Of Coca-Cola, apples and freedom

As U.S.-Cuba relations undergo historic change, Cubans in Chicago tell their stories

By Patrícia Gomes

On a recent Friday night of single-digit temperatures in Chicago, the 90 Miles Cuban Café in Logan Square is in full swing. The waiters’ movement between the two dining rooms and kitchen seems like an uninterrupted dance: full trays in, empty trays out. The walls are filled with photos of Cuba and front pages of Cuban newspapers – both from a time before relations with the U.S. ground to a halt after revolution swept Communists into power on the island nation in 1959.

The U.S.-Cuban embargo may be all but over since President Barack Obama announced a plan to resume diplomatic relations between the two countries last December and met with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama in early April.

The boat that carried Alberto Gonzalez and his family to the U.S. from Cuba in 1980. (Patricia Gomes/MEDILL)
The boat that carried Alberto Gonzalez and his family to the U.S. from Cuba in 1980. (Patricia Gomes/Medill)

At 90 Miles Cuban Café, however, it’s business as usual on this Friday night: In less than 15 minutes, 12 different groups arrived; by 7 p.m., a table for two was a one-hour wait.

Amid this dimly lit and crowded atmosphere emerges Alberto Gonzalez, 46. Confident walk, leather jacket, dark jeans, a long shock of dark hair. He shakes hands with one employee, checks on some details with another, waves to a loyal patron. No doubt: Gonzalez is the owner of 90 Miles. “Sorry for making you wait,” he apologizes. “You know, I am opening our third location. It’s been a busy day.”

On the way to his second-floor office, he stops to explain a photo on the wall depicting a shrimp boat. “This was how we came, 35 years ago,” he says, pointing to the image. Father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt and cousin formed his traveling party.

“I remember there was a severe storm, the floor was always wet. Besides other families, there were also prisoners in that boat trying to arrive in the U.S.,” Gonzalez recalls of the 1980 journey. Twenty-four hours and 30 huge waves later, the family arrived in Key West, Florida, exactly 90 miles from their hometown of Havana.

Was it the beginning of a dream? For Gonzalez, not so much. “I was 11 years old. All I wanted was to taste Coca-Cola and apples,” he remembers. “It turned out that Coke was great, but apples were deceiving. I was used to mangos, which are much better.”

But his parents had grander aspirations. Gonzalez’s father was an industrial electrician who had been forced to work for the regime of Fidel Castro. His mother was a housewife – “not just a housewife. THE housewife,” her son remembers.

“They wanted freedom in politics. My father was always entrepreneurial. He knew capitalism, so living in Cuba was frustrating for him. And, of course, they wanted to put food on the table,” Gonzalez recalls of a distant time when life was much harder for him than it is now.

Waves of immigration

The Gonzalezes were part of the wave of 125,000 emigrants who left Cuba during the 1980s in the Mariel Exodus, mainly for economic reasons. At that time, Cuba had 9.7 million citizens. Sebástian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University and also a Cuban-American, explains that there have been four main waves of immigration from Cuba to the U.S.

Alberto Gonzalez in his office at 90 Miles Cuban Café in Logan Square. (Patricia Gomes/Medill)

The first wave was immediately after the revolution in 1959. About 250,000 wealthy exiles used to American products and proficient in English quickly found a new home in the States. These immigrants were the so-called Golden Generation, Arcos said, comprising highly skilled professionals including doctors, engineers, lawyers and professors.

The second wave occurred from 1965 to 1973 through the so-called Freedom Flights that landed in Miami from Havana, transporting a total of 300,000 refugees over the eight-year period. According to Jaime Dominguez, a Northwestern University professor who specializes in Latino politics, “those two waves [were] formed by political refugees who were against Castro’s regime.”

The third wave, from April to October 1980, was known as the Mariel Exodus and named for the departure port used by 125,000 Cubans, including prisoners and all sorts of criminals. The fourth wave occurred in August 1994 and was called the “rafter crisis.” According to an MIT study on the event, 35,000 rafters – or “balseros” – flooded into Florida in rickety homemade vessels.

Cuban Americans differentiate among themselves between the first two waves and those that started with the “marielitos” of the Mariel Exodus.

“Because there were lots of criminals coming in the ’80s, the immigrants who came before don’t like to be confused with them,” said Daysi Funes, executive director at Centro Romero, a non-profit organization that assists the Chicago Latino community with legal, educational and citizenship advice and currently serves about 500 Cuban Americans in the Chicago area. “The ones who came about that time try to hide this.”

