The holiday season is officially in full swing and in the coming days travelers will descend onto congested highways and drab airports to journey to their childhood home or to the home of a marquis family member. I’ll be on a hero’s quest of my own, but nowhere near my hometown. So, on the off chance that your destination is somewhere in South Florida, please consider making a stop on my behalf to the croqueta captial of the world, Hialeah.
Hialeah is twice my birthplace. The first birth came in the late seventies, when I fumbled out of my mother’s womb in the hospital that bears the city’s name. The second was a figurative birth, my entrée into adult life, which took place in the early 2000’s. Without a silver spoon or a safety net, the city welcomed me regardless of who I was or was no longer. Hialeah didn’t care that I was suddenly poor, she put her arm around me and said, “Honey, we are all broke.” Only she said it in Spanish.
Before visiting Hialeah…
The first thing you should note is that South Floridians love to use Hialeah as a punchline. Just the mere mention of the Muskogee word causes people to double over in laughter. Go ahead and try it with your relatives from Boca. Say something like, “While we’re here, we’re going to see the sights in a town called Hialeah.” It kills every time.
And I get it. The city has a bad reputation for harboring corrupt politicians and nosy neighbors. It’s also kind of a haven for cheap rents and illegal workers. And, well, the truth is that it’s the home of the tackiest and loudest Cuban immigrants of the entire diaspora.
The Muskogee combined the words haiyakpo (prairie) and hili (pretty) to make Hialeah (pretty prairie).
But there is a lot of pride here, and not all of it is misplaced. Hialeah Park Race Track may not be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it does have significant cultural value as an excellent place for people-watching. The fountain in front of City Hall pales in comparison to those of the Bellagio, but you can find an orderly line of quinceañeras and brides waiting to take their picture there. And what say you about a park named after Amelia Earhart that is impossible to locate without the help of Google Maps? That’s pretty extraordinary.
That goes for the entirety of Hialeah, really. Although it only has one major street, you will still manage to get lost. And that’s okay, it’s all part of the experience.
Everything you need is on one street…with two numbers.
West 49th Street/Northwest 103 Street are one in the same, but please note that locals refer to this street as 49th…and das it. This major street is the parade route for every celebration and the road Hialeahns must take every morning to commute to work. As a visitor, please wait until after 10am to drive down this street, otherwise your car rental will most likely incur damage. It is at this time where you will be able to drive at a comfortable speed of 9 miles per hour. This is not hyperbole, they had to build two Starbucks less than 1.5 miles from each other because by the time you get from one to the other, you’ll want a second cup.
Start off at Vicky Bakery, (445 East 49th St). You will be unable to order in English, so please be prepared to point with one finger and hold up how many of each with your other hand. Even if you are well-versed in Spanish, improvised sign language is a better option. It’s loud and intense in there, which means you have to be ready. Take a number and stand toward the back. Use the 20-to-30-minute wait to rehearse your order. Here’s my usual: 4 croquetas de jamon; pastelitos 2 guayaba, 2 guayaba y queso, 2 queso; 1 señorita de chocolate y 1 señorita de vainilla; 1 pan cubano, y un cortadito…and das it.
You can picnic with your Vicky Bakery (or choose to burn it off) at Amelia Earhart Park (401 East 65 St). Yes, this park is pretty and a serene oasis from the bustle, but that’s not what’s important. Did you know that Amelia Earhart’s last ill-fated trip around the world flight left from Miami? I know, neither did I. But get this, it was Bill Graham (dairy farmer, developer of the Miami Lakes community and brother of former Governor Bob Graham) who successfully lobbied the federal government to give up a former Naval Air Station (now Opa Locka Airport) and a large regional park, which he named after Amelia. That’s why Amelia Earhart’s Farm Village was dedicated to Bill.
Once you’ve had your fill, go bet the ponies at Hialeah Park, (100 East 32nd St). The grounds are lovely and you could be lucky enough to catch a live race or a real-life fight between two women over a guy named Alejandro. Either way, it’s non-stop fun.
Top off your night at La Cocina, (1000 East 16th St). Do not sleep on this place. It encapsulates everything I love about Hialeah and the 305 at large. Their full liquor bar includes amazing cocktails, like Piñaso made with Jupiña, Tito’s Vodka and Lime or the Leeeeterally Lucy Lopez made with Havana Club Rum, St. Germain and CAWY Watermelon Soda. Bar bites include Reuben Croquetas, Pastrami Nachos and Jewban Sandwiches, drawing from Stephen’s Deli’s shared kitchen.
If a Miami sports team wins a championship or one of the Castros dies, be prepared to watch an entire city line up on the sidewalk of 49th Street and bang their pots and pans. Pick up trucks will load up their beds with people and their percussion instruments and and drive up and down the avenue contributing to the noise. Do not be alarmed, this only lasts 4 to 6 hours.
Every year, beginning the night of December 16 and through the following night, the streets surrounding the Rincon de San Lazaro church are closed to allow for a massive pilgrimage. Devotees arrive here every December to ask for a miracle, to repay a promise they’ve made (i.e. I promise to celebrate your day if you help me get this job), or light a candle and pray in thanksgiving. Some of the believers make the trek barefoot, on their knees or on all fours. It is a sight to behold. This is pilgrimage is simultaneously happening in the municipality of Santiago de las Vegas in Havana where they have their own Rincon de San Lazaro church.
Elections in Hialeah, no matter if local, state or national, are just as elaborate, emotional and complicated as San Lazaro’s feast day. People will yell and cheer, boo and clap on their way to cast their vote. There is no such thing as a no solicitation rule or a no campaign zone in Hialeah. There is also no such thing as a secret ballot, as your nosy neighbor will most likely ask you who you’re voting for.
But before you freak out (OK, Millennial), this is just the way it is here.
Hialeah is the last place in South Florida where you actually talk to your neighbors, and not just when there’s a Hurricane. Even when you don’t want to talk to them, they are talking to you. They want to know what you think about politics. They ask for help reading and/or writing a letter. They show up with leftovers from the bakery. And, best of all, you can ask them for toilet paper in emergency situations.
Everyone knows where they can get anything at a cheaper price. Pick up a tomato at Publix Sabor (spicy Publix) and an old man from across the plantains will tell you that they are 10 cents a pound at Presidente Supermarket. Try on some shoes at Kohl’s and a woman will tell you that she just saw the same ones at Ross for $10 less. As you walk into Bed, Bath and Beyond someone will see you and give you their 10 percent coupon, claiming that they went inside and didn’t like anything.
At every turn there are some incredible stories, many of them tragic, many of them heartbreaking. From the abusive boyfriend to the victim of fraud to the lonely widow to the caretaker of an orphaned child — all of those stories live and thrive within these walls. But like the old adage goes, with great sadness comes great joy, which is why Hialeahans are so raucous and boisterous, why they defy fashion norms and trends and why they don’t conform or assimilate. We march to the beat of our own pots and pans.