Havana in the 1950s: “If You See Something, Say Something”

“If you see something, say something. If you see a suspicious package or activity on an MTA train or platform, do not keep it to yourself, alert the nearest MTA employee or police officer.”

For many people on the subway, the conductor’s announcement falls on deaf ears, like falling rain. But I listen to it. I get it.

As I viewed the photographs of the horrific bombing scenes in Boston, my attention was drawn to those pictures taken before the explosions which showed that the unattended backpacks apparently drew no suspicions from peopleboston-marathon-second-bomb standing in very close proximity to them. No doubt those people were distracted by the passing runners. But it may also be that Americans, for the most part, and perhaps less so New Yorkers, are not attuned psychically to the possibility of terrorism, that is, they do not instinctively assume, for example, that the unattended package they have suddenly encountered poses a real danger.

My reaction is different: I react immediately with suspicion to packages I see in public places. It was wired into my brain circuitry in the Havana of my childhoodradiocentro when an illegal and decrepit government clung to power and a revolutionary urban underground movement sought to depose it through violence in the streets. That Havana of the 1950s, where a Cuban boy could have his grade school class interrupted by the sound of gunfire, where photographs of bloodied dead bodies on both sides of the conflict showed up almost daily in the morning papers, where the presidential palace was fructuosomilitarily assaulted and dozens were killed, where the sound of distant gunfire broke the stillness of the night, where military trucks rumbled through residential neighborhoods, where people jumped at the sound of an engine backfire or of a ceremonial cannon fired from a historic fortress.

And it was a place and time where you learned to heed your parents’ admonition, repeated incessantly, like the MTA message, to stay alertcanizares and the hell away from any packages you might see on the street. One never forgets that, even after more than half a century. I love fireworks but not their sounds. I assume the worst when I hear firecrackers. And to this day, a lonely package in a public place can give me cause to pause. Only four days before the Boston bombings, I froze when I walked into my class and spied a small shopping madresbag that had been left in a corner of the classroom. Fortunately, it was open, so I forced myself to walk slowly towards it and peer in, without touching it. It was the detritus of someone’s breakfast.

I suspect I share this sensitivity (phobia, if you like), with many of my Cuban contemporaries. And I know share it with many people around the world who grew up in places and times in which bombings and shootings were part of their daily lives. The street violence of pre-revolutionary Havana, after all, was nothing compared with what many children have experienced, and continue to experience, in the Middle East and other regions with protracted and devastating conflicts.


That is not normal. It is not the way children should grow up. And that is not the way that children have grown up in the United States, a country that, despite 9/11, has not had to habituate itself to random acts of terrorism directed at innocent persons in public places; it has not had to internalize a hyper sensitivity to dangers in the streets.

What is normal is that in a crowd watching a marathon no one should have to worry about a stray package. But what is normal may be changing in this country. Let’s hope not.  By far most of my childhood memories in Cuba are truly pleasant. I could, of course, do without those that are not.

Breakfast in Union City

It’s been a long winter, intruding on Spring. And the semester has been more than busy. So Liza and I started Spring Break early, rented a car, and sought out the landscapes of the Hudson Valley, favorites of ours, just for a change. We did not stay overnight, but the car was not due back until the following day at noon.

So what can we do in just one morning with a car in the city? Escape the city for breakfast. And I mean escape the brunch plague. Yes, New York City has thousands upon thousands of restaurants, but it seems all of them, at least in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, have one menu on weekend mornings: some 07variation of Eggs Benedict, waffles, pancakes, and your choice of a Mimosa or Bloody Mary. Oh, and if you happen to wake up early (as I do), you have to wait until about 11:00 a.m. to make your selection. I like to have breakfast when I wake up, and by midday I’m ready for a real meal, not eggs on English muffins or something covered in syrup.

With a car, the choice is clear. Burrow into the Lincoln Tunnel and come out in Union City hoping for a breakfast we have not had this long winter: a Cuban breakfast. You know what I’m talking about: café con leche, tostada cubana (buttered, crisp, well pressed), and huevos fritos (not runny, with that whitish layer on the yolks that you get by splashing the cooking oil on top while you fry them). We were also hoping for a side of either chorizo, or even better, croqueticas de jamón. 006

In an earlier post, I asked readers of Cuban New Yorker if there are any Cuban places in New York that serve cafeteria fare, because that’s what you are looking for when you go out for a Cuban breakfast. No one suggested a place in the city. So I went online: “Cuban cafeterias in Union City, NJ.” I was referred to Cuban restaurants in Union City. I scanned through the results and saw one with the name “Latin American Restaurant,” evocative of the cafeteria in Miami with the same name. And it opens at 9:00 a.m. every day. That’s what I’m talking about.

Since I do not usually have a car in New York, I do not, regretfully, get out to Cubanland in Jersey I often as I would like. So I had to depend on the GPS to direct me to 4317 Bergenline Avenue. But the expedition was worth it, as I realized as soon as I drove up to the place. There were signs on the restaurant’s exterior advertising its offerings, including pan con bistec, sandwich cubano,

001and, most importantly, desayuno completo, that is, cafeteria fare.  As it turned out, we could get both chorizo and croqueticas. The croqueticas were atypically slender, but they were homemade, fried to order, and light and crispy. The eggs were perfect, as were the café con leche and the tostada.

???????????????????????????????That morning the restaurant was a one-woman operation: waitress, cook, and cashier all in one, which was not a problem since the place was not exactly crowded at 9:00 a.m. (where did everyone go, to Manhattan for brunch?).  I did ???????????????????????????????not ask her name since she was initially a bit leery of us when she saw me taking pictures of the restaurant’s exterior. [Maybe sizing up someone’s place of business is not a good thing to do in Tony Soprano’s 003territory].  But after we started talking she told us she had arrived in Union City (and the U.S.) three years ago, after leaving Cuba through Mexico.

U.S. Census data show that the Cuban presence in Union City is declining, in both relative and absolute terms. The 2000 Census counted 10,296 persons of Cuban-origin or descent, the largest single Latino-origin group in Union City, but that was already a dwindling number in comparison to the 1970’s and 80’s. The most recent census (2010) found 7,510 persons claiming Cuban origin or descent, with Dominicans now the largest single Latino-origin group in the city (10,020).002

The figures also show that Union City remains a first-generation (immigrant) community for Cubans. Even as the numbers decline, Cuban-born persons continue to predominate among all persons of Cuban origin. In other words, the children of Cuban immigrants move out of Union City, with new arrivals from Cuba (the preparer of our fine breakfast is an example) replacing them. But they are not fully replacing them, since new immigrants from the island are likely to go to Florida, and so the community in Union City declines.

