In the upcoming Miami episode of Leguizamo Does America, Tapia shows John Leguizamo the beauty of the neighborhood he's worked so hard to protect.
Marvin Tapia
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Tapia

Opportunity is fluid. It's a universal force that oftentimes come in ebbs and flows, but when it comes knocking—you need to seize it. Especially if it's an undeniable opportunity that was presented to you by the universe through your parents.

For the Colombian-born Marvin Tapia, his parent's decision to relocate from their beautiful Barranquilla to Miami, FL, was one that would position his life to go down a road he couldn't have imagined. So, what did he do? He carpe diemed the opportunity like his life depended on it.

He tells People Chica, "So, I always talk about what it is that parents leave or what it is they offer their children when you know—sometimes the trust fund or sometimes its different things. For me, it was opportunity, and I think about it all the time. They gave me the opportunity of bettering myself and bettering the life of my family, and I don't take that for granted whatsoever."

Tapia, who will be appearing in the Miami episode of Leguizamo Does America, will be showing fellow Colombian John Leguizamo around the community that has given him so much: Little Havana.

On what it was like to show the world his slice of heaven, the spokesperson for Little Havana's Viernes Culturales shares, "I'm extremely honored for the opportunity to highlight a city and even more specifically, a neighborhood, that I love so much because it gives me the chance to represent the people who created our unique culture."

Tapia sits down with People Chica to detail the ways he tirelessly works to bring awareness to the cultural significance and nuances of his local community and the advice he'd give immigrant kids who find themselves navigating life as an American and as a Latino.

You moved to Miami from Barranquilla, Colombia, when you were very young. As a child that grew up in the United States with parents who had to navigate an entirely new way of living, what was the most important lesson you learned from them?

Opportunity. So, I always talk about what it is that parents leave or what it is they offer their children when you know—sometimes the trust fund or sometimes its different things. For me, it was opportunity, and I think about it all the time. They gave me the opportunity of bettering myself and bettering the life of my family, and I don't take that for granted whatsoever.

The fact that I'm able to impact so many lives with my position and the things that I do and really better the quality of life of the residents of the neighborhood that I represent is an honor and is something that I would not be able to do if it weren't for the opportunity that my parents gave me by risking it all and leaving Barranquilla to come here for not only a better life for themselves but for my for myself and my future generations.

So it's something that I hold dearly in my heart and I'm happy to think about it and cherish it every day. I'm proud to do what I do.

You're the spokesperson for Little Havana's Viernes Culturales as well as the chairperson for the Miami-Dade County Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board, two roles that seek to bring awareness to the cultural significance and nuances of local communities. Why do you believe that advocacy and roles like these are one of the best ways to highlight the beauty that resides in local communities?

I think it's extremely important, especially in a city like Miami, because Miami has an incredible amount of immigrants that come here seeking a better life. Unfortunately, they come here with not much education. You know, we're used to living lives in our different cultures or different countries, and not much is offered there. And so you come here, you're in a different country, you're in a new life, and you really don't know what is what's here for you.

Marvin Tapia
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Tapia

You know that you got to work, you know that you got to find a place to live. But other than that—what is offered to you? Is there help? Is there a better place to live? So through my spokesmanship and through being the chair of such an organization like the Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board, we take it upon ourselves to really educate the community on what's available to them, how we can better their quality of life, what they can do.

So we do that through different classes—we stream all of our classes [and] all of our meetings are open to the public. And what we do is we meet with the mayors, both on the city side as well as with the county side bi-monthly, either with the mayor or their teams, to let them know what information we've recovered from the community and what it is that they can do to help. So, we give them a plan, we give them information, [and] we give suggestions on what we can do better.

Gentrification is a concern that is prevalent in many communities across the U.S. You work tirelessly to help preserve the history and culture of the Little Havana area and even helped turn it into a national treasure. How did you become involved in that project?

Well, it started like everything I do—very organically. Viernes Culturales has been around since the year 2000 and about six [to] seven years ago some of the local business owners that are friends [and] I've been advocating and working in the community [with]—Suzy Batlle, which is the owner of Azucar [Ice Cream Company], was a dear friend and [...] she was part of Viernes already. She was a board member, and she says, "Marv, I think you need to be a part of this board. You know, we're trying to inject some youth and something just a little modern, a different view."

