Academics People and Community

The battle of the Cuban sandwich

University of Miami communication students create a documentary to try and figure out who truly makes the best Cuban sandwich.
Students enjoying a Cuban sandwich

Justin Stevens (left), Tej Joshi (middle) and Luis Gonzalez (right) enjoying Cuban sandwiches on campus. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami

Every person has a story, and apparently every sandwich has a story as well. A group of eight University of Miami School of Communication students learned this while filming their documentary, “Mixto Cubano: The Origin of the Cuban Sandwich.”

“Filming was so refreshing because the sandwich was just a symbol of how passionate people are about their culture. It was a great lens into a community I’m not familiar with,” said Tej Joshi, a senior broadcast journalism major.

Joshi is one of three executive producers of the film that highlights the history behind the Cuban sandwich. Luis Gonzalez and Justin Stevens, both broadcast journalism majors, worked alongside Joshi to make the documentary the success it is today. They said the idea to create the piece all started last spring semester during the course Intermediate Electronic Media Production, where the main project included creating a documentary.

“We knew each other before we took the class because the broadcast program is very close knit. Immediately we wanted to work together because we all had such great chemistry,” said Stevens.

From the beginning, the trio said they always knew the documentary was going to be centered on food. Stevens was the leading force behind the research aspect of the project.

“I contacted the Kiwanis club and they asked me if we were familiar with the Cuban sandwich competition. We instantly wanted to know more about it,” said Stevens. “I then contacted the founder of the Cuban sandwich festival in Miami, Victor Padilla, who began telling me the whole history of the sandwich and the rivalry behind it.”

Little did the team know they were about to dive into decades of rich history. Thorough exploration on the topic uncovered a rivalry between three cities that all claim they make the best Cuban sandwich. Key West, Miami, and Tampa all believe they hold the key recipe to creating the most delicious sandwich. The trio felt compelled to travel to these locations to tell each of their stories.

“We were all pleasantly surprised about the size of the community that’s around this one sandwich. People think it’s just a sandwich, but we found that people really love it. It’s amazing how you can find such an interesting story in a niche community,” said Gonzalez.

After months of planning shoots and countless hours of editing, their hard work paid off. “Mixto Cubano” was recently chosen to be screened at the Key West Film Festival, which begins on November 14. The documentary was also named a semi-finalist in the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards.

“I couldn’t believe the news. You work so hard in a class to be able to learn a concept, and you obviously have your anxiety on if you’re going to succeed when it’s your time to step up to the plate. I feel like at that moment I stepped up, and it was a nice feeling,” said Gonzalez.

“Learning the news gave me the validation that other people are appreciating my work as much as I am,” said Stevens.

They credit their success to several people who helped them at the university, along with people they met while shooting out in the field.

“Although we were the leads on the project, we couldn’t have done it without everyone else on our team. We are nothing without them,” said Gonzalez.

The team also says they couldn’t have done it without the support from Trevor Green, the director of graduate studies and lecturer in the School of Communication. They said Green was with them every step of the way, even joining them during the filming of the Calle Ocho Festival in Miami from dusk till dawn.

“It was a rewarding experience. You talk to students in the classroom, but you never really see them in their element out in the field. As a teacher it was a fantastic feeling to be able to see them implement the skill sets I taught them in class,” said Green.

While reflecting on the whole process, all three executive producers said they each learned something they will use for their future careers.

“As a journalist I’ve grown and realized that things really do impact people in unique ways. I think I’ve learned how to find the ability to not only tell the story, but dive deep into it to find different dimensions. It’s like a Cuban sandwich, there’s so many layers that go into each story,” said Stevens.

As for Joshi, the documentary inspired him to create more content highlighting food. He is now partnering with Stevens to create a segment called “Food Finds” about local restaurants.

“This was the first time I ever worked in production with anything related to food. The documentary made me realize it’s something I’m good at, and it’s something people are interested in watching,” said Joshi.

“It’s become more than just a documentary, it’s become something we’re passionate about. I have another class project where I want to experience more of the Cuban culture by creating a documentary about Cuban coffee. It set a fire within us to do more,” said Stevens.

Gonzalez said he now understands the importance of having patience when storytelling. He’s now working on a long form series about steroid use in high school athletics.

“Because of this class I got the experience to tell a whole story from beginning to end. It’s something I’m trying to keep doing for the rest of my life. I’ve learned what I want to do in life because of this class,” said Gonzalez.

The students now firmly believe that food brings people together and shapes who people are as a culture and society.

“Food breaks barriers like languages. It was hard to communicate sometimes because we didn’t speak Spanish, but everyone was always so helpful. The ability to get help from someone without speaking their native language is amazing to me,” said Stevens.

Luis, whose family is from Cuba, said it was nice to learn the impact his heritage has on South Florida.

“My mom cried the first time she saw the documentary. The reason I want to become a storyteller is for my family because they really couldn’t do it in Cuba, and they came here for that reason. Everything I do is for them. It’s always nice to see them smile,” said Gonzalez.

Joshi and Stevens will forever be thankful they had the opportunity to explore more about the city they now reside in.

“Both Justin and I aren’t from South Florida. We’ve lived here for a few years now, but I feel like we haven’t been exposed to the different kinds of cultures South Florida has to offer. It was nice to get out in the community and meet a variety of people, I wish others can go through the same experience I went through,” said Joshi.

Want to make your own Cuban sandwich? Try our yUMmies recipe!