But Union City, and especially Bergenline Avenue, continues to bear the mark of what has been a premier community for Cubans in the U.S.  Fortunately, ethnic communities tend to outlive the immigrant generation, at least in terms of businesses catering to the group’s traditional consumption patterns, as evidenced by Little Italys everywhere and even Ybor City in Tampa. I hope so. I plan to go back to Union City for breakfast.

Martí’s 1895 birthday, the fateful days that followed, and the women in his life

José Martí celebrated his last birthday at Delmonico’s. Starting the following day, he was immersed in a whirlwind of events in preparation for his departure to Cuba. On January 30th, 1895, Martí left New York. Those last days in the city bring into focus the women who were important to him during his life here. This is the story:

On a cold January evening in 1895, José Martí walked briskly to Delmonico’s Restaurant on 26th Street and Fifth Avenue to celebrate his birthday. It was a Monday, the 28th day of the month, exactly forty-two years after his birth in a modest Havana home.

Delmonico's, corner of  26th Street and Fifth Avenue

Delmonico’s, corner of 26th Street and Fifth Avenue

As he walked into the restaurant, his mind was on the events he had set into motion and that at times seemed to overwhelm him. But the sight of four loyal friends waiting for him at a corner table helped to place him in a celebratory mood. It was, after all, his birthday and it was his favorite New York restaurant. He once wrote about Delmonico’s that “everything there is served and prepared with supreme distinction . . . moist bottles set on rich napkins, select dishes on elegant platters, delicate crystal filled with perfumed wines, silver plates with soft breads . . .”

Dinner that January evening provided a much-needed distraction from what Martí had to do on the following day: draft the order to start a war. Perusing the menu, he recognized many of Delmonico’s signature offerings: Red-Head Roast Duck, Breast of Chicken à la Lorenzo, Terrapin (Baltimore Style), Filet of Beef with Stuffed Olives, Renaissance Timbales, Clear Green Turtle Soup, Peaches (or Pears) à la Richelieu, and “Fancy Cakes”.

Among his friends in attendance that evening was his loyal right-hand man, the young U.S.-educated lawyer Gonzalo de Quesada and Gonzalo’s father-in-law, Dr. Ramón L. Miranda, Martí’s physician. Missing from the all-male table,DelmonicoDinner however, was the woman who made possible the celebratory spirit that permeated the occasion: Miranda’s wife and Gonzalo’s mother-in-law, Luciana Govín.

Luciana was the oldest daughter of Félix Govín, a man who had left Cuba in the wake of the outbreak of war in the island in 1868 and settled in New York. By the 1880’s Félix Govín was quite possibly the richest Cuban in New York from his careful investments in Manhattan real estate. In 1884, he enticed General Máximo Gómez to come to New York from Central America with the promise of $100,000 of his own money and an additional $100,000 from his friends to finance another independence war against the Spanish.

Maximo Gomez

Maximo Gomez

The old general, always up for another fight, came to the city only to find that Govín reneged on his offer. It may have simply been a ploy of Govín to leverage the Spanish with the threat of supporting an insurrection if they did not pay restitution for his embargoed properties in Cuba. Gómez was outraged.

Félix died in 1891 a widower, leaving an estate valued at $600,000. He left a third of it to Luciana and the rest to his other children and grandchildren.

In the closing days of 1894, Martí had three ships outfitted with men and arms ready to sail for Cuba from Fernandina Beach, near Jacksonville. The expedition had been coordinated with simultaneous landings in Cuba of the military leaders, led by Gómez.  But the betrayal of one of the collaborators and the relentless activities of the Pinkertons, (who had long been the bane of Martí as agents for the Spanish government) tipped off the U.S. government to the violation of its Neutrality Act and the vessels were confiscated before they could leave for Cuba. Through legal maneuvers the movement recovered some of the arms and munitions, but the fruits of Martí’s years of fundraising were lost, as was the element of surprise. The Spanish were astounded by the magnitude and organization of the movement and started preparing for an uprising.   For the first time, Martí’s closest collaborators saw him lose his composure and act in a desperate, even irrational, manner.  It would not be easy to raise the money needed to outfit a comparable expeditionary force again. What remained in the treasury of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano was not enough. But in a twist of fate, Luciana Govín came forward and put up the rest of the money. She handed Martí a blank check and told him he could have up to $100,000, not coincidentally the same amount her father had deceitfully pledged to Gómez more than ten years before.

A new expedition was quickly assembled, awaiting Martí’s order to proceed. It was the responsibility of giving that order that weighed heavily on Martí’ mind as he walked into Delmonico’s on the night in January 28, 1895 to celebrate his last birthday.

UprisingOrder-TrellesMatanzasP127The day after the dinner, January 29, Martí drafted and signed the order to start the uprising on the island. Gonzalo de Quesada, one of the diners at Delmonico’s, carried the order to Key West where, according to legend, it was rolled into a cigar, taken to the island, and delivered personally to Martí’s representative in Havana, Juan Gualberto Gómez.

January 30th was Martí’s last day in New York. Since his return from Jacksonville he had been staying at 116 W. 64th St., the home of Dr. Miranda and Luciana Govín.  Martí was keeping a low profile so as not to tip off the Pinkerton agents that the uprising was underway.

On that final New York day, Martí found the time to bid a hasty farewell to the Baralt family, who also lived on W. 64th Street, number 135. Blanche Baralt wrote years later that on that day Martí came to her family’s house, apologizing for not visiting longer since he did not have a moment to spare. After saying that only God knew when he would see them again, he “dashed off like an arrow into the freezing morning.”   Days later, Blanche and her sister-in-law discovered an unfamiliar brown winter coat hanging in the cloakroom of their foyer. Upon searching the pockets, they discovered it was Martí’s coat, left there on that last day because he was, Baralt concluded, so preoccupied with his precipitous departure.  No doubt. But at some point after leaving the Baralt home, the cold January air must have reminded him that he had left his coat behind. He might have momentarily turned back to retrieve it, but then realized that he would never need it again. He was, at last, going back to Cuba.

The most wrenching farewell of that final New York day no doubt took place in the house of Carmen Mantilla. Two days later, aboard the S. S. Athos of the Atlas

Carmen Mantilla
Carmen Mantilla

Line, the steamer taking him away from New York, Martí wrote a letter on the ship’s stationery to “my dear girl,” the fourteen-year-old María. He asked her to retrieve his Larousse from the home of Gonzalo de Quesada and borrow from Blanche Baralt her copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology so she could look up “Athos” and “Atlas.” He signed the letter, “your Martí.”

