Historical Museum of Southern Florida

Folklife of Miami’s Nicaraguan Communities

By Katherine Borland

Part 2


One need not look far to find the influence of Nicaraguan foodways on Miami. Along the streets of Little Havana and in the Sweetwater shopping malls Nicaraguan food establishments abound. Most characteristic, the fritanga, is a good place to start sampling this satisfying fare. The word refers to streetside, open-air grills that serve inexpensive meals to hungry passersby. In Miami, fritangas have moved indoors, and refer to both take-out and sit-down cafeterias. Fritanga Monimbo, with three locations, is popular among working people and families. The Cuban-owned Yambo Restaurant is a fritanga that doubles as a nightclub. But perhaps the most interesting place to visit is La Fritanga in the Centro Comercial Managua shopping center.

Owner Emelina Tellez opened this Nica version of a fast food stand because of her own nostalgic longing for things Nica. The walls of her shop are lined with old photos of Managua before the earthquake. Two carved coconuts, humorously labeled Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, dangle from the ceiling. While there are no tables, her shop forms a natural gathering place for the local community. Dona Emelina’s quesillo, soft white cheese wrapped in a corn tortilla and topped with Nicaraguan sour cream and pickled onions, is an excellent alternative to a sandwich.

While staple items like fried plantains and green bananas, broiled chicken, beef and pork, and fried cheese are prepared on location at fritangas, the specialty meat dishes—chorizo, moronga, and nacatamales—cheeses, tortillas, and baked goods are prepared by cooks working in their homes or in cottage food industries. The nacatamale, a combination of cornmeal, pork, rice, potato, onion, tomato and green pepper packed in a banana leaf and boiled or steamed, is considered Nicaragua’s national folk food. While cottage industries have sprung up throughout Miami specializing in this product, Nicaraguan housewives also run smaller nacatamale businesses out of their homes, just as they did in their native towns.

Other kinds of Nicaraguan tamales (the word refers to any cornmeal based food wrapped and steamed in banana leaves) include tamal pisque (made with lime), tamal relleno (filled with brown sugar and aged white cheese), and yoltamal (made with fresh instead of dried corn and packed in the original corn husk). One adaptation that Miami Nicaraguans have made in cooking these tamales is to substitute aluminum foil for expensive banana leaves. Most cooks also use packaged cornmeal, rather than grinding the dried corn themselves.

One interesting foodways development in Miami is the ubiquity of vigoron at any activity identified as Nicaraguan. This snack food consists of fried pork rinds arranged on a bed of boiled cassava and topped with cabbage and tomato salad. In Nicaragua vigoron is often eaten for breakfast on weekends, but the meal is not considered culturally emblematic. Nicaraguans in Miami explain, however, that the ease and rapidity of preparing vigoron, especially since the fried pork rinds are available in packaged form, makes it more compatible with their faster-paced Miami life-style. Thus, this snack has been declared “a little taste from home.”

Traditional sweets like homemade cahetas de coco, coconut bars, cosas del horno, cornmeal-based pastries and sweet breads, sopa borracha, a sponge cake soaked in a rum syrup, and tres leches, a custard cake made with three kinds of milk, are also frequently displayed in groceries and fritangas. Some sweets are especially related to particular holidays. During Easter season bunuelos, fried dough made of cassava, white cheese and egg, topped with hot sugar syrup are traditional. Almivar, grated candied fruit, is a Christmas delicacy. Purisima specialties include the gofio or alfajor (a crumbly bar made of ground corn, ginger and sugar), ayote en miel (autumn squash cooked in honey), and espumillas (meringues).

Pacific coast Nicaraguans also have a strong tradition of consuming grain-based drinks. Cereales y Cafe El Vencedor, a small cottage industry owned and operated by Ramiro and Helen Alvarez, specializes in beverage mixes. One room houses several small electrically powered mills, sacks of corn, cocoa beans, barley, oats, jicaro (gourd) seed, and the cartons that Don Ramiro and Dona Helen hand pack themselves. The popularity of Pinol, a hearty beverage made from toasted corn, as an early morning pick-me-up has earned Nicaraguans the nickname, “Pinoleros.”

Nicaraguan tortillas, larger and thicker than their machine-made Mexican cousins, are also available in Miami. Ninosca, a family operation run by Perla Marina Castro in Little Havana occupies what looks like a converted garage. Walk by any day and you can see young women standing around a large table, hand-palming tortillas that are baked on a huge griddle.

Small, inexpensive, homestyle restaurants serving Nicaraguan food also abound. Two excellent examples are El Masayita in Little Havana and El Taquito in Sweetwater. Try the baho at Masayita, a weekend specialty dish of seasoned pork steamed with vegetables, cassava, plantain, green bananas and Nicaraguan potatoes, and topped with fresh cabbage and tomato salad.

