You guys... this one may come off like a bit of a rant. Let's roll with it.
The concept that birthed Mima Market actually began as Amo Esta Isla, a nonprofit Raul and I dreamed up while living in California and high off a recent trip to Vietnam. You know, we all know, life in Cuba isn't easy-- no es facil. Raul grew up during the Special Period, after the Soviet Union crashed, when all the economic support to the island was cut short and stores were empty. Thankfully, his resourceful and clever mom moved them from an attic apartment in La Habana Vieja to a small plot of land on the outskirts of the city where they could supplement their miserly rations with fresh fruit from their trees, crops from the fertile earth, and eggs from their chickens. Raul joined me in the States in 2013, and we had visited his family in Cuba as often as we could, each time seeing dramatic changes: a huge influx of tourism when Obama opened up the island around 2015, a diminishing flow of capital when the embassy closed around 2019, and the rising of inflation post-pandemic that has caused a bottle of olive oil to cost basically a month's salary.
Most Cubans believe they have to look outside of the island for a solution: remittances from family in Miami, cheap clothes to resell from countries like Guyana... they even sell canned guava from BRAZIL in the state owned supermarkets (why?), and of course emigrating elsewhere. In 2017, Raul and I were so inspired by the local food movement in California's Bay Area and that trip to Vietnam opened our eyes to the abundance of food and art that was possible in a humble, post-Communist Country. We weren't thinking about the mammoth of government's role, but rather in empowering individual ingenuity, and from my parents' quiet home in Jersey and under the influence of that summer's visible eclipse, we started making our own artwork and crafting up a plan. Amo Esta Isla would be an interchange, in which people from outside of the island would come teach skills and crafts such as making ice cream out of coconut milk (very appealing in a country where cow's milk is basically illegal) and people on the island could teach traditional artisan crafts and folk herbalism in danger of extinction. To learn to live off of the island. The idea was ambitious, grand, and many of Raul's friends told him he was thinking impossibly, but we were steadfast-- that is, until the American embassy in Cuba was closed and all hopes of interchange were dashed. The concept stuck with us and one day when Raul fatefully clicked on a posting for a retail space in Miami Shores, we pivoted towards creating Mima Market, a place that would cultivate creatives to make in Miami.
The milieu of Miami is very different than Havana, as you know, dear reader. Though you may be tricked by the lush tropical leaves and strong cafecito, Florida's Latin American capital is starkly different when it comes to how resources are used. This is a young city, founded by a woman in 1896, Julia Tuttle, who then convinced Flagler to extend railroads down here. The Tequesta and Seminole traditions had been largely pushed aside, as were those from Caribbean residents during Jim Crow. The Cubans came mid-century with the sugar industry, but without that red clay. Miami's land is sandy, it is known for its escapist tourism, a culture of superficiality, and a pervasive use of Spanglish. And although Miamians know Miami's reputation has nothing to do with them, there is a disconnect from the earth here as well, in a culture of import-export.
Of course there is another side to Miami, one which Mima allowed us to unwrap. Organic farmers working their darndest to feed people at all socioeconomic levels, many moms who've taken their children's nutrition out of the overprocessed boxes and into their own hands, insistent artists lathing traditional artisan mediums into new forms for the 21st century. We had the honor of getting to know and work with Miami's small business owners, as well as a diverse cross-section of customers throughout South Florida, and to do so with the common goal of increased creativity and wellness for us all. It's altruistic, and the shop felt like the perfect way to showcase that vision, until it could no longer sustain itself.
When it comes down to it, the majority of our small vendors were juggling increased price of materials, crazy competition from giants like Bezos, and less sales from well-meaning clients who were also dealing with a blown up cost of living. In a country where commodifying and convenience are #1, it's easy to see how we were on an uphill battle. You see the word "local" littered throughout corporate advertising: Your Local Geico Dealer on billboards, Your Local Coca-Cola Bottler on red trucks, "local" Miami brands, yes, but made in places like Colombia where the cost of labor is much cheaper. The vendors who do pride themselves on sourcing ingredients and materials from local farms, in lieu of for much cost on Amazon, are being priced out.
So we find ourselves at the drawing board again, and there's nowhere to go but back down to Earth. Looking around, I see so many plants and people who yearn to grow. In a culture that thrives off of our individual feelings of lack, how can we feel full and support one another? No man is an island, they say, but we sure do have more than our share of coconuts.