For Orange County Cubans, Club Is a Bit of Home

Times Staff Writer

Every Tuesday morning, Cuban customers grab their wallets when they hear the horn signaling the arrival of the bread man in their small Westminster barrio.

"They always come when they see my green truck turn down Locust Street," said Victor Galvez, who, for two years, has been driving from Los Angeles to Orange County to sell Cuban staples such as pan de agua (fresh bread), galletas (thick crackers), produce and meats.

For Bertha Guerra, the bread man's visits are both a convenience and cultural link to a life left behind.

"Besides, I like Victor. Without him, we would have to travel far to buy our things," she said.

In contrast to Orange County's large Vietnamese community, with its bustling "Little Saigon" commercial center only a few miles away in Westminster, the Cuban-American population is smaller and scattered.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 Cubans live in the county. They are mostly in Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Westminster, and Anaheim, and comprise less than 1% of the total population. Despite their small numbers, however, they are some of the most vocal, closely knit and politically aware Latinos in the county.

As a group, the former political refugees have adapted well. The Cubans interviewed said they were attracted by relatives' and friends' descriptions of the area's balmy climate, its proximity to Los Angeles and the promise of jobs during the county's construction boom.

Nilo E. Lipiz, 31, of Anaheim, recalled that his father "brought us to Orange County" because Cuban relatives spoke highly of it.

"After we were here a few months, my dad ended up calling my aunt in Boston and told her, 'Hey! It's good out here. Come.' And she did."'

Most of the Cubans came from middle-class families and were university-educated. Many arrived in 1962, several years after Fidel Castro came to power. But others, such as the "Marielitos," who arrived in 1980 in the so-called boat lift from Mariel Harbor, were poor and spoke little English. Of about 8,000 Marielitos who settled in Southern California, some live in Orange County, but a majority live in Los Angeles County, according to a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman.

The majority of Cuban-Americans interviewed said they are registered Republicans. They voted for President Reagan and consider themselves politically conservative. They hate the Castro government and believe the United States should remain militarily strong and fight communism.

Some, such as the Carlos Caravia family of Villa Park, have been remarkably successful. The Caravias were able to turn a $500 investment making travel trailers into a $50 million-a-year business. But multimillion-dollar corporations are the exception. Most Cuban-owned businesses are small grocery stores, beauty salons or travel agencies, and the majority of these businesses rely heavily on Cubans and other Latino customers.

At Jose Avila's Anaheim Market, on Lemon Street, instant flan, galletas, frijoles negros (black beans), espresso, malangas (potato-like vegetables) and other Cuban foodstuffs filled the aisles.

Behind the counter, Avila, a portly, 54-year-old Cuban who left Havana in 1964, explained how to prepare bacalao , or salted fish, over the din of a fast Cuban rhythm on the phonograph.

"You get the fish," he said, and he broke off conversation to greet several customers in Spanish. " . . . let it stand in warm water, to get rid of the salt. Then you add lots of spices, and it's delicious," he said with a wide grin.

When Avila first arrived from Cuba, he lived near Guerra's Westminster neighborhood. "I used to be the bread man there for 15 years, but I went door to door," he said.

He saved money, and eventually bought the market at 760 Lemon St. "Now I own this store and the next building. It's all mine," he said proudly.

He has earned enough to live comfortably, and to help his parents, in-laws, and sisters and brothers emigrate to Miami and Orange County, he said.

Despite their success, however, there is growing concern among Cuban-Americans about preserving their heritage.

For that reason, Cesar Hernandez, of Orange, and other Cuban-Americans last September revived the Circulo Cubano, or Cuban Assn., of Orange County, which had been dormant almost three years. (About 16 other circulos are active in Southern California, the largest in Huntington Park and Glendale.)

Hernandez, 44, formerly secretary of the court system in Guantanamo, is now a quality-control manager for a Costa Mesa smoke detector manufacturer. Ties to Cuba are still strong in the community but they are eroding every day, he said sadly.

Hernandez and other Cuban-Americans interviewed noted that Spanish isn't spoken in the home as much as it once was--especially among the second generation. Like the Italian and German immigrants before them, their children have grown up in schools where there is pressure to emulate English-speaking peers.

"We're trying to teach our children to retain our Cuban customs. It's our effort to remember Cuban history and important holidays," said Hernandez, who is the association president.

Hernandez pointed proudly to a pamphlet describing the circulo as " un pedacita de Cuba en el exilio (a little bit of Cuba in exile)."

Jorge Dominguez, Harvard University professor of government and a noted Cuban scholar, said the community leaders' cultural concerns are common among refugees who prefer living away from large Cuban-American population centers, such as Miami and Union City, N. J.

"Many of the Cubans outside those two areas have made a clear commitment to full-scale integration into American society, and find it, at a minimum, odd, and in some sense, troubling,to go through the effort of retaining Cuban heritage," Dominguez said.

"The concerns are close to home," Dominguez added. "They often ask, 'Do my kids speak Spanish?' and the answer is very often no. 'Do my kids marry other Cubans? Will (traditions) disappear by the year 2020, with the death of our grandparents?"'

Almost a million Cubans and Cuban-Americans live in the United States, and about 55,000 of them have settled in Southern California, according to 1980 U.S. Census figures. California has the fourth largest Cuban population in the States, after Florida, New Jersey and New York.

At a recent circulo meeting, about 35 men and women, most of them middle-aged, gathered inside the group's Orange County headquarters, a rented hall in Garden Grove.

Both the Stars and Stripes and Cuba's red and blue flag were displayed at the entrance. Inside, a bust of Jose Marti, the writer and Cuban patriot who lived in exile in the United States from 1881 until his death in 1895, adorned a high shelf.

