A new wave of Latin Americans is invading Miami – and they're bringing in wealth

The city's population is now 65 per cent Hispanic, and business is booming

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The crowd in Cantina La Veinte, a dazzling new Mexican eatery with a 1940s, art-deco design in downtown Miami, is simmering nicely.

The Colombian conservationist is catching up with the Venezuelan daytime talk star, while the handsome architect originally from El Salvador listens quietly to the Cuban purveyor of high-fashion shoes. On our table tequila cocktails and bottles of fine mescal jostle for space with soft-shell crab wrapped in tortillas.

It is a private party, one of three last weekend for a total of 4,000 guests including Miami’s mayor, Tomas Pedro Regalado, ahead of the official opening this week of what will be Miami’s first truly top-notch Mexican destination restaurant and the first foray into the US market by its three Mexican owners, who operate over 40 outlets already in their own country. It is also a glimpse of something big happening in Miami. Call it the new wealth wave.

If the financial meltdown of six years ago was cruel to Miami, the rebound, at least in its terms of property values and sales, has perhaps been even more remarkable, fuelled notably by very wealthy foreigners drawn to a city that seems to have everything – sunshine, boutique shopping, a gradually growing cultural scene and lots of high-end residential options.

New projects on the horizon include luxury towers by Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. Another huge draw: the annual December gathering of dealers, gallerists, collectors and scenesters that is Art Basel Miami.

This is America’s other migrant invasion. But we are far away indeed from the dangerous crossing between Mexico and Texas. Miami’s new arrivals don’t need handouts. Many in fact are just drop-ins, purchasing their homes high above Biscayne Bay and their Bentley convertibles to use only a few weeks a year.

Very sophisticated barbarians, they come to Miami in huge armies from Latin American and Central America, as well Europe, Asia and Russia. Nearly 90 per cent of sales in downtown Miami right now are to foreign buyers.

 

Thus the contours of the city are being redrawn. Its population is now 65 per cent Hispanic, up from about a quarter four decades ago. Cuban-Americans, who have dominated the Hispanic community for decades, risk seeing their political influence wane as they increasingly share power-lunch tables and beach cabin space with Peruvians, Brazilians, Colombians and Argentines. The biggest sports event coming up here is not a baseball or basketball game. It’s a football friendly between Brazil and Colombia on 5 September.

“It’s a very nice American city, but it is also the capital of Latin America,” explains Alberto Cinta, one of the co-owners of La Veinte in town for the opening parties. He also recently purchased a high-altitude penthouse in the exclusive Setai tower on South Beach.

“People from Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France really love to be able to spend a week, two weeks, three weeks a year in Miami,” Jorge Perez, who heads the Related Companies property development behemoth, also noted this week. Born in Argentina of Cuban parents, he moved to Miami in 1968. So generous has been his giving to the Miami Art museum that it was recently renamed the Jorge Perez Art Museum.

If Miami was the obvious place for Mr Cinta and his partners, Sergio Berger and Eduardo Solorzano, to get their feet wet in the US, it was hardly so a few years ago, he says. Its image then was more Miami Vice and Gianni Versace. (It’s nearly 20 years since the fashion icon was shot dead outside his South Beach mansion.)

“For many years Miami was considered to be a kind of a cheap city and superficial, just drugs and models, not a nice destination for families. It certainly wasn’t considered cool to have a second home here,” says Mr Cinta, something of a scholar of the habits of the very rich. “But it has developed very interestingly, in part benefiting from the political or economic crises in Latin American countries.”

He cites Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina. Meanwhile, the age of the super well-heeled believing that a pied-à-terre in Paris, London or New York was de rigeur may be over.

“You used to go to Paris because you wanted to buy something in Chanel or to New York to eat at Smith & Wollensky. But now in Miami you have Chanel and you have Smith & Wollensky. All the boutiques and all the restaurants you went to Paris and New York for are here. And the weather is much nicer. All those services are commodities and so nowadays you can find them anywhere. But what is not a commodity is the weather.”

Alberto Guerrero, the owner of Iconic Design Gallery specialising in mid-century furniture, is also seeing the craziness first hand. “There is an incredible amount of money coming in from Brazil,” he says, adding that the arrival of Art Basel in 2002 was transformational. “Everyone wants a piece of the city.” But he declines to buy the idea that the Cubans in town – he is one – might be nudged aside in the new Latin influx. “Not at all. Cubans welcome their Latin brothers and sisters!” 

They had better because they don’t have a lot of choice.

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