Little Havana is getting its own museum and you can help build it

Jorge Zamanillo, Director of HistoryMiami (right), Bill Fuller, of the Barlington Group, Dr. Paul George and Martin Pinilla of Barlington Group, talk about their efforts to open El Museo de Little Havana. Roberto Koltun

For the folks behind El Museo de Little Havana, the project is very personal.

HistoryMiami Director Jorge Zamanillo, developers Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla and historian Dr. Paul George, all grew up close to Little Havana. They all agree that Little Havana deserves a historic designation and a comprehensive plan for preservation. And they all want the museum, which will likely open at the end of 2017, to be part of a larger strategy to improve the offerings of one of Miami’s most iconic enclaves.

El Museo will occupy the building at 1637 SW 8th Street, which is owned by Fuller and Pinilla’s real estate group, the Barlington Group, whose portfolio encompasses dozens of buildings on Calle Ocho including the popular bar and live music venue Ball & Chain. Barlington is ceding the space to HistoryMiami, which will curate the exhibits and handle the programming.

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The goal of the museum, says Zamanillo, is to enhance the visitor’s experience in Little Havana. Tours like Dr. George’s weekly walking tour through Little Havana will start at El Museo. They envision photo exhibits from HistoryMiami’s extensive archives lining the walls. They see people coming together to sample cocktails, try cigars and check out an interactive storytelling booth where locals can record their memories of Little Havana a la NPR’s Story Corps. 

Dr. George, something of a local celebrity for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Magic City, says the museum would look deep into the history of the area – back to when it was just farm land, then a Jewish enclave, later a hub for recent arrivals from Cuba and now an area with a large concentration of Central American immigrants. 

“This is not meant to be a ‘Cuban’ museum,” explains Fuller, who is Cuban-American. Rather, the museum will explore what was essentially Miami’s first suburb throughout the ages and provide some context for its current revival, which is being led by many Cuban-American entrepreneurs like Fuller and Pinilla.

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“A lot of us are rediscovering Little Havana,” says Fuller. For the previous generation, Little Havana is a reminder of displacement and exile, a tough period of adjustment and longing. But the revival, explains Fuller, is a tribute to the resilience of the immigrants who passed through Little Havana, the Cubans who made Miami hospitable for an influx of immigrants from other Latin American and Caribbean countries.  

The Barlington Group and HistoryMiami are in the fundraising stage, looking raise $150,000 with an online campaign that will help with construction of the space. To make a donation, click here

If they succeed, the museum will provide Little Havana’s 3 million tourists a truly authentic Miami experience, a taste of a neighborhood that was built by several waves of immigration and that has maintained its own unique identity throughout the years.

That’s what everyone is really seeking when they visit Little Havana.