of TV genres among Latin Americans and Latinos. Although once the exclusive product of capital cities in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, for the past five years telenovelas have been produced prolifically in Miami. As Daniel Mato convincingly argues, Miami has become a crucial site for the construction of a transnational Hispanicness, an almost necessary function as its media industries mediate between U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans.15 Perhaps this is because of all the U.S. cities—indeed, of all the cities in the Americas—Miami is the only one from which a generalized international Latin identity is possible.

The internationalization of Latin identity is even taking place in the music industry, despite the fact that in many respects two music worlds continue to exist side by side, especially in their administrative aspects. On one side is the U.S. Latino (and the aspired-to crossover) market, characterized mostly by Latin pop and salsa—Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada, Albita and a host of other Latino singers from elsewhere produced in Miami. On the other side is the Latin American market, which is largely managed out of Miami. But these two worlds do communicate and thus create an important source of hybridization between the North and the South, between Latinos and Latin Americans. And together they are producing a range of international megastars like Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, in addition to mainstays like Julio Iglesias. Even the space and physical attributes of Miami have a role in this transformation: its skyline, upscale areas, and beaches have become settings, just as they were for “Miami Vice” and the fashion photography industry.

Analagous to the redevelopment plans of Miami’s poorer areas is the entertainment industry’s representations of “the good life” for Latin(o) Americans living in Miami: the expensive homes and cars, the shops, the nightlife and the glitz of it all. Viewers of talk shows like “Cristina” can see a parade of celebrities who live in Miami or spend time filming or recording in the city’s studios. Curiously, the poor on Spanish-language TV are elsewhere, in Peru, as in the talk show “Laura,” a Jerry Springer-esque carnival of hardship, tears and bad taste. But the humdrum world of work in Miami is absent on the TV screen and in the salsa hits or pop ballads. There is no trace of the everyday life of busing tables, sweeping floors, emptying bed pans, taking care of the middle class’ kids or delivering meals; no one is shown having to travel further and further to work each year as families get displaced from downtown to cheaper northern neighborhoods like North Miami and North Miami Beach.

As shown by the redevelopment plans and the entertainment industries, Miami claims to incorporate its heterogeneous populations, but there are considerable ethnic conflicts over access to jobs and bias in immigration policy. The tendency of culture—particularly, Latin culture—and economy to merge, embodied in the entertainment industry itself, provides the bicultural and bilingual professional class in Miami immense opportunities. But this transformation is likely to exacerbate the subordination of certain immigrant populations, such as Haitians and other non-Spanish speaking groups, particularly if they are black. Moreover, of the Cubans and Haitians who survive the harrowing journey to Miami’s shores, only the former get to stay. The Elián González affair only heightened this difference, leading Haitians and many other observers to suspect racism at work.

The multiculturalism being showcased is not that of the poor and working classes, but of the professionals and middle classes that get to enjoy the gentrification of the city. Some argue that Miami is adopting a typical Latin American discourse of “racial democracy,” whereby Latinness is inclusive of all races and classes except for blacks.16 Contrary to denials by Cubans and Cuban-Americans that they harbor any racism or color prejudice, many scholars of race relations readily point to the fact that dark-skinned Cubans continue to occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in both Cuba and Miami.17 An article published a few years ago on two immigrant friends from Cuba, one black and one white, detailed how they were each incorporated into separate communities based on their color. The story brought home the point that racial differentiation is greater in Miami than in Cuba, perhaps because of accommodation to the U.S. model of ethnic competition and identity politics.18 Their story also belies the claims to color-blindness that abound among Latin Americans.

