[Immigrantrightsnynj] In Little Little Havana, Not Quite as Much of a Cuban Feel
Immigrant Rights NYNJ
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Thu Feb 21 12:00:54 EST 2008
February 21, 2008
In Little Little Havana, Not Quite as Much of a Cuban Feel
By PETER APPLEBOME
UNION CITY, N.J.
As might be expected, Fidel Castro's retirement announcement on Tuesday occasioned much reflection on the past, many wistful remembrances of happier times and different eras in this town at the heart of the nation's largest Cuban community outside South Florida. As might not be expected, the subject was often not Cuba. It was Union City.
Mr. Castro's announcement was certainly big news for many people in what is sometimes called Little Little Havana, where at its peak more than 90 percent of the businesses on the main drag of Bergenline Avenue were Cuban-owned. And so the television trucks and reporters from as far away as the newspaper from Catalonia, Spain, descended on Pan Con Todo, Las Americas and El Artesano, local restaurants where people gather for Cuban fries, pan con bistec, cafe Cubano and dulce de leche.
These days, though, locals are as likely to be found at the Noches de Colombia restaurant or the Euro Barcelona bakery. They might wander into the Oro Italiano jewelry store where Daniel Perez, the Puerto Rican Muslim behind the counter, greeted Marcial Villanueva, who is from Peru and stopped by after leaving work.
They might shop at the Chinese-owned Glory Shoes, the Shanghai Comforter Import Company or one of the many storefronts where immigrants send money back home to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Union City is still a vital, bustling center of Latin culture. Even the sign for Joe's Pizza promises "Pollos a la Brasa." But once dominated by Cubans, it is now a hodgepodge of the Latin, and sometimes Asian, diasporas. It's not quite New Jersey's answer to Little Italy, a place defined by what it once was. Still, ask Victor Bas, who owns El Waterloo clothing, the store his father opened in 1967, about things now and he shrugs: "There's a lot of 'used to be' around here."
He still sells guayaberas and linen shirts in bright colors - "happy clothes" - to Latin immigrants. But the days when the stores on Bergenline Avenue were, like his father's, named for well-known businesses in Cuba are long gone. "Back then it was more Main Street, U.S.A., or maybe Main Street, Havana," he said. "Now it's more diverse, more hectic. To be honest, I miss the old days."
The Cubans are hardly gone. You can wander into a shop where the elderly owner waves away an interview request but looks at the television showing news of Mr. Castro's resignation and spits out "asesino" - assassin. Cuban men gather in front of Las Americas or at the Jovenes Unidos social club to talk politics. Cubans have most of the economic power and own much of the real estate.
But at the Cuban-American National Council, a social service agency, Lucia Gomez said the clientele now runs the gamut of nationalities. She remembers growing up in town, her mother Cuban, her father Mexican, when Cubans dominated Bergenline Avenue. According to the Census Bureau, the population was 31.8 percent Cuban in 1980. It was 11.6 percent in 2006.
Now, she said, the mayor is Anglo, the Colombians and Dominicans are rising political powers, and the city government seems inclined to name schools or other institutions after Cubans as a gesture of respect to make up for their decline in actual influence.
"In the past, you could never imagine seeing a Che Guevara shirt on Bergenline Avenue," she said. "Now, sometimes I see them, and I have to laugh. I said, 'Oh, my God, you haven't been lynched yet?' But I guess you can wear that now."
Part of what has happened is just generational. Mr. Castro managed to outlast most of his enemies, who have died or retired to Florida. Those left behind are of a different generation.
So Daniel E. Marrero, a graphic designer, has made Pan Con Todo into a hip take on Cuban themes, from the cool turquoise neon out front to the nostalgic retro artwork and pre-Castro artifacts and crafts inside. It feels more like a SoHo Cuban restaurant than a Union City one.
He knows the announcement of Mr. Castro's retirement can't be the same experience for him as it was for his father, who was jailed before fleeing Cuba.
"They lived it, they lost it, they lost everything," Mr. Marrero said. "I could never really know what it was like."
And for many inside, Mr. Castro is already old, old news. Carlos Rodriguez, half Ecuadorean and half Colombian, is more interested in what looks to him like this generation's Castro, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and in Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, who strikes him as a Chávez imitator.
Even Mr. Marrero's mother, Isabel Diaz, 57, who fled Cuba at 17, finds herself talking about Mr. Castro and Little Little Havana in the same way: products of a moment in time that passed without you quite knowing it. She gets nostalgic about the place and, despite herself, doesn't seem to summon up rage for the man.
"Oh, he had charisma," she said of Mr. Castro. She was sitting at the counter of the restaurant with her son's banana tree and nostalgic art of 1950s Cuban baseball behind her. "He was evil. But that brain. That brain. There was no other brain like his."
E-mail: peappl at nytimes.com
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