Nicaraguan high cuisine is also plentiful in Miami. Perhaps the most famous elegant dining spot, Los Ranchos, is one of the most successful Nicaraguan businesses in the United States. Other restaurants include The Galloping Lobster and La Parilla, both in Sweetwater. All these restaurants offer a mixture of Nicaraguan and continental cuisine. Nicaraguan specialties include churrasco, a perfectly grilled steak or pork cut served on a wooden block with a special dipping paste made of ground herbs. Puntitas a la Jalapena (strips of sirloin topped with a creamy sauce laced with hot peppers) is another more spicy selection.

While sharing many Pacific coast foodways, Creole and Miskito Nicaraguans also preserve many distinctively Atlantic coast dishes. Perhaps the most emblematic of these are run down (pronounced “ron don”) and rice and beans. Similar to baho, run down is a one-pot meal in which seasoned fish or meat is boiled atop a bed of local vegetables and tubers. As it slowly cooks, the flavor of the meat is said to “run down” into the vegetables, thus giving this dish its name. What makes run down distinctively rich is that coconut milk is added to the water halfway through the cooking. Similarly, rice and beans are boiled together in coconut milk to make a delicious variation of Pacific coast gallopinto.

Coconut milk constitutes the secret ingredient in many Atlantic coast breads, tarts and biscuits as well. The milk is extracted by grating and squeezing ripe coconut meat, either by hand or with an electric food processor. Atlantic coast cooks are emphatic about the medicinal qualities of this favorite ingredient, claiming that coconut milk acts as a purgative for parasites and generally eases digestion.

Among the Creole population traditional drinks include sorrel wine and ginger beer, a peppery beverage made of mashed ginger root boiled in water, then cooled and sweetened with sugar. Perhaps the most distinctly indigenous Miskito specialty, wabul, is a drink made of pounded breadfruit or other tubers, mixed with coconut or cow’s milk.

In contrast to the Atlantic coast communities, Pacific coast peoples have not established their own food businesses in Miami. However, informal food sharing and selling does take place within the communities. Rosa Lau, a Miskito Indian living in Miami Beach, explained that when someone in her apartment complex had time to make a traditional dish, they often made enough to sell or give to their enthusiastic neighbors.

One place where the outsider can sample native Atlantic coast cuisine is at the November Harvest festivals of the Prince of Peace and New Hope Moravian Churches. At these thanksgiving services, church members place home-grown and store bought fruits and produce, home-canned pickled vegetables, baked goods, plants and flowers around the altar in an elaborate display of ethnic food traditions. Palm fronds and sugar cane decorate the church walls, and after a service embellished with beautiful Moravian Harvest hymns, the offerings are sold off, and churchwomen dish out Nicaraguan, Creole, Jamaican and American hot foods.

The culinary contribution of Nicaraguans to Miami is rich indeed. Representing the most pervasive and forceful retention of native country traditions within the community, Nicaraguan foodways are also slowly becoming popular among outsiders. In fact, a recent Washington Post article announced that Nicaraguan delicacies appear to be Miami’s next dining craze (Feb. 6, 1991. “The Latest in Latin-Miami’s Explosion of Nicaraguan Cuisine.”).

Material Culture

Although Nicaragua, and especially Masaya, boasts a rich tradition of crafts and festival arts, and though many emigrees formerly practiced one or more of these arts, the handcrafts industry remains undeveloped in Miami. Most craftsmen arrived with few financial resources, often without their tools or work companions. As a result, most seem to have found factory or service jobs and are making the difficult adjustment to a more demanding schedule that allows little time for leisure.

Many Nica groceries and fritangas, however, import artisanry directly from Nicaragua through informal trade networks. The best quality items can be found at the Mercadita Nicaraguense and La Fritanga in the Centro Comercial Managua at 104th and Flagler, and at El Pinolero at 16th and Flagler. Here one finds children’s machine embroidered clothing, embroidered cotton shirts and “maxi” dresses, wooden bowls, spoons and decorative dishes, small baskets, carved jicaros (gourds), leather and reptile skin belts and wallets, and small oil paintings. Moreover, two Nicaraguan-owned furniture shops imported sillas abuelitas, a fancier version of the Cuban rocking chair with a decoratively carved backboard and lathed dowels. Merchants remark that it is cheaper to buy in Nicaragua than to produce in Miami.

Nicaraguan goldsmithing is another trade that has suffered from the transition to a new setting. Several goldsmiths reside in Miami, but the old, hand-crafted colonial jewelry famous on the Pacific coast and the delicate gold filigree work from the Atlantic coast are not being produced. Independent goldsmith Enrique Robleto and jeweler Jose Miguel Chow explain that these arts demand a high degree of hand-crafting and are thus more expensive and less marketable than the machine-caste gold jewelry available in most Miami shops.

