Miami: La Casa de las Guayaberas

July 28, 2010

There’s something eerie about La Casa de las Guayaberas in the heart of Little Havana. First, it’s just really quiet – sure, there’s salsa playing overhead, but it sounds faraway and tinny. Then there’s the general shadowiness – La Casa de las Guayaberas fends off Miami’s blistering sun with thick pull-down shades and what look like tinted windows. And the help can be curious: A shortish man in a dark suit, not a guayabera, his jacket draped over his shoulders like a cape, and aviator sunglasses waltzes across the floor to mutter about this or that guayabera.

At La Casa de las Guayaberas, the shiny surfaces sparkle in reflected light from so much plastic wrap protecting so many hundreds and hundreds of guayaberas. To show off the stock, the man in the dark glasses has to pull the racks apart. The guayaberas are packed in shoulder to pleated shoulder.

What’s a guayabera? A de rigueur Cuban dress shirt with two or four pockets and two vertical rows of alforzas (tiny, tiny pleats sewn closely together) which run along the front and back of the shirt. The pockets also have identical aligned alforzas. It used to be purely men’s attire but, for at least a generation, there have been guayaberas for women and girls and, now, even babies.

There is, in fact, a guayabera for any occasion. Ernest Hemingway, who lived outside Havana for almost 30 years, used to wear a guayabera to write. In Miami, you can get guayaberas at Target, Wal-Mart, Macy’s and J.C. Penney’s, just to name a few mainstream places.

But there’s really no point in going anywhere but La Casa de las Guayaberas. The high-end stuff is pure satiny linen and carries a price tag close to $400. But the lower end – polyester and cotton blends in varying percentages – can dip down to $20.

If you purchase a guayabera – imperative for, say, the groomsmen at an upcoming wedding – La Casa de las Guayaberas tosses in a little brochure which explains the origin of the guayabera as a Cuban peasant shirt and its transformation into a hip retro style dressy enough to coup the need for a suit in the tropics. This story gladly revels in the shirt’s global popularity, but ignores all other possible beginnings (don’t even think about that rumor that it’s just a take off on the Philippine Barong, or that it mirrors the Zimbabwean safari shirt – it’s really the other way around: those are adaptations of the Cuban guayabera.)

A few years ago, at the urging of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fidel Castro donned one in Cartagena, Colombia, for a meeting of Latin American heads of state. It was the first time the Cuban strong man had publicly ignored his usual fatigues in favor of his country’s national costume. So momentous was the occasion that the guayabera – linen, long-sleeved with the traditional alforzas – was preserved and donated last summer to the Guayabera Museum in Sancti Spiritus.

That’s right: there’s a national museum in Cuba dedicated to the guayabera. And in Miami, that role is played by La Casa de las Guayaberas at 5840 S.W. 8th Street.