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CALLE OCHO

It's spicy, sweaty, sloppy and hot. It's swaying shoulders, grinding hips, supple spines. It's blaring music, foreign foods and handsome people. It's Calle Ocho _ the salsa-filled street party that snakes its way through the heart of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

About one mile west of downtown Miami, Little Havana has for decades been the initial resting place for many of Miami's Cuban refugees. Its main commercial artery, Calle Ocho _ Eighth Street to Anglos _ is still a bustling inner-city enclave that remains an immigrant's dream.

The festival began in 1978 as a small, neighborhood block party and has since ripened into one of the grandest events in all of South Florida. In celebration of Miami's Hispanic heritage, Calle Ocho is an uninhibited bash full of ethnic flair, pride and hospitality.

It brings most of Miami's ethnic groups together: Colombians, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Bahamians, Jamaicans. Plenty of gringos show up, too, and everyone has one goal in common _ to have a mighty good time.

The festival is staged by the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, an elite group of Miami's YUCCAS (young-up-scale Cuban Americans).

In 1988, Calle Ocho wiggled its way into the Guiness Book of World Records when 119,986 people, holding on to the hips in front of them, created the world's longest conga line. And stars who have performed include Jose Feliciano, Johnny Ventura, Menudo and the Miami Sound Machine.

In 1989, a cloud of censorship dampened the festivities when three musical groups were banned from participating because they had previously performed in Cuba. The Little Havana Kiwanis, staunchly anti-Castro, maintained that such an appearance implicitly endorsed his regime and therefore insulted the Cuban expatriate community. Protests and lawsuits followed.

These days, politics are pushed aside and Calle Ocho is a multimillion-dollar extravaganza that features more than 75 stages and 200 acts. From salsa queens to mambo kings, samba, tango, pop, jazz and folk, the stage spectacles are an eclectic mix of the best Latin American entertainment available. This year, the star of the show is John Secada, the Grammy Award-winning singer and hometown boy.

The Sunday Calle Ocho Open House is the culmination of Carnaval Miami, a 10-day celebration spread throughout the city that includes a beauty pageant, foot race, golf tournament and cooking competitions.

Billed as America's largest Latin festival, the Calle Ocho street fair stretches 23 blocks along Southwest Eighth from 4th to 27th avenues. Although the entertainment begins at noon, the crowds begin to congregate much earlier, and then linger until way past the last performance, which starts about 7 p.m. Calle Ocho promoters say that more than 1-million people take part in the Sunday activities; because there is no admission charged, there is no accurate head count.

Most Miamians are prepared for the jammed, premeditated madness, but for the many out-of-towners here for the party, the experience can be overwhelming, even exhausting.

With fans cheering and speakers blasting at full capacity, the noise is thunderous. The crowds get so dense that a shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle becomes the maximum speed forward; it can take half an hour to travel one block. The two-mile parade of people swells at intersections to tune in for the shows.

Above the smell of sweat waft aromas of the Americas. More than 500 food vendors, of many nationalities, hawk steak-on-a-stick, fajitas, rice and beans, rum punch and greasy slabs of pork that sizzle on big grills. Cast-iron caldrons of paella, big enough to serve 1,000, are stirred with wooden oars. The potent scent of cafe cubano, sweet and absolutely fresh, percolates through the streets.

There are also plenty of games, rides and entertainment for children, contests, jugglers, mimes, and souvenirs. And of course, lots of hugging and kissing and dancing in the streets.

Despite the throngs, Calle Ocho is considered safe; more than 300 police officers are put in place just for the event. And in an effort to relieve traffic tie-ups, the City of Miami offers free bus transportation from three parking lots. There are also free public toilets at each intersection on 8th Street.

The secret to enjoying Calle Ocho is to wear comfortable shoes and a big straw hat _ and to settle into the frenetic rhythm, allowing the music and the crowds to sweep you away.

IF YOU GO

Carnaval Miami this year runs March 4-13. The Calle Ocho Open House is March 13, from noon to 7.

Free shuttle service will be offered from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. at: Orange Bowl Stadium, 6th Street and NW 15th Avenue; Miami Senior High School, Flagler Street and SW 25th Avenue, and the Brickell Avenue Metrorail Station, 1001 SW First Ave.

For information, contact the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, (305) 644-8888, and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor's Bureau, (305) 539-3000.

Joann Biondi is a freelance writer and author of the guidebook Insight Miami.

Miami Division of Tourism

BIG-TIME PARTY: The Calle Ocho street fair stretches 23 blocks and will attract more than 1-million people.

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