Latin American claims to color-blindness are founded on the myth of the racial “melting pot” or mestizaje. National identity in many Latin American countries since the late 1920s and early 1940s was premised on a cultural citizenship identified with a racially hybrid subject. Fernando Ortiz, Cuba’s best-known scholar of Afro-Cuban culture, advocated the abandonment of the concept of race in favor of the notion of “transculturation.”19 In countries where this transculturated, mestizo identity was accepted by whites and most racially mixed people, blacks found it difficult to make claims for equal treatment on the basis of race and were often accused of racism for even raising the issue. A Latin American equivalent of U.S. normative whiteness, mestizaje presumably included everyone as a member of the nation, but not necessarily as a beneficiary of the privileges of citizenship. It is for this reason that in the case of Miami, claims to citizenship based on culture, which have been prevalent in cultural studies, should be reconsidered. It is clear that the entertainment, tourism and redevelopment industries have absorbed and profited from this discourse of cultural citizenship. Despite all the developments in this latter area, it seems obvious that a more classic understanding of citizenship is needed, one that avoids the easy incorporation of multicultural celebration into exploitative labor practices and redevelopment schemes for the wealthy.

Many immigrants are willing to work for lower wages, even below the minimum wage, thus undermining the work of unions, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has been waging an indefatigable campaign to strengthen the rights of condo workers in Miami. Ninety percent of these workers are Hispanic, with some Haitian and African-Americans.20 These are the workers who will no longer be able to live in the neighborhoods they moved to when they arrived to Miami. It may seem like a stretch, but if the Ricky Martins of Miami could go off to Thailand to visit and comfort tsunami victims, he and his multicultural celebrity compatriots should be able to extend their solidarity to their nearby neighbors and fellow migrants who are suffering under the crudest forms of exploitation. They owe it to them—for as Castells, Florida and other promoters of creative cities explain, they provide the life of the party.

About the Author
George Yúdice is professor of American Studies and of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, where he is also director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. His most recent book is The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Duke, 2003).

1. J.V. Beaverstock, R.G. Smith, P.J. Taylor, D.R.F. Walker and H. Lorimer, “Globalization and World Cities: Some Measurement Methodologies,” Applied Geography, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2000: pp. 43-63.
2. Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), p. 126.
3.“Greater Miami Fact Sheet,” available at:
4. Milan Simonich, “Beneath Cleveland's Bright Façade, America's Poorest City,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 26, 2004.
5. See the section on “Cultural Centrality” of the Revitalization Plan for Metropolitan Bilbao, available at:
6. Manuel Castells, “La ciudad de la nueva economía.” La factoría, No. 12, July/August 2000.
7. Charles Landry, The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators (London: Earthscan Publications, 2000), p. 9.
8. Interview with Dennis Leyva, Liaison for the Entertainment Industry in the Economic Development Division. Offices of the City of Miami Beach, March 14, 2000.
9. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
10. Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: An Account of Gentrification as Urban Consumption (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982).
11. Patricia L. Kirk, “Dollars to ‘Donut’,” The Slatin Report, April 6, 2005.
12. Marcos Feldman and Jen Wolfe-Borum, “Affordable Housing Cost for Families Residing in Low-Income Miami-Dade Neighborhoods,” Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy (RISEP), CLR&S, Florida International University, August 2005.
13. Patricia L. Kirk, “Dollars to ‘Donut’,” op cit.
14. Miami CRA, “Urban Miami: Southeast Overtown/Park West Redevelopment Area,” p. 5, available at:
15. Daniel Mato, “The Telenovela Industry: Markets and Representations of Transnational Identities,” Media International Australia, No. 106, February 2003.
16. Ramón Grosfoguel, “World Cities in the Caribbean: The Rise of Miami and San Juan,” Review, No. 17, Vol. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 351-381.
17. Lourdes Casal, “Revolution and Race: Blacks in Contemporary Cuba,” Working Papers of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 1980; Sheila L. Croucher, Imagining Miami: Ethnic Politics in a Postmodern World (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1997); Aline Helg, “Race in Argentina and Cuba, 1880-1930,” in Richard Graham, ed., The Idea of Race in Latin America (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1990); Robin Moore, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Cuba, 1920-1940 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1997).
18. Mirta Ojito, “Best of Friends, Worlds Apart: Joel Ruiz Is Black, Achmed Valdés is White,” The New York Times, June 5, 2000.
19. Fernando Ortiz, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (La Habana: Jesús Montero, 1940); English language version: Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1995).
20. John Dorschner, “Labor Pit Bull: The Service Employees International Union Surges Ahead,” Miami Herald, September 5, 2005.

Tags: Miami, US Latinos, telecommunications, development, race, entertainment

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