Once Dictator Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cubans began fleeing their homeland in record numbers setting their sights, hopes, and dreams on 90-mile away Florida soil and American freedom. Through hard work and U.S. government sponsorship, these Cuban refugees made Miami their home and were instrumental in transforming the City from a sleepy vacation destination to an economically booming cosmopolitan center. "Little Havana" is emblematic of this blossoming and enduring Latino culture.
The Cubans' success inspired thousands of other Latinos to similarly seek asylum from repressive governments. Colombians, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans, among others, escaped and planted roots in America's "Magic City." And like the Cubans before them, they unpacked more than material possessions. They enriched Miami with their customs, food, language, and pastimes.
One Hispanic pastime has captivated both this city and the rest of Florida, the little known sport of Jai Alai. Literally meaning "merry festival" the game was first seen at religious and holiday festivals in the Basque mountains of Spain and France. The Latinos introduced the sport to America, where its action and legalized wagering attracted a mass following. Florida supports more Jai Alai (fronton) arenas than anywhere in the world, and downtown Miami is the sport's mecca.
Jai Alai is a rugged form of racquetball where two teams compete by slinging a ball (pelota) from a sickle-shaped wicker basket (cesta) affixed to players' wrists. Points are scored when one team shoots the ball off the arena's front wall and the other team fails to catch and sling it back before it bounces twice on the floor. Similar to horse racing, spectators get in on the action by making win, place, or show bets on any of the eight players.
With ball speeds reaching 190 mph, professional Jai Alai is dangerous. Four men have been killed and many others severely injured, usually from high-velocity ball strikes to the head. And, averaging $40,000 per year, players salaries hardly compensate for these risks.
In the 21st Century's "Gateway to South and Central America," Jai Alai is but one adrenaline-rushing pursuit. This city bursts with energy, style, and opportunity. Your only holdback will be time and a budget. So vamos!