A variety of events; from world championships to concerts, boxing matches and student demonstrations against former Cuban president; the late Fulgencio Batista; have all taken place right here; at the stage of the island’s major baseball legends. If you love sports this is an obligatory stop you mustn’t miss when touring Havana.
The Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana’s Cerro municipality, is to Havana what Old Trafford is to Manchester or Fenway Park to Boston. It’s a symbol of the city and the pride of its inhabitants; a jewel, in every sense of the word.
Coming to Cuba and missing the chance to occupy one of its box seats, is simply an unforgivable mistake, at least for true sports lovers (and especially baseball fans). With capacity for hosting up to 55,000 visitors, "El Latino"; as it is mostly referred to by locals, this is the setting to a daily party and sporting fever that takes hold of the city during the baseball season, which, according to the current National Championship schedule, extends from September to mid-April.
For a mere 3 CUC, the foreign visitor gets access to its stands and in them the opportunity to mingle with bare-skinned Cuba and unfiltered Cubans. The visitors gets a full immersion into the world of Cuban imagination, passion, racial heterogeneity, and religious beliefs. This stadium is of such highly-esteemed importance that Complex Magazine included it in its list of “50 Stadiums You Must Visit Before Dying”, published a little over a year ago.
Its golden moments
Initially named Gran Stadium de La Habana (Havana Grand Stadium) or Estadio del Cerro (Cerro Stadium), its construction began in 1946 and it opened just months later on October 26th of the same year. Thirty thousand fans witnessed the stadium’s first ever match between the "Elefantes de Cienfuegos" (Cienfuegos Elephants)and the "Alacranes de Almendares" (Alemendares Scorpions), both old clubs (the second no longer exists)from Cuba’s former Professional Baseball League.
As soon as it opened, "El Latino" became the stage of Cuba’s professional baseball, leaving the previously used stadium at "La Tropical" (which still stands in the Playa municipality), unmercifully behind. Then, upon the triumph of Fidel Castro’s rebel-led revolution in 1959, the stadium was renamed Estadio Latinoamericano, thus becoming the home of the "Azules de Industriales" (the Industriales Blues, the main Havana team, also referred to as "The Lions"); the capital city team and the domestic tournaments’ most controversial one.
Having been restored and expanded to its current capacity over three decades ago, the stadium has hosted many sports, cultural and even historic events of national significance ever since.
For example; in 1956, during Batista’s corrupted regime, a university student demonstration led by student leader José Antonio Echeverría, took place in the stadium’s field. Sometime before this, famed American boxer Joe Louis; world heavyweight Champion, battled it out against a local boxer named Omelio Agramonte during an exhibition match. Another of the best all-time boxers; Cuba’s world welterweight champion Kid Gavilán, successfully defended his crown against American Billy Graham, also in this stadium.
An outstanding moment in "El Latino’s" history occurred in 1999, when it played host to the game between the Major League Baseball Baltimore Orioles and a Cuban national team. The Orioles’ visit was the first from any major league team in 40 years, and it still stands as the only time in history (ever since professional baseball was abolished in Cuba) that a professional team played in this stadium for the viewing pleasure of Cuban fans.
Popular dancing fetes, rodeo shows, concerts by renowned local artists such as troubadour Silvio Rodríguez, and many more leisure activities, have had "El Latino" as its backdrop, the so-called Cuban shrine of sports. But more importantly, "El Latino", has seen its best players perform in scores of national and international championship competitions.
El Latino from inside
Lacking the flashiness and sleek modern touches of Europe’s big football fields or Major League Baseball’s stadiums, "El Latino"; only five minutes away from the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), has an indefinable charm similar to that found in Old Havana’s cobbled streets.
Once inside, the newcomer is instantly greeted by the giant photographs of four of the greatest players for the "Azules de Industriales"; Armando Capiró, Pedro Chávez, Pedro Medina and pitcher Santiago Mederos.
A curious encounter is when you find the sculpture of Industriales’ number 1 diehard fan; Armandito “El Tintorero” (Armandito “The Dry Cleaner”) still sat in the same spot he did for years, before he passed away in 2004. The nickname is because he used to work shifts at a dry cleaner’s and his work colleagues would change shifts with him to help him attend every single game played at "El Latino" without missing work. The statue, sculpted by artist José Villa Soberón, perpetuates the memory of this leading fan; the man who never failed to cheer and “move” stands packed with Blue fans on and on, clapping and rooting constantly with all his passion, to support their team. This he did day after day till his death, sometimes tirelessly yelling and waving his arms, other times with the aid of a whistle or yielding a broom, as if predicting a three game sweep by his beloved Industriales team.
However, and I’ll say it again; "El Latino’s" best feature is its audience of eager and lively fans and their spontaneous show which explodes after every home run or an inning-saving strike out. All you have to do is go, and see for yourself.