Men sat and argued over dominoes while others played Liars, a favorite Cuban game in which players hide dice under a cup and try to bluff one another. Women socialized, sharing photographs of grandchildren, while others read Spanish-language newspapers. A few youngsters cavorted noisily about the hall.

It is for many a shelter to live in the past. Lipiz, at age 31, stood out because he was younger than most of the group. "You see a lot of older people who come almost religiously to the things here. But for younger people like myself, it's different, you know? Although I like to come here on holidays and things like that, we got other things to do."

The weekly gatherings are informal. The Cubans just come to talk and sit a while. Cuban food is prepared at home and reheated in the hall, where there is a well-stocked refrigerator.

"This place gets packed on major holidays," said Hernandez, referring to Cuba's May 20 Independence Day and other annual observances.

Salvador Caralto, 54, lives in Orange and operates his own trucking company. He drank a Hatuey, a light-tasting beer from Miami, and reminisced about Cuba.

"Here we play dominoes, drink some beer, eat, drink some beer and listen to music," Caralto said, smiling, as he tapped his fingers to an up-tempo Latin beat.

For Caralto and other Cuban-Americans, the circulo is a cultural sanctuary amid high-rise buildings, shopping malls and freeways.

Where else can people like Caralto, who says he spent three years in a Cuban prison after he was accused of working for the CIA, and Jose Almendral, who says he spent 10 years in Castro's prisons, find comradeship?

"The circulos mean a lot to us," said Francisco Firmat, an attorney who lives in San Juan Capistrano. "It means a lot to just sit down and speak Spanish. There's a certain warmth to the Cuban clubs, like a hogar (home), which you can't find in English-speaking clubs."

As a group, Cuban-Americans do well economically, compared with to other minorities, census figures show.

"But not as well as the perception is by many Latinos (who believe) that Cubans are rich. That's just not the case," said Miami Herald columnist Guillermo Martinez.

Indeed, many other Latinos are jealous of the Cuban-Americans. They point out that many of the Cubans come from middle-class backgrounds, have been able to qualify for citizenship, are fair-skinned and have other European physical traits that help them fit into U.S. society.

"We have Mexican nationals who have worked in the United States for decades," said the director of one Orange County social service agency who asked not to be identified. "Many are poor, uneducated and have paid into our Social Security system, but will never, because of their illegal immigration status, ever get retirement benefits."

Cuban-Americans are different, however, because "we were political refugees," said Raul Matilla, 50, a Santa Ana accountant.

"We came with the idea we couldn't return to our country, unlike many Mexican immigrants. When we did leave Cuba, Castro said that those who leave will never be welcome here again," Matilla said.

Helda Yanez, 45, Avila's sister, was more concise.

She said she was shot three times during political demonstrations in Cuba. "I never want to go back to Cuba, she said. "What for? To die?"

In the United States, 9.6% of all families live in poverty, and among Cubans, excluding the Marielitos, the figure is 11.7%. (Percentages of other minority groups who are poor, according to 1980 Census figures: blacks 26%, Puerto Ricans 34.9%, Mexican-Americans 20.6%.)

Welfare and other Orange County government assistance to the Marielitos peaked in March, 1982, at 216 cases involving 318 persons. By July, 1984, there were 62 cases involving 148 persons, a county social services spokeswoman said.

The Cuban-Americans' anti-communism and patriotism have made them comfortable in Orange County's political climate, and "eager to register as Republicans," said one longtime Republican Party activist, Francisco Ferrer, of Santa Ana.

"You don't have to tell them anything, they already want to become Republicans," Ferrer said.

One Republican candidate who has gained from Cuban-American votes is U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan, who unseated Jerry Pattersonc last November, despite Patterson's strong links with Latino voters. Latinos account for about 33,000, or 16%, of the 205,112 voters in the 38th Congressional District, Ferrer said.

"I wasn't against Patterson," Ferrer explained. "The only reason I supported Bob was because he was the Republican candidate, and we were trying to get as many seats as possible."

Dornan's support of a large U.S. military buildup was a bonus, Ferrer said.

Cuban-Americans hold no elected office in the county, Ferrer said, but to gain more clout, he's thinking of starting a political action committee to back candidates who show interest in Cuban-American affairs or issues.

"We just don't have the numbers yet to support our own candidate," he said.

Keeping the United States strong militarily is a personal concern of Evaristo Rodriguez, 59, of Santa Ana, who was among the first Cuban political refugees to arrive in the county.

The day after Castro took power, Rodriguez said, he was jailed because he had influential business contacts with the Batistas, officials who backed the former dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Rodriguez said he was released after two weeks, then jailed again, for a week, immediately after the Bay of Pigs invasion failed. With other political prisoners facing firing squads, Rodriguez said, he didn't wait to be arrested again. He fled to Miami.

He is strongly anti-communist, "not just with money, but with myself. The people here in Orange County don't know how it is to live under communism. We do."

In fact, many Cuban-Americans expressed disappointment that their Orange County neighbors seem to be politically naive.

Caralto recalled how he once told some friends at a party how the Cuban government "stole" his lands. "They said I should have called the police!"

For others, like Fabio Hernandez, 65, of Santa Ana, the eventual liberation of their homeland is more than a dream. Hernandez still is a member of Alpha 66, a Miami-based militant organization that believes in giving financial support to commandos to overthrow Castro.

"I know I'm part of an older vanguard that still believes that, some day, international politics will change, and the Island of Cuba will become free.

"It's not a dream. It will happen. You just have to keep thinking like I do."

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