On May 19th, Carmen Mantilla and her children received another letter from Martí, one that had been written more than a month earlier in the Cuban countryside. In it, he told them that he carried at all times a picture of María on his chest, next to his heart. The day Carmen received the letter in New York, Martí was killed by a volley of Spanish bullets.

María Mantilla, at the age of 15, in 1895

María Mantilla, at the age of 15, in 1895

It was the sense of a fatal destiny that made the birthday dinner at Delmonico’s a bittersweet occasion for Martí. For him it was much more than a birthday celebration. Enjoying an exquisite culinary evening was a good way to bid farewell to a city that had become a part of him, and which he knew he would never see again.

Luciana Govín is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Carmen Mantilla is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

María Mantilla, reputedly Martí’s daughter, lived the rest of her life in the U.S. and was the mother of the actor César Romero.

Blanche Baralt, born in 1865 in New York, moved to Cuba after the war ended in 1898 and in 1945 published a memoir of her life in New York and the Martí she knew.

A Nochebuena Tradition, Revisited

Tonight is nochebuena.  I would like to share with the readers of cubanewyorker an essay I wrote about my own nochebuena tradition. The Miami Herald published it exactly twenty years ago today. In the years I served as Contributing Editor of the Herald I authored dozens of op-ed essays, most of them analytical and commentary pieces, but few garnered as much attention as this very personal one. For several reasons, also personal, I thought that the essay’s twentieth anniversary was a good time to send it into the blogosphere and share it with many who did not read it two decades ago, and even with some who did. I have added a postscript with updates.

The Tradition of Nochebuena
The Miami Herald, December 24, 1992, p. 11-A

When family and friends ask me what I want for Christmas, I never know what to say. The truth is, every year I give myself what I truly want for Christmas: the privilege of cooking, with all the trimmings, a classic nochebuena (Christmas eve) feast.

I don’t know if there are a lot of Cuban men, especially of my generation (those who arrived here as children) who can do that. But I can, by memory, without any written recipes. It is a skill that I treasure, one that I acquired after a long and cherished apprenticeship.

Cooking the nochebuena dinner allows me to continue a tradition. Every year on the eve of Christmas my children are exposed to the same tastes, sights, and aromas that I experienced as a child.

I appreciated this more after reading a few years ago the reminiscences of José Yglesias, the noted writer, about nochebuena in the Ybor City of his childhood. He moved away from the Tampa neighborhood as a young man but returned one Christmas many years later with his grown children. The smell of the roast pork and the simmering black beans brought back a flood of childhood memories, and he regretted that it was an experience that he had not shared with his children as they were growing up.

But keeping a tradition alive for my children is only one of the reasons why it is important for me to cook the nochebuena feast every year. Another one, perhaps more important, has to do with how I learned to do so.

There are people who believe that their mothers are (or were) the greatest cooks in the world. Those people are wrong. My mother was the world’s greatest cook. That was true during her entire adult life. As one of my aunts once put it, “Nancy was a great cook. Not just now, but always.” What she meant was that my mother was a great cook even in Cuba, where she had someone to cook for her and she didn’t have to go into the kitchen every day. I remember that she would teach the cook how to cook.

And she was a perfectionist. When she had to cook every day here in the United States, she couldn’t bring herself to put just anything on the table, even on the days when she worked a full day outside the house.

Nochebuena was special to her. All the family and relatives would gather at our house in Hialeah, and she cooked for all of them. Because she was such a perfectionist, she usually preferred to handle everything herself.

But eventually that became progressively more difficult. Multiple sclerosis kept her from moving around her kitchen or standing for long periods of time. She started needing help with nochebuena. Since I had always shown an interest in her cooking skills, I was the logical helper. If I had a sister, I might have missed the opportunity.

At that time I did not live in South Florida, but I had to manage to be home for the holidays before December 22, when the nochebuena preparations got started. It’s the day when the beans are soaked, because the recipe calls for them to be cooked on the following day, the day before being served.

She insisted on that particular recipe, Black Beans Valdés-Fauli, a family tradition. Every year she would remind me that, although the recipe bears the name of our distant relatives, it was really developed by her grandfather, an excellent cook and a colonel in the Cuban independence army. Her message, just in case I had reservations about donning an apron, was that manhood and cooking are not contradictory, and that her family has a tradition of great male cooks.

With each passing year, her condition deteriorated and my apprenticeship intensified. At first, I was just handing her things and observing. But on her last nochebuena, it was clear that I had learned well. I did everything, while she had to content herself with merely supervising from her wheelchair, making sure that not a step was missed, no corners cut, nothing forgotten, constantly testing me, reminding me.

“Remember, when marinating the pork, there is no such thing as too much garlic . . . Did you put the tablespoon of sugar in the beans? It’s a critical ingredient . . . If we have 17 people, how many cups of rice? And cups of water? It’s time to open the pressure cooker and surprise the yuca with cold water . . . Remember not to heat the mojo with the juice in it . . . Just before serving pour the hot olive oil and garlic into the cold juice . . . Don’t forget to stand back when you do that.”

This is the tenth nochebuena without my mother. I continue to cook the dinner strictly by memory, following each step exactly as I learned it. It is a ritual. I believe that even if someday I have the misfortune of finding myself alone on Christmas Eve, I would probably still go through the whole thing.

No, I don’t want anything for Christmas. All I want is to cook the nochebuena dinner. I get to keep alive a tradition for my children, and I get to remember my mother.

Who could ask for more?

2012 updates:

I no longer do the yuca. I was never a fan, and it’s the most laborious dish on the menu and the hardest to get just right.

So far, I have not had to spend nochebuena alone, in fact, I’ve been very lucky (and grateful) in terms of companionship.

Moving to New York nearly three years ago but returning to Miami to spend the holidays has disrupted the nochebuena tradition a bit, but I still insist on cooking the meal during the season, even if not always on nochebuena itself.

I have succeeded in passing on to my sons the nochebuena tradition, but only in eating it, not in preparing it. But I harbor the hope and expectation that when my two granddaughters are old enough they will both join me in the kitchen for Christmas and I can pass on my mother’s nochebuena secrets. This posting is dedicated to Gabriela and Paula. 

Feliz Navidad a todos.

With Liza and Paula (left) and Gabriela in Fort Tryon Park, Upper Manhattan, Spring 2012

With Liza, Paula (left) and Gabriela in Fort Tryon Park, Upper Manhattan, Spring 2012

José Martí on Another New York Storm

Sandy has humbled New York.  As we reflect on what has happened to this great city, Cuban New Yorker cannot do better than simply share with its readers the chronicle that José Martí wrote in 1888 about the great blizzard of that year. “New York Under the Snow” came to my mind when I heard that the last time, before this week, that the New York Stock Exchange had closed for two consecutive days was precisely during the weather event that moved Martí’s pen.

