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cultural inappropriation

9 February 2022

Imitatation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there is only one Café Habana… and it’s not in New York, Tokyo, Malibu, or Miami. Definitely not the last.

While yes, it is of interest that THE Café Habana (corner of Morelos and Bucarelli) has included Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara among their patrons, it is better known as serving up the “drug of choice” (cafe cubano) that fueled Latin American literature, it’s clientele having included at least three Nobel laureates (Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa), as well as any number of novelists, poets, artists, actors, journalists, wannabes, never would bes, and ordinary business men and women.

Certainly, Mexico grew coffee (not great, but decent, coffee), but mostly for export. Cubans, jonesing for a fix of their national beverage, of course hung out there… along with a lot of other people, like intellectuals, a well-known for their “cosmopolitan” and “decadent” tastes for exotica… like decent coffee. And… a decent lunch, near what was then “newspaper row” (and most writers at the time having at least a day job in the dailies) and the theater district.

In the style of mid-20th century branding, a name associated with coffee was a no brainer … Habana. And by way of “Cubanizing” a bunch of sepia prints of various landmarks in that city. And that was all, other than much better (imported) coffee to make it “Cuban”.

The real thing… photo by Tomaslav Z. Vensl

In the 21st century, with a cafe on every corner of every city in the Americas (and, thankfully, better domestic coffee in Mexico), a new style of “branding” is called for. That an WiFi though I’ve never seen anyone in THE Café Habana plugging in a laptop.

Well, sure, the chance to pee in the same men’s room used by el Comandante and Ché (though, yes, the plumbing has been upgraded) might be a draw for the adventurous gringo, more is needed when “inspiring” a US knockoff.

When Sean Meenan, a fifth-generation New Yorker and “entrepreneur”, appropriated the name of the Mexico City institution, it hardly fir the style of 21st century branding.

Those “other” Cafés Habana… in New York, Tokyo, etc. being neither Mexican nor Cuban in their origin had to … perhaps what might charitably be labeled ” creatively re-imaginated” … the one and only. Their menus include fake Mexican dishes like burritos — something, if found in Mexico at all, either on a restaurant servicing tourists, usually a US owned chain restaurant, or up on the northern border — and some kind of weird salsa called “chipotle mayonaisse”(when everyone knows the only “real” mayonaisse in Mexico is that with lime in it).

Furthermore, the US style of branding being “celebrity endorsements”, AND… about the only thing people outside Latin America knowing about Cuba is a couple beared commies and a guy on a tee-shirt… dead celebrities of a revolutionary bent are perfect to give it that slightly “edgy” image to compliment it’s off-beat “fusion” menu.

Even with it’s somewhat bizare ideas of what all that means (a portrait of rapper Biggie Smalls as “El Comandante”) the knock-offs seem to have done well in their (hipster) market… until…

… the chain (and nothing ruins a solid institution’s reputation faster than becoming a chain, though thankfully THE Café Habana has been able to defend its turf against the barbarian counterfeits) has made the terrible mistake of assuming fake Cuban (or fake Mexican) would do well in Miami. AKA, Habana Norte in a weird 1950s time warp (three or four generations later).

Where a Cuban establishment in Mexico would perforce mention famous Cubans like Martí or Castro (and there’s a chain of Argentinian restaurants here that have pictures of Eva Peron, Diego Maradona, and Pope Francis in their logo with no one paying much attention) in Miami, where Castro and company aren’t hazily recalled historical figures, it goes over about as well as a reference to Hitler might go over in a German restaurant. Unless, of course, “edgy” as a marketing tactic means a slap in the face.

Frías, Carlos “‘Inspired by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro,’ a New York restaurant missteps in Miami” (Miami Herald, 8 February 2022)

Café Habana

One Comment leave one →
  1. mexicomystic permalink
    9 February 2022 7:49 am

    My friend, the late Joe Nash,who was editor of the NEWS and The SUN, told me Che and Fidel also hung out at the TREVI Restaurant in Alameda Park. They were “photo promoters “in the Centro Historico. What they did, (While waiting to purchase GRANMA, the boat) was to hand out cards promoting a photo studio nearby.
    I heard a gringo was involved in the boat transaction but thats unconfirmed.

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