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Wynwood's Presente Boricua

When I arrived in Miami, I found nothing like the banderas that bookended Chicago’s Paseo Boricua. Humboldt Park and Miami's Wynwood neighborhood have experienced parallel transformations in the last few decades, but few monuments, such as those 50-foot steel flags, voice Puerto Rican claims for a space in Miami's diverse landscape.

In Chicago, the NO SE VENDE! Initiative of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center was established to encourage Puerto Rican resettlement in the neighborhood. A similar pattern of resettlement, one that challenges the teleology of displacement, is taking place in Miami's Wynwood. Here, local entrepreneurs, artists, restaurateurs, and activists are claiming spaces for Puerto Ricans within the changing local landscape. As Wynwood transforms from Little San Juan to the “Wynwood Arts District,” Puerto Ricans are not being completely erased from the narrative. They are the drivers of community change, adding a Puerto Rican accent to neighborhood projects.

Among those establishing themselves in the neighborhood are the Brignonis. Originally from San Juan, the family founded the neighborhood’s first craft brewery, whose taproom opened in October of 2013. The business connects both the Puerto Rican and artisan cultures of the neighborhood. As Luis Sr. explained,  “We’re Puerto Rican in the Puerto Rican barrio, Wynwood is very well known for the arts, we are considering our beer an art too….we are trying to keep our roots alive in all of this area.”

Although newcomers, the Brignonis are already rooted in Miami. Beers like the “Tuttle Stout” and the “Rickenbacker Pils” are part of the company’s origin series which draws inspiration from Miami’s historical figures. Miami is a transient city, but through their business, the Brignonis seek opportunities to invest in the local landscape. Luis Sr. states, “It’s time for us to say we are from Miami. It’s time to plant some roots down.”

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The Brignonis have done just that, particularly with their close partnerships with community organizations such as the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. They are faithful supporters of the Roberto Clemente Park boys' baseball team, donating the proceeds from their weekend tap room tours to support the program. Partnering with Jimmy’z Kitchen, a Puerto Rican restaurant which expanded with its Wynwood location four years ago, Wynwood Brewing sponsored a domino tournament, inspired by those held in Puerto Rico, which the father and son team expertly won.

The Brignonis are building community here, but it is still unclear whether the Puerto Rican roots of the neighborhood are being recognized by the influx of newcomers. Francisco De La Torre, a Puerto Rico native and owner of Butter Gallery, is collaborating with historian Antolin Carbonell to document Wynwood's history on the recently launched website. Edited and photographed by Diana Larrea, the website reads, “As the ever changing landscape of our neighborhood continues to evolve, the rich story of our beloved Wynwood disappears under layers of paint and a lack of organized information.”

De La Torre left the neighborhood himself in 2013, buying a building northwest of the area after his landlord raised the rent on the gallery space he occupied since 2008. In his new space, he continues to host local and global artists and musicians. For Art Basel, Miami's premier art fair, De La Torre is organizing to showcase Puerto Rican street artists. Through these projects, De La Torre is documenting the past and constructing the future of Wynwood.

Longstanding businesses are also weathering recent changes. El Bajareque, on Wynwood's northern edge, opened four years ago but the building it occupies has been in the Fernandez family for 47 years. Formerly a bar, the Puerto Rican eatery attracts recent arrivals and longtime regulars, some who return to the neighborhood, having sold or fled rising rents.

When I spoke with Melissa Chavez, one member of the extended family who operates the restaurant, she was in the midst of the hectic lunch rush, which included an order from the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. Business has been strong and ownership of the property has saved them from the fate of others around them. “Little by little everyone is getting pushed out,” Chavez lamented. Although the eatery has received support from local patrons, the surrounding landscape is rapidly changing as properties are acquired by corporate interests and converted into condominiums. Chavez described a recent struggle with the neighboring property's lawyer over the restaurant's trash placement. “We just can't fight back. They have all the money,” she said.

This example illustrates that more is needed than a handful of dispersed Puerto Rican businesses to secure a space for Puerto Ricans in Miami's Wynwood. Instead, the cultural and charitable contributions of these businesses are in part like Chicago's flags—they make the erasure of Puerto Ricans from Wynwood's past, present, and future impossible.

© Jacqueline Lyon. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 19 November 2014.

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