The 1888 blizzard was a snow storm and not a hurricane (although Martí actually uses the word hurricane to describe it), and it occurred late in the winter, practically in the spring. But beyond that, the parallels are uncanny. The 1888 blizzard was also a perfect storm, a collision, precisely over New York, of two cold fronts,  one coming from the Northeast and the other from the Midwest. It heralded itself on a Sunday and struck on a Monday. Martí’s chronicle is also eerily familiar: the devastation, the deaths, a proud city humbled and buried by the sheer force of nature, the paralyzed trains and stuck and overturned cars (horse drawn ones, of course), the scarcity of basic commodities after the storm. And there is also the relevance of Martí’s social commentary: the pressure on workers to brave the conditions and show up for work, the questioning of where the railroad companies are sending the relief provisions, the ability of the city to pull together in a time of crisis and overcome its usual selfishness, and the triumph of recovery.  But it is clearly another time: there is no mention of a government (much less federal) role in recovery or even an expectation of a role.

Below is virtually the entire chronicle. I took out some small passages that were redundant or just too baroque, Martí style. I used primarily the translation that appears in pages 271-277 of Phillip Lopate’s Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. New York: Washington Square Press, 1998, available as a preview through Google Books. Lopate does not credit the translator, so I cannot. Working from the Spanish original in the Obras Completas, I tinkered a bit with the translation. Also, the version in Google had missing passages, which I had to translate myself. I did the best I could: it is not easy to translate Martí. His sentence structures and punctuation work well in Spanish, but not in English. But the man wrote with a sensibility that speaks to us today, especially during these dark New York days. I hope that the redemptive and hopeful tone of his ending lifts your spirits.

José Martí
March 15, 1888
Published in La Nación (Buenos Aires), April 27, 1888 

The first oriole had already been spied hanging its nest from a cedar in Central Park; the bare poplars were putting forth their spring fuzz; and the leaves of the chestnut were emerging, like chattering women poking their heads out of their hoods after a storm. Notified by the chirping of the birds, the brooks were coming out from under their icy covering to see the sun’s return, and winter, defeated by the flowers, had fled away, covering its retreat with the month of winds. The first straw hats had made their appearance, and the streets of New York were gay with Easter attire, when, on opening its eyes after the hurricane has spent its force, the city found itself silent, deserted, shrouded, buried under the snow. Doughty Italians, braving the icy winds, load their street-cleaning carts with fine, glittering snow, which they empty into the river to the accompaniment of neighs, songs, jokes, and oaths. The elevated train, stranded in a two-day vigil beside the body of the engineer who set out to defy the blizzard, is running again, creaking and shivering, over the clogged rails that glitter and flash. Sleigh bells jingle; the newsvendors cry their papers; snow-plows, drawn by stout percherons, throw up banks of snow on both sides of the street as they clear the horse car’s path; through the breast-high snow, the city makes its way back to the trains, paralyzed on the white plains, to the rivers, now turned into bridges, to the silent wharfs.

The clash of the combatants echoes through the vault-like streets of the city. For two days the snow has had New York in its power, encircled, terrified, like a prize fighter to the canvas by a sneak punch. But the moment the attack of the enemy slackened, as soon as the blizzard had spent its first fury, New York, like the victim of an outrage, goes about freeing itself from its shroud. Leagues of men move through the white mounds. The snow already runs in dirty rivers in the busiest streets under the onslaught of its assailants. With spades, with shovels, with their own chests and those of the horses, they push back the snow, which retreats to the rivers.

Man’s defeat was great, but so was his triumph. The city is still white; the bay remains white and frozen. There have been deaths, cruelties, kindness, fatigue, and bravery. Man has given a good account of himself in this disaster.

At no time in this century has New York experienced a storm like that of March 13. It had rained the preceding Sunday, and the writer working into the dawn, the newspaper vendor at the railroad station, the milkman on his round of the sleeping houses, could hear the whiplash of the wind that had descended on the city against the chimneys, against walls and roofs, as it vented its fury on slate and mortar, shattered windows, demolished porches, clutched and uprooted trees, and howled, as though ambushed, as it fled down the narrow streets. Electric wires, snapping under its impact, sputtered and died. Telegraph lines, which had withstood so many storms, were wrenched from their posts. And when the sun should have appeared, it could not be seen, for like a shrieking, panic-stricken army, with its broken squadrons, gun carriages and infantry, the snow swirled past the darkened windows, without interruption, day and night. Man refused to be vanquished. He came out to defy the storm.

But by this time the overpowered streetcar lay horseless beneath the storm; the elevated train, which paid in blood for its first attempt to brave the elements, let the steam escape from its helpless engine; the suburban train, halted en route by the tempest or stalled by the drifting snow, higher than the engines, struggled in vain to reach its destination. The streetcars attempted one trip, and the horses plunged and reared, defending themselves with their hoofs from the suffocating storm. The elevated train took on a load of passengers, and ground to a halt half-way through the trip, paralyzed by the snow; after six hours of waiting, the men and women climbed down by ladder from their wind-tossed prison. The wealthy, or those faced with an emergency, paid twenty-five or fifty dollars for carriages drawn by stout horses to carry them a short distance, step by step. The angry wind, heavy with snow, buffeted them, pounded them, hurled them to the ground.

It was impossible to see the sidewalks. Intersections could no longer be distinguished, and one street looked like the next. On Twenty-third Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares, a thoughtful merchant put a sign on a corner-post: “This is 23rd Street.” The snow was knee-deep, and the drifts, waist-high. The angry wind nipped at the hands of pedestrians, knifed through their clothing, froze their noses and ears, blinded them, hurled them backward into the slippery snow, its fury making it impossible for them to get to their feet, flung them hatless and groping for support against the walls, or left them to sleep, to sleep forever, under the snow. A shopkeeper, a man in the prime of life, was found buried today, with only a hand sticking from the snow to show where he lay. A messenger boy, as blue as his uniform, was dug out of a white, cool tomb, a fit resting place for his innocent soul, and lifted up in the compassionate arms of his comrades. Another, buried to the neck, sleeps with two red patches on his white cheeks, his eyes a filmy blue.