So she pitched to the board for me to be a board member and the board [voted] for me to be a board member. It was the first time since Viernes Culturales started that there was a board member that was not a business owner in Little Havana, which was a huge deal. [...] I don't own a business in Little Havana. I'm just a huge advocate. I'm a resident and that's where it all started. I was honored to do that.

Marvin Tapia
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Tapia

It was mostly Cuban business owners and I was a Colombian coming in here not being a business owner and I felt like I broke some barriers down. I was able to be more inclusive because Little Havana [...] it's predominantly Cuban. Of course, it started with the Cubans in the 50s and 60s when they came from El Mariel [mass emigration], but now it's a huge influx [of people]—a melting pot, if you will. We use that term a lot, but it really is a melting pot of cultures.

You do have a lot of Cubans, but you have a lot of Central Americans and you have a lot of Mexicans, and they just coexist beautifully here. So gentrification obviously is an issue that happens, especially in cities like Miami, where so many people come here. It's a huge tourist destination. We saw it in Wynwood, unfortunately, [but] the difference between Wynwood and Little Havana is that Wynwood was a lot of warehouses, a lot of businesses. [...] It wasn't a big community, so it wasn't difficult for developers to come in here and just take it over.

There was nobody really standing in the way of that. As you come to Little Havana and there's a huge community and a very specific identity that it's very difficult to just kind of steamroll over. About five years ago, the National Trust for [Historic Preservation] came and they reached out to our office and to the Dade Heritage Trust, which is a trust that also preserves all the historic buildings of Miami [and] South Florida. They told us that they were considering a few spots to designate [as] national treasures.

That was huge news—we reached out to the city. This is a huge partnership between the city of Miami, Dade Heritage Trust, and Viernes Culturales. We did everything in our power to showcase all the specs, all the statistics, all the historic buildings, all the cultures, [and] basically everything that encompasses Little Havana. We did this week-long presentation, if you will: from meetings to tours to, I mean, it just encompassed everything.

A year later, a full year, our office gets an email from the Trust and they say, "Hey, we have great news. We're coming back to Little Havana." It was a huge celebration. And what it was is they designated Little Havana a national treasure thanks to this partnership and pride that we had and that's what happened. The government essentially designated Little Havana national treasure. For those that don't know what a national treasure is, the way that they define it is: any one person, community, [or] city that the U.S. would not be the same without. If you subtract Little Havana from the U.S., essentially the U.S. would not be the same.

Marvin Tapia
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Tapia

The immigration [and] the cultures that come here and coexist and really make Miami what it is [and] is essentially the fabric of what the U.S. represents. That's why it was [such a] proud [moment], and I'm extremely proud. I say it to this day, [it's] one of my proudest accomplishments is to have spearheaded that project and to say that we turned Little Havana into a national treasure.

You represent a community with residents, in particular, many children that share a similar coming to America story as yours. What is something you'd say to those children about their journey to help soothe any doubts they may have?

So first and foremost, I would say I completely understand the doubt that they may feel because I felt it. I think I always feel it and I use that doubt to make the decisions that I make now—where I came from and where I'm going. It's very important to know where you came from and how you got to where you are now, extremely important.

I would definitely start with it's important to know where you're coming from but you have to find the positivity in everything. Just the fact that you're in the U.S., that you may or may not have your parents—so obviously, depending on the child I'm talking to, but if you have a family, you're here, you have a roof over your head and you're going to school. Those are basic things that everyone takes for granted.

So if I'm talking to a child and I say, "Hey, A: you're healthy. B: you have a roof over your head and you have a family that is taking care of you. You're way ahead of the game of a lot of people." And it might not seem that way, it definitely might not seem that way because maybe you're in low-income housing. Maybe you take the bus to work or to school or your parents do. Maybe you live off food stamps.

Marvin Tapia with Jimmy Butler
Credit: Courtesy of Marvin Tapia

I know that society looks down on these things, especially if you're on social media or you're looking [at] TV. You have to be rich. You have to have the newest car. You have all these things. Obviously, the youth is more susceptible to that, you know, so you start hating your parents for not being able to offer you all these things. If we were able to instill in them gratitude, that right there changes everything.

Because now, instead of thinking about what you don't have, you're actually thanking your parents for everything that you do have. And that right there is, I think, a huge step forward. Being thankful and knowing that if you continue, if you really believe in yourself and you're thankful for what you have, you're going to have everything [and the world] opens up for you. So positivity and gratitude, I think, are everything.