A family reunited

Jorge Luis De la Fe, 60, a Cuban professor who teaches Spanish at Centro Romero, has one foot in the second wave and the other in the last wave. Most of his immediate family left Cuba during the sixties after the government expropriated their lands. Their plan was to leave by plane and start a new life in Miami. However, a few days before they were to depart, the government asked De la Fe to enlist in the army. Part of his family left the country and part remained in Cuba with him, eventually emigrating over a period of time.

Jorge De la Fe: “I love Chicago. The only thing that bothers me is the winter weather.” ( Patricia Gomes/MEDILL)
Jorge De la Fe: “I love Chicago. The only thing that bothers me is the winter weather.” (Patricia Gomes/Medill)

“My family is living in the U.S. since the ’60s. I stayed in Cuba, studied literature, became a professor,” De la Fe says in halting English. He settled in Chicago in 2007 to be with his family in “the land of opportunities” he always heard about, to taste different foods, to experience freedom.

However, what he encountered was not exactly what he expected. “In Cuba, I have about 30 post-graduate courses, and here only six are recognized. I had difficulties to find a job due to my English. Sometimes I feel unappreciated because I’m a specialist in Latino literature and I see people with less credentials than I do giving these classes,” he laments.

Not able to find work in American universities, he stopped looking and earned a master’s degree in Latin American Studies in Culture and Literature at Northeastern Illinois University. De la Fe also misses the friendship among neighbors. In Cuba, he remembers, “we were like relatives. Here people are colder.” But he doesn’t regret leaving Cuba. “I love Chicago,” he says. “The only thing that bothers me is the winter weather.”

Cubans in Chicago

De la Fe and Gonzalez are members of Chicago’s Cuban community, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, numbered 8,331 in 2010. There are almost 1.8 million Cubans living in the U.S., with 1.2 million in Florida, the most common destination due to its geographic proximity to the island.

Compared with other Latino communities in the U.S. – which include roughly 32 million Mexicans – the number of Cubans may seem relatively few. But it is significant given the population of Cuba, Arcos notes. With 11 million citizens in Cuba, its émigrés to the U.S. total just over 10 percent. Relatively speaking, the population of Illinois is about 12 million.

De la Fe teaches Spanish to Latino immigrants at Centro Romero. (Patricia Gomes/MEDILL)
De la Fe teaches Spanish to Latino immigrants at Centro Romero. (Patricia Gomes/Medill)

Moreover, the number of Cubans in the U.S. has spiked in recent years. According to the census, from 2000 to 2010, the number of Cuban Americans rose by almost 50 percent, growing from just over 1.2 million in 2000 to almost 1.8 million in 2010.

“There were more immigrants arriving since 1994 than ever before,” Arcos said. Over the past decade or so the Cuban economy shrunk from between 40­­­ to 50 percent, making living conditions on the island very difficult. “That is the primary cause of the marked increased in migration,” Arcos explained. “Even after Venezuela replaced [in part] the Soviets as Cuba’s benefactor in 1999, the Cuban economy has grown very slowly, and conditions continue to be bad.”

These more recent arrivals bypassed Miami principally for New Jersey, New York and Chicago. Cubans continued to migrate to these locations because they had relatives there. Gonzalez, however, moved to Chicago from Miami to marry a young and pretty Mexican-American woman whom he met in Miami when she was visiting relatives. Christine would become not only his wife and mother of their two children but also his partner in the family business.

“I didn’t have a formal education,” he says. “I learned by doing and from people I met – about sales, business and marketing. I graduated from the University of the Streets.” Gonzalez takes pride in the life he and his wife have built. Before the couple started 90 Miles, Gonzalez was a successful broker on Wall Street for two years, a luxury car salesman and a real estate contractor. But he lost his job in the Great Recession of 2008 and had to start from scratch.

A Friday night full house at 90 Miles café in Logan Square, which serves a range of Cuban fare. (Patricia Gomes/MEDILL)
A Friday night full house at 90 Miles café in Logan Square, which serves a range of Cuban fare. (Patricia Gomes/Medill)

Gonzalez and Christine decided to recreate a Cuban atmosphere in a cozy restaurant using family recipes. “We put my family memories together and built a place where people could have not only food but a cultural experience,” Gonzalez says of 90 Miles, where the decor and music as well as empanadas, Cuban sandwiches and coffee make the island seem a little closer. It was an instant success.

Today Gonzalez has 70 employees and will soon expand to 120 with a third restaurant, in Lincolnwood. The Logan Square location on Armitage Avenue features Latino music; the original location is in Roscoe Village. He has also started a delivery and catering service and sells T-shirts and other 90 Miles merchandise on the company website.