The old, the young, women, children, inch along Broadway and the avenues on their way to work. Some fall, and struggle to their feet. Some, exhausted, sink into a doorway, their only desire to struggle no more; others, generous souls, take them by the arm, encouraging them, shouting and singing. An old woman, who had made herself a kind of mask of her handkerchief with two slits for the eyes, leans against a wall and bursts into tears; the president of a neighboring bank, making his way on foot, carries her in his arms to a nearby pharmacy, which can be made out through the driving snow by its yellow and green lights. “I’m not going any further,” said one. “I don’t care if I lose my job.” “I’m going on,” says another. “I need my day’s pay.” The clerk takes the working girl by the arm; she helps her weary friend with an arm around his waist. At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, a new bank clerk pleads with the policeman to let him pass, although at that moment only death can cross the bridge. “I will lose the job it has taken me three years to find,” he supplicates. He starts across, and the wind reaches a terrible height, throws him to the ground with one gust, lifts him up again, snatches off his hat, rips open his coat, knocks him down at every step; he falls back, clutches at the railing, drags himself along. Notified by telegraph from Brooklyn, the police on the New York side of the bridge pick him up, utterly spent.

But why all this effort, when hardly a store is open, when the whole city has surrendered, huddled like a mole in its burrow, when if they reach the factory or office they will find the iron doors locked? Only a fellow man’s pity, or the power of money, or the happy accident of living beside the only train which is running in one section of the city, valiantly inching along from hour to hour, can give comfort to so many faithful employees, so many courageous old men, so many heroic factory girls on this terrible day. From corner to corner they make their way, sheltering themselves in doorways, until one opens to the feeble knocking of their numbed hands, like sparrows tapping against the window panes. Suddenly the fury of the wind mounts; it hurls the group fleeing for shelter against the wall; the poor working women cling to one another in the middle of the street until the snarling, screeching wind puts them to flight again. Men and women fight their way uptown, struggling against the gale, clearing the now from their eyes, shielding them with their hands to find their way through the storm. Hotels? The chairs have been rented out for beds, and the baths for rooms. Drinks? Not even the men can find anything to drink; the saloons have exhausted their stock; and the women, dragging their numb feet homeward, have only tears to drink.

After the first surprise of the dawn, people find ways to adjust their clothing so the fury of the tempest will not do them so much harm. There is an overturned wagon at every step; a window shade, hanging from its spring, flaps against the wall like the wing of a dying bird; an awning in shreds, a half-torn cornice, a fallen eave . . . “Sir!” cries the voice of a boy who cannot be seen for the snow, “get me out of here, I will die.”  It is a messenger boy that some vile firm has sent out to deliver a message. And when the night closed in without lights, when there was space only for fear . . . when from houses without roofs people searched in vain for their families, when the fire hydrants lie buried beneath five feet of snow, a fire erupts furiously, a fire that brings down three houses. The fire truck arrives!  And the firemen dig with their hands to find the hydrants . . .

Without milk, without coal, without newspapers, without streetcars, without telephones, without telegraph, the city awoke this morning. And last night there were four open theaters! All businesses suspended, and the false marvel of the elevated train pushes in vain to take to work the mob that crowds the station waiting impatiently.

The trains have stalled with their human cargo. Nothing has been heard from the rest of the nation. The rivers are ice and the daring ones are crossing them on foot. Suddenly the ice cracks and floes are formed with men clinging to them: a tugboat goes out to save them, pushing the floating ice towards the piers. They are saved, and from the river banks one hears one loud “Hurray!”  “Hurray” they yell on the streets at the passing fireman, the policeman, the brave mailman. What has happened to the trains that do not arrive, and where do the railroad companies, with their magnificent energy resources, with their most powerful engines, send the groceries and the coal? How many bodies under the snow?

The snow, as if it were an army in retreat that turns back on the enemy with an unexpected attack, came at night and covered with death the proud city.

We saw yesterday that these attacks from the unknown are worthwhile for utilitarian peoples whose virtues, nurtured by their labor, are capable of compensating, in these solemn hours, for the lack of those virtues that are weakened by selfishness. How brave the children, how punctual the workers, how unhappy and noble the women, how generous the men! The entire city speaks in a loud voice, as if afraid to be lonely. Those who all year long brutally elbow each other, today laugh, they exchange their stories of mortality, exchange addresses, and accompany their new friends for long walks . . .

It terrifies and amazes to see this city of snow reappear, with its red houses, as if flowering in blood. The telegraph poles ruefully contemplate the destruction, their tangled, fallen wires like unkempt heads. The city resuscitates, buries its dead, and with men, horses, and machines all working together, clears away the snow with streams of boiling water, with shovels, plows, and bonfires. But one is touched by a sense of great humility and a sudden rush of kindness, as though the dread hand had touched the shoulders of all men.

Havana in Williamsburg

Manhattanites have traditionally regarded the “outer boroughs” in the same condescending way habaneros talk about “en provincia, “ or what used to be called in Cuba “el interior,” that is, the rest of the world out there beyond the center of the universe.  It is clear, however, that in recent years Brooklyn (or at least parts of it), has become “cool” enough to escape provincial status and be touted as part of the known New York world.  That much is evident on any given weekend evening as the Brooklyn-bound L train disgorges scores of “hip” young people at the Bedford Avenue stop for an evening in Williamsburg.

Williamsburg has acquired a particular appeal because it is probably the one “cool” place in Brooklyn where you are not in danger of being run over by a stroller. Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and the like have acquired a reputation for “hip young families.” But in Williamsburg the vibe is more like an edgy version of the Meatpacking District scene in Manhattan: young single people out for a good time.

Liza and I went to Williamsburg recently in search of a Cuban restaurant we had seen on a Sunday last summer on our way to the Williamsburg Flea Market. We had forgotten the name of it, but nevertheless managed to locate it on North 6th Street, between Whythe and Kent Avenues, a couple of blocks from the Bedford Avenue station. It has a puzzling name: Cubana Socíal. Hmmm . . . what’s up with that accent on the i? And in what way do cubana and social combine to form a meaningful term? A sociable Cuban female person?  The friendly skies of the Cuban national airline? There must be a story behind the name that I am missing. Or maybe not. Maybe it is simply meant to be evocative in a meaningless way.

The restaurant bills itself as “1940s Havana Meets Brooklyn,” and that is indeed what makes this place intriguing. It’s more about the ambience than the food, although the food is good enough.  The ambience actually does not start at the door of the restaurant, but in the neighborhood itself. The success of the restaurant’s interior design is that it is a continuation of the atmosphere of the neighborhood. There is something peculiarly Havanesque about Williamsburg.

