On July 11th, historic protests erupted in Cuba in which thousands took to the streets to protest government repression, policy failings, and to a lesser degree, the U.S. embargo. As one might expect, this quickly triggered a response in Miami, home to the largest portion of the Cuban community in the U.S. Starting on July 12th, the Cuban diaspora and non-Cuban allies organized protests and supply drives all over the city in support of Cubans on the island, chanting, marching, and even motorcading for freedom. However, some of the largest crowds showed up to Versailles, the iconic Cuban restaurant located in the more residential area of the famed Calle Ocho.
Few tourists leave Miami without having a meal or a cafecito at Versailles, but for the Cuban community there, the restaurant represents much more than just good Cuban food and the opportunity for an Instagram-worthy pic.
Versailles has stood for so long as a hotspot of authentic Cuban food and conversation because of the values and ideas it has always promoted.Debbie Perez-Casanova, Harvard University art and architecture major and resident of Hialeah
“Versailles has stood for so long as a hotspot of authentic Cuban food and conversation because of the values and ideas it has always promoted,” explains Debbie Perez-Casanova, a History of Art and Architecture major at Harvard University and resident of Hialeah. “For a lot of Cubans in Miami – first generation, second generation, and even third generation – Versailles is a reminder of what Cuba used to be. For half a century, Miami Cubans have continued to come back to Versailles and feel completely surrounded by a community that they know understands their pain and longing for a free Cuba. It is not just a restaurant.”
Founded in 1971 by Cuban immigrant Felipe Valls, Versailles restaurant has hosted countless gatherings of the Miami Cuban community over the fifty years since its establishment, which is a point of pride for the restaurant. In fact, the “About” page on Versailles’ website talks more about its role as a “gauge of the [Miami Cuban] community’s pulse” than the actual history of its founding or its food. However, that history is a big reason that the restaurant has become such a fixture of the community, and why many felt it was the perfect spot for the recent protests.
“Versailles is Cuban-owned and was founded by a Cuban immigrant,” says Jamie, a pre-med college student and Miami resident. “This makes the conception of the restaurant all the more relatable to the Cuban-American community in South Florida – it represents a Cuban immigrant prospering in the U.S., truly living out the American dream. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to have some delicious food on hand during hours of protest!”
And it’s a good thing, too: regardless of the start time, the protests at Versailles often lasted well into the early hours of the morning. Those who participated describe the experience as empowering, uplifting, and something bigger than themselves. They made signs, played protest music like “Patria y Vida,” and drove by the restaurant for hours with cars decorated with Cuban flags. Not even those infamous South Florida downpours could put a damper on the energy at Versailles, with protesters continuing to chant slogans like “Libertad” (freedom) and “Si Cuba está en la calle, Miami también” (If Cuba is in the streets, Miami is, too) even as they got soaked with rain.
“There was one night where we walked twelve miles from Versailles, down to Brickell, circled around, and then walked back, through two thunderstorms,” Debbie shares. “The protests were physically exhausting, sure, but you don’t really feel tired until you get home. The physical exhaustion is nothing compared to the helplessness you feel knowing that you’re protesting for a country that’s so close to you, yet so far.”
Unfortunately, Cuban affairs don’t often get much press in the United States, at least outside of election time. Therefore, protesting at a location like Versailles – a Miami landmark that’s been visited by countless celebrities and federal-level politicians – was a strategic move in many respects. Its physical location in such a populated area of the city was also helpful in garnering local attention for the protesters and, more importantly, their cause. The strategy seems to have paid off, given that turnout was so high that police had to close off surrounding streets. Even Fox news anchor Sean Hannity traveled to Versailles to cover a rally and hold a town hall with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Florida Governor Rick DeSantis.
“In moments like this, one cannot expect or wait for the burden to fall on someone else’s shoulders,” Jamie insists. “We must be willing to invest our time and energy and stand with our people in order to truly bring about change. One voice may not seem like much, but many of these together are a powerful choir, impossible to ignore, echoing the cries of generations. The choir starts when every person decides that they will be a part of it.”
Luckily Versailles is one of those voices, actively supporting the Cuban community through both a bomb pernil and protests.