Gonzalez’s accomplishments mirror results of a 2006 Pew Research Center study that compared the Cuban population in the U.S. with other Hispanic immigrant communities. The study reported that “Cubans are older, have a higher level of education, higher median household income and higher rate of homeownership.”

Moreover, 13 percent of Cubans under 18 in the U.S. live in poverty, compared with 27 percent in other Hispanic communities. When it comes to education, 25 percent of Cubans age 25 or older were college graduates in 2006, more than the two times the 12 percent rate of Latinos in the U.S. overall.

Arcos notes that the profile of the Cuban population in the U.S. has been changing. The first Cubans who arrived to escape communism were easily assimilated, and they and their children were economically well-off.

“But if you look at the most recent immigrants, they are from less educated and affluent backgrounds,” Arcos said. “The later arrivals are not so successful here and are bringing the numbers down. The Cuban population profile is becoming more and more similar to [that of] the overall Hispanic population.”

Political impacts

This has implications for U.S. politics, Arcos adds. Historically, Latinos in the U.S. have voted Democratic – except for Cubans, who largely vote Republican. The Cuban Research Institute monitors Cuban views of U.S. policies in a biannual poll. In 1991, 70 percent of respondents voted for Republican candidates, and 16 percent supported the Democrats. By 2014 the numbers had shifted to 53 percent for Republicans and 25 percent for Democrats.

Funes observes that even the poorest Cuban immigrants that Centro Romero serves are clearly different from other Latino immigrants. “Cubans are more active in their communities and more aware of their rights,” she said. “If they need something, they ask. Also, they never hide themselves” – because they do not face the problem of being undocumented.

Since 1965 Cuban immigrants have benefited from the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives them a fast track to become permanent residents and then American citizens. Cubans can become U.S. citizens in five years, while members of other Latino communities have to wait 10 to 20 years without being sure that they will gain citizenship. “Without fearing deportation, Cubans can build their lives in a better way than other immigrants,” Arcos said.

According to the Pew study, “reflecting their unique welcome under U.S. immigration policy, about 60% of Cubans are U.S. citizens, more than double the rate for other Hispanics (26%). About nine out of every 10 Cubans who arrived before 1990 are U.S. citizens.”

But now, with the end of the embargo imminent, things are about to change – including, possibly, this preferred immigration status. “Can [Cuban] immigrants now be considered political exiles?” Dominguez asks. “No. They are coming because of economic reasons, just like any other immigrants who come to the U.S. Soon this act will no longer make sense.”

Arcos says the fear of losing this benefit is already producing a new wave of Cuban immigrants that is likely to continue in the coming years. “We still don’t have official numbers, but we read stories in the newspaper every day,” he said. “Cubans now fear that sooner or later this act will be repealed, and they will have to go through all the processes any immigrant has to in order to become an American citizen.”

A welcome détente

Despite all these uncertainties, at least among Cubans who are already in the U.S., rapprochement between the two countries is welcome. Another Pew Research Center Report, published a month after Obama’s announcement, shows that 63 percent of Americans approve re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, while 66 percent favor the end of the embargo. De la Fe and Gonzalez are with the majority.

“I’m clearly in favor to the end of the embargo, but even more to the end of communism in Cuba,” said De la Fe, who does not think that his life is going to change, though.

“My life is not going to be better or worse. When I decided to emigrate, I was certain that I would not live in Cuba ever again. Maybe visiting my sister once in a while if the conditions there are better, but nothing more than that,” he says, adding that he was surprised when he heard the news in December. “In the future we will see more clearly if Obama’s gesture was the more for convenience and political support. What is clear is that the U.S. only acts according to its interests.”

Gonzalez thinks the agreement will likely benefit not only the U.S. but also the Cuban people. “It would be easy for me to say that I am against,” he says. “I have three cars, a good house, a happy family. But I believe it is a step in a good direction.” He also thinks that the end of the embargo will bring more opportunities for Cubans like him who decide to emigrate. “Everybody deserves to taste freedom.”

Similar to those who came before, this new wave of immigrants will likely look for economic opportunities and freedom. Whether or not they find them, it is certain, though, that they can leave Cuba, but Cuba will never leave them.

De la Fe misses the warmth of his people and the island’s weather. Gonzalez, who until today prefers mangos over apples, likes to say: Soy Cubano y, si no lo fuera, quisiera serlo.

“I’m Cuban – and, if I were not, I would like to be.”

Photo at top: Mementos from Cuba at 90 Miles café. (Patricia Gomes/Medill)