The elements are all there. Williamsburg is an area transitioning from warehouses, factories, and industrial shops to a cool chic based precisely upon the omnipresence, and transformation, of the ruins of the past. There are shuttered and dilapidated spaces everywhere, with some of those spaces converted to restaurants, bars, and stores that are interspersed among, and even integrated with, the ruins. Last month, The New York Times reported that an arts group called The Original Music Workshop is holding avant-garde artistic performances in the open air inside the weathered shell of a former factory. The picture in the Times could have been taken right out of a report from Havana on the city’s culture and arts spaces. Art among the ruins.

A performance designed by the artist Erika Harrsch, with butterfly-shaped kites, was among the acts at Original Music Workshop in Williamsburg. Photo by Marcus Yam for The New York Times.

As with Havana, the Williamsburg that straddles Bedford Avenue retains (so far) the ambience and decayed structures of its past.  Retaining that past gives the place an unmistakable grittiness, a pervasive unkemptness that has been lost in the now impeccable neighborhoods that have completed the transition to gentrification. There are the broken and patchy (even dangerous) sidewalks, the boarded-up factories and shops, the peeling paint, and the vacant lots overgrown with weeds. And another thing: the quality of the light. In a factory and warehouse district where everyone went home at night, there was a minimal investment  in street lighting (as has happened in Havana, where the urban infrastructure has not been a priority). Liza noticed it first: Williamsburg at night has a dimness evocative of Havana.

The folks at Cubana Socíal have very successfully played off that neighborhood vibe. It’s not really 1940’s Havana meets Brooklyn, but more like the ruins of 1940’s (and 1910s, 1920’s and 1930’s) Havana meets Brooklyn. The space is cavernous, probably a former auto repair or body shop or perhaps a factory, with a very high ceiling, square brick columns throughout, and cement floor. Not much has been done to transform it into a restaurant, except for a magnificent bar and an art deco front with a weathered industrial look to give the appearance that it has always been there (or in Havana). Compared to the bar, contemporary in its style, the tables and chairs (some of them rickety or foldable) seem to be almost an afterthought, a mishmash of styles cobbled together from the nearby flea market. But it is actually part of an evidently conscious effort to emulate the grittiness of old Havana, a paladar set in a space that used to be something else, complete with peeling paint.

The art deco style is replicated on the walls by several prints by Conrado Massaguer (1889-1965), no doubt reproduced from illustrations of his fiercely art deco magazine Social (no accent). [Massaguer, who lived in New York for part of his life, deserves a separate future post in CNY].

There is another way Cubana Socíal tries to evoke Havana: the attempt at creating a surreal ambience [I wonder if it is really true, as legend holds, that Sartre, as he was leaving Cuba after his only visit there in 1960, with Simone de Beauvoir at his side and his coat draped over his shoulders, said: “One could not live here, it is too surreal.”]

Cubana Socíal has a whiff of Cuban surrealism. The space is so huge that there are large empty spaces without tables, a strange expansiveness rare among space-starved New York restaurants. On a huge wall the restaurant continually shows black and white American movies, with no sound and for no evident reason nor connection with the Cuban theme.

When we were there they were showing a noir movie, with vaguely familiar but unnamable actors, apparently about a returning soldier with an overacted case of post-traumatic stress disorder acquired after being imprisoned in a camp run by sadistic Asian soldiers in Mao suits. Who knows . . . maybe the Cold War connection. All of this while El Benny can be heard singing Maracaibo Oriental. What would Sartre say?

Oh yes . . . the food. Reflecting the investment in the bar and not the dining area, Cubana Socíal’s drink menu is about as large as the food menu. There are several varieties of rum concoctions, but also a lot of other choices (a good thing, since I must confess here and now that, as is true of most Cubans when given a choice, I’ll take whiskey over rum any day). The main food offerings are few and simple, one dish per protein source: lechón asado, ropa vieja, shrimp and rice, some sort of chicken, and a vegetarian option, most served with white rice and black beans. There are appetizers and sides and sandwiches. Liza ordered the ropa vieja and I went for the lechón, which was curiously served not in chunks, but shredded, like vaca frita. We ordered, of course, a side of maduros.

The servings are also kept simple. Unlike most Cuban restaurants, where the huge quantities of food come in separate plates, everything came in one overflowing plate in the style of Chinese combination dinners or the old “blue-plate specials.”  The servings are on the modest side, but so are the prices. The food was good and authentic and the deal breaker (for me) was there: well-done maduros, amelcochados. Liza and I shared a flan, which was rich and caramel-y.

So, yes, grab the L and go out there. Take in the food and, especially, the ambience, which kicks in as soon as you exit the station. It’s an ambience that is changing, no doubt faster than in Havana.

Cubana Socíal
70 North 6th Street
(between Whythe and Kent Avenues)
Brooklyn, NY 
(718) 782-3334

The First Cuban New Yorker: The Case for Félix Varela y Morales

As we already know from previous blogs on the search for the first Cuban New Yorker, Fr. Félix Varela was not chronologically the first. But he was almost the first one (only missed it by months), and there are a lot of things about him that make us want to think that he was the first.  First of all, unlike many Cuban New Yorkers, he was not a slave owner; in fact, he opposed slavery, even when most of his students (including Cristóbal Mádan) were from slaveholding families. Varela was also an early and active proponent of Cuban sovereignty (as Martí wrote much later “he taught us how to think”). But most importantly, he is the first Cuban New Yorker to have had a significant and demonstrable effect on the city through his selfless pastoral work among Irish immigrants and the many ways in which he strengthened, institutionally, the New York Catholic diocese at an especially difficult time in its history.

Varela was also, like the poet José María Heredia, an early model of the “reluctant migrant,” the émigré who never intended to spend most of his life outside his native country, but ended up doing so, even dying without ever returning. That’s a story that has been repeated with an abject monotony among Cubans since Varela’s time. When he arrived at a South Street pier aboard the Draper, on December 15, 1823, he thought he was just passing through on his way to Cuba. He had been in Madrid as part of a delegation before the Spanish parliament seeking relaxation of the strict controls under which Spain governed its colony. But when Fernando VII was restored to the throne he unleashed a wave of persecution against liberal reformers. Varela barely escaped to Gibraltar, where he boarded the first ship out: the Draper bound for New York.

No doubt he thought when he arrived that his stay in the cold city (during December and January) would be temporary (he did not initially seek an appointment with the Diocese), but he underestimated the Spanish Crown’s vindictiveness. The priest was sentenced to death in absentia. There was no return to Cuba, and Varela would stay in his new accidental city for the next twenty-seven years. He would finally leave it already in ill health, but not for Cuba, but St. Augustine, where he died in 1853, a month after José Martí was born in Havana.