Likewise, among Creole and Miskito populations, traditional fishing crafts, and mahogany and rosewood carving and furniture making have proved impracticable. For instance, on the Atlantic Coast the dory or dugout canoe remains the major means of transportation. Thus, any adult male who grew up there knows how to build a dory. He simply goes to the forest, chooses a suitable tree, and starts chopping. As retired Miskito-Creole carpenter Sydney Willis queried, “Where would you get the tree trunk around Miami without getting arrested?” Nevertheless, a fine example of this native boat making is on permanent display at The Galloping Lobster Restaurant in Sweetwater.

One set of crafts that has continued to thrive in the new environment, however, is Moravian Creole women’s textile arts. Hardangar, a form of embroidery originally from Norway, is perhaps the most distinctive of these arts, and many Miami Nica Creoles still make elaborate hardanger altar cloths, table runners and doilies. Lillith Robinson, an accomplished embroiderer, learned the technique as a schoolgirl from her home economics teacher, but said that her mother and grandmother also embroidered in hardangar.

The embroidery involves delicacy and precision, but Miss Lillith insists that the actual technique involved is very simple. Initially, one makes the border of a design, counting fabric threads carefully to insure geometric accuracy. Once the solid work is finished, one cuts and removes some of the threads inside the pattern. Finally the remaining threads are woven together in new open patterns with a finer strand of embroidery thread.

Tatting is another textile art practiced by many Moravian Creole women. Using a crochet hook and a shuttle, one knots fine threads into lacy patterns at lightning speed. Joyce Bradford, an adept tatter, says Bluefieldians used to make tatted collars for dresses when these were popular, as well as doilies and decorative pieces. In Miami, Joyce has creatively experimented with the form, tatting snowflakes to use as Christmas tree ornaments. She has even decorated stationary with delicate tatted flowers made of regular sewing thread.

Fine, lacy crochet and cross-stitch embriodery are other textile arts brought to a high degree of refinement by Creole Moravian women. Perhaps one reason for the survival of these textile arts is that, unlike other Nicaraguan crafts, none seems to have been practiced as a means of earning money. While they represent European and North American traditions brought to the Atlantic coast by missionaries’ wives, they have, over the years, become intimately associated with Bluefields women, forming a major part of their education and allowing for artistic expression and social interchange.

One versatile Nicaraguan folk artist, Chony Gutierrez, preserves a number of festival-related arts in Miami. Years of investigation and practice of her country’s material culture have earned her an envious reputation within the Pacific coast community. She began her career in manualidades as a small girl, when an extended illness forced her to find ways to amuse herself. Her mother, who was a seamstress,later taught her to sew. As an adult, Dona Chony studied regional folk dance costumes of Nicaragua, and she even directed one of the first Ballets Folkloricos while working for the Ministry of Tourism. Dona Chony continues to make dance costumes, decorations for weddings, baptisms and communions, and paper purisima decorations on consignment. Congolomas, hanging paper chains, banderillas, little tissue paper or origami flags with cut-out patterns that are stuck into sweet lemons, apples or oranges for “paquetes,” and tiny paper baskets and animal figures used to hold purisima sweets are just of a few examples of her delicate work.

Dona Chony is also an accomplished piñata maker. She explains that Nicaraguan piñatas differ from the Mexican variety because their skeleton is of cardboard or pottery rather than wire. Her tiny home on the edge of Little Havana is always crowded with projects and visitors who stop by for a cup of coffee and a chat or just to see what new creations Dony Chony is fashioning.

Folklife in the Miami Community

Despite dramatic changes in their work practices and general way of life, Nicaraguans in Miami have sought to retain those aspects of their cultural uniqueness that are most symbolically resonant. For Pacific coast peoples patronal festivals offer an opportunity to gather together and celebrate not only their religious devotion but also their sense of identity in their new, more ethnically diverse environment. For Atlantic coast peoples the Moravian church provides a center for religious, social, and artistic expression.

Fritangas, restaurants and groceries offer the much needed antidote to nostalgia for those who find it increasingly difficult to consider a permanent return to their native land. They also represent a burgeoning field of business opportunity both for the proprietors and for the home cooks who supply specialty items.

While taste in clothing, jewelry and furniture has shifted to American style, factory-made items, imported folk crafts have taken on symbolic significance as they become reminders of the home country rather than everyday items. A visitor to almost any Nicaraguan home will discover at least one silla abuelita, a decorative ceramic bowl or painted scene of the Nicaraguan countryside gracing the living room. With characteristic friendliness, Mestizo, Creole and Miskito Nicaraguans are eager to share their culture with those who show interest in things Nicaraguan. The contributions that this new community has made and will continue to make to the city are rich indeed.


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Back Part One
Miami’s Nicaraguan communities, Patronal festivals, San Sebastian, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo de Guzman, San Jeronimo, La Purisima and La Griteria, Atlantic Coast Festivals