Varela’s years in New York have been fairly well documented, although many gaps still exist, perhaps because there has not been enough digging in the local archives to flesh out many aspects of his life in the city. There are several biographies of him, but most are derivatives of the first one (still the best), José Ignacio Rodríguez’s  Vida del presbítero Don Félix Varela, originally published in 1878 in New York (available in Google Books).  I have the 1944 second edition published in Havana. Rodríguez, a Cuban New Yorker who arrived in 1869 wrote the biography from Varela’s writings and from interviews with those who knew Varela and were still around (Mádan, for example).

It was probably Mádan who was the source of a cloak-and-dagger story, perhaps a legend, about Varela in New York, one that showed how impossible was Varela’s return to the island. The Spanish Governor in Havana, Francisco Vives, decided to apply Varela’s death sentence in New York, dispatching one of his thugs, el tuerto (one-eyed) Morejón of the Havana police to assassinate him. By that time Varela had built a loyal following among his Irish parishioners, who were no friends of colonialists, and they foiled the plot by warning Varela and intimidating the would-be assassin. A one-eyed Spanish-speaking stranger wandering around an Irish neighborhood in lower Manhattan would have been noticed. In any case, Morejón returned to Havana, presumably without earning the 30,00o pesos Vives had offered him.

Despite offers to relocate to warmer and more hospitable environments, such as Mexico, Varela decided to stay in New York and become another parish priest in

St. Peter’s Church, on the corner of Barclay and Church, where Varela first served as a priest in New York.

a diocese that was growing rapidly due largely to the Irish influx. As with many other Cubans who arrived later in New York, he deemed it the closest place to Cuba due to the busy ship traffic with Cuban ports, especially Havana. But the climate and the language, which he found difficult to learn, tormented him: “The whistling sound of English,” he wrote, “rings in my ears like impertinent flies, making it hard to write comfortably in Spanish.”

But he eventually mastered English, transforming his newly found voice and pen into vibrant defenders of the rights of Catholics in a hostile environment where nativists and anti-Papists threatened, even physically, the survival of Catholicism in the city. Varela witnessed an incident in which some 500 parishioners of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral (still there, on Mott and Prince Streets) surrounded the Church in anticipation of an attack by a mob intent on burning the building. Bloodshed was narrowly averted when the municipal authorities intervened. Varela wrote that religious tolerance exists only legally in the U.S., otherwise “it is an abominable hypocrisy to pretend to have tolerance.”

Varela was not intimidated by the violence against Catholics in New York.  Whatever New York’s anti-Catholics could muster against him paled in comparison to what he had already experienced: narrowly escaping Fernando’s troops in Spain and an assassin in New York, not to mention the executioner that awaited him in Havana. “I am perfectly cured of the malady of fright,” he wrote.

Varela’s courageous defense of the Church rapidly made him the intellectual leader in the New York diocese and he became a favorite of the new Bishop, the French-born Jean DuBois, who appointed Varela as Vicar General of the Diocese. But Varela’s most lasting contribution to New York Catholicism was the founding of two downtown parishes, greatly expanding the number of parishes to accommodate the growing influx of Irish immigrants.

The two parishes were actually the successors of the original one that Varela founded in 1827, Christ Church, in Ann Street.  When Christ Church burned down in 1835, the Diocese decided to replace it with an imposing Romanesque church built on land it acquired on James Street, between Madison and Chatham Streets, in the vicinity of the Five Points area. It was officially named Christ Church, but became known as St. James. Both the building and the parish survive to this day, and a plaque in front of the church recognizes Varela as the founder of the parish.

But the parishioners of the old Christ Church considered the new location of their parish to be too far north and east. Although he was to be transferred to St. James once it was built, Varela wanted to remain with his congregation. So with the financial backing of one of his staunchest supporters, the Swiss restaurateur Giovanni Delmonico (yes, that Delmonico), Varela bought the old Dutch Reform Presbyterian Church building on Chambers Street, just east of Broadway, and established the Church of the Transfiguration of our Lord, which opened on March 31, 1836, months before St. James was completed. Varela installed himself as the pastor of Transfiguration Church and moved into the Church’s residence and rectory, a modest house he purchased just around the corner from the Church, at 23 Reade Street, where he would live for the rest of his years in New York.

The Chambers Street Transfiguration Church and the residence/rectory are, of course, no longer standing. In May 1853, Transfiguration Parish moved from Chambers Street into yet another former Protestant church building, on Mott

Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street

and Park Streets, where it now serves a predominantly Chinese congregation with both a church and a school. A plaque on the front of the Church honors Varela.

Transfiguration on Mott Street has become the site most associated with Varela’s presence in New York. In fact, it was there in 1997 where the U.S. Postal Service chose to launch the postage stamp bearing Varela’s image. It was the parish that Varela founded and served for the longest time. Yet, it is almost certain that Varela never celebrated a single Mass there: the parish moved there three months after he died, and three years after he moved permanently to St. Augustine.

I am sure that I will have more on Varela in future blogs. For now, however, I propose him as the first Cuban New Yorker. He was a mensch, long before that became a New York word.

A Certified Genius at the Drums

Many years ago during a weekend trip to Miami from Gainesville, Florida, where I had just started graduate school at UF, I dropped by the Librería Universal, Juan Manuel Salvat’s venerable Spanish-language bookstore in Little Havana. It was a Saturday, the day of the week when La Universal was always crowded with patrons hanging out among the books with the expectation of getting drawn into a more or less intellectual discussion about Cuba, about literature, or just about any other topic that promised some lively banter.

That day Salvat introduced me to several in the Saturday crowd as a “young sociologist.” One of the regulars, an elderly Cuban intellectual of some renown, who always graced La Universal’s Saturday gatherings with his impeccable attire, elegant diction, and sharp wit, immediately came up to me with a faux look of wonder in his eyes and forcefully shook my hand. “It is such a pleasure to meet you, joven,” he said, “in my long life I have met many Cuban poets, Cuban lawyers and doctors, Cuban peloteros and bongoceros, politicians, boxers, and dominoes players, but I have never met a Cuban sociologist.”

No doubt he was putting me on more than a bit, but I thought about that gentleman when our friend Marilú Menéndez suggested that we go with her and Monty (her friend and ours) to the Jazz Standard last Tuesday to catch a performance by Dafnis Prieto and his Proverb Trio. I jumped at her suggestion: it was an opportunity to meet a rare type of Cuban, far more unique than a sociologist. You see, Dafnis is a certified Cuban genius, the winner of a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as “genius” awards. Imagine that: a certified Cuban genius, unlike almost all other Cubans, who are, of course, self-proclaimed geniuses. And how appropriate is it for a Cuban to win one of those awards by playing drums, a foundational instrument in Cuban music?

But Dafnis is not a typical Cuban percussionist. He is neither a bongocero nor a congocero, but a two-stick percussionist on a standard drum set, a baterista. His bio on the MacArthur website tells us that Dafnis is a “percussionist whose dazzling technical abilities electrify audiences and whose rhythmically

adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies. A classically trained musician who absorbed from an early age the multifaceted percussive traditions of his native Cuba . . .” Born in Santa Clara and now in his late thirties, Dafnis studied at the Escuela Nacional de Música in Havana before coming to New York in 1999.  He is yet another (and perhaps foremost) example of how the New York jazz scene has been enriched by the arrival of musical talent from Cuba.

The Jazz Standard in the Gramercy area (116 East 27th Street, between Park and Lex) occupies the basement of Blue Smoke, the regionally eclectic barbeque restaurant where the Chef de Cuisine is Eddie Montalvo, a Jersey native of Colombian ancestry.  The restaurant and jazz club share the kitchen, so you can order the restaurant’s full menu at the club. But since we had reservations for the late (9:30 p.m.) set, we decided to eat first at the restaurant, especially since Marilú believes it is discourteous to the musicians to munch on ribs while they are playing beautiful music. OK, that makes sense.

So after what turned out to be a very substantial meal we headed downstairs for jazz and drinks. The Jazz Standard has to be one of the most comfortable, yet cozy, jazz venues in the city. The tables are not crowded together and they are on different levels so that everyone has a good view of the stage. The piano was covered with a cloth and pushed aside; the Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio did not need it.  Jason Lindner plays electronic keyboards, Dafnis, of course, plays his sprawling drum set (was that a skillet

hanging on his right?), and Kokayi, well, Kokayi plays his vocal chords.

The trio also does not need music stands. No sheet music anywhere on the stage. The group’s trademark is true improvisation, something Dafnis emphasized each time he spoke to the audience to introduce the next number, inviting it to go along with the adventure: “you don’t know what’s going to happen, and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Jason Lindner, Dafnis Prieto, and Kokayi

But it all comes together masterfully. This trio may not be reading music, but they have great rapport and seem to feed off each other’s creativity.  When they really get into a groove, you can tell they can feel it, and the audience also feels it. The trio is a perfect vehicle for the display of Dafnis’ talents as he uses the drums to weave a wide and complex tapestry of rhythms and even melodies. I don’t think I have ever heard drums played with such versatility. But his colleagues are not in the background. Lindner uses the full range of his keyboards’ capabilities to create evocative and exotic compositions that usually set the table for each number. Kokayi is a virtuoso of song, a veritable master of jazz/rap/funk, all rolled into one. He infused each number with incredible energy. The “tweet” piece, as Monty called it, was extraordinary.

The performances at Jazz Standard this past week marked the release of the trio’s new CD, which Dafnis’ companion, Ivet, was cheerfully selling at the door. I bought one and have played it now countless times. Dan Bilawsky, in his review of the CD characterizes it as a “triumphantly trippy album that’s built around the notion of jazz as a collectively improvised modern melting pot.”

Dafnis has a very comprehensive website with tracks from his CDs, including the new one, videos, biography, etc. It’s worth a click.

After the performance, Dafnis stopped by our table to greet Marilú whom he knows well. She said I should interview him for my blog, but I said that was not necessary; Dafnis had already spoken plenty with his drums.

My next posting will be the long-delayed essay on the credentials of Fr. Félix Varela as the first Cuban New Yorker. Now he was a truly one-of-a-kind Cuban. Sociologists abound. And there is even more than one MacArthur-certified Cuban genius. [I recall that years ago Ruth Behar, a Cuban-born anthropologist at Ann Arbor, also received the “genius” award.] But Varela is apparently on the road to being declared a saint by no less than the sole and ultimate authority: the Vatican. Although most Cubans will tell you their mothers are/were saints (“la vieja es/era una santa”), and many Cuban husbands try to portray themselves to their wives as perfect saints, contrary to all evidence (“no me digas, ¿tu eres un santo, verdad?”), Varela would be the first (and probably last) certified Cuban saint.

Now that would be a true wonder.

Observations from a Post-Ideology Miami

I have been observing Miami, especially the Cuban community, most of my life, sometimes as a resident, sometimes as a visitor.  As a resident one observes the city as one views a movie, as a visitor one sees it as a sequence of snapshots.  After moving to New York two years ago I am now in the visitor mode.

The advantage or disadvantage of observing through snapshots is that change becomes more evident, perhaps exaggerated. On this summer trip I have been struck by two important changes in the landscape of Cuban Miami.  One is that Miami has entered a post-ideology phase. The other is that there has been a marked improvement in the quality of the fried plantains served in Cuban restaurants in Miami (at least the ones I have visited). A few years ago it seemed one was always served platanos maduros cut too thick, not ripe enough, and undercooked. I am now seeing more platanitos cut into thin, very ripe, well-fried slices that stick together, as they should be:  amelcochados . . .  sorry, I digress . . .  this is not about plantains, but about ideology.

More than twenty years ago I published an essay on the nature and importance of the traditional exile ideology. Among the essential elements of that ideology, I wrote then, is an uncompromising hostility towards the Cuban government, a commitment to “recovering” the homeland, and the primacy of that ideology in determining the political attitudes and behavior of Cuban Americans.

A few years later, my colleagues Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick wrote about what they called the “moral community,” the set of political values that underlies Miami’s Cuban community, providing in effect a guiding and integrative force, a reason for the community’s presence in this country, and a vision of its destiny.

Mural at Casa Lario’s (now Bongos) on Ocean Drive, South Beach

I have been aware for several years of the withering of the anti-Castro “cause” within the ethos of Cuban Miami. I am not referring here to changes in the political attitudes of individual Cuban Americans, although that, of course, may be part of what I am seeing. Changes in attitudes are what my friend and colleague Guillermo Grenier has been tracing for years with the series of FIU Cuba Polls that he has conducted over the past twenty years. To be sure, there have been changes in those attitudes, influenced by intergenerational shifts and new arrivals from the island.

No doubt an overwhelming number of Cuban Americans, when asked, continue to hold negative views of the Castro brothers and of the Cuban Revolution generally. That hasn’t changed much. What I am referring to here, however, is the role of the anti-Castro ideology as a compass, a moving force, in the community. I would argue that even if the attitudes themselves have not shifted much and Cuban Americans of different generations and arrival waves continue to have a negative, even hostile, view of the Cuban government, what may have occurred with the passing of the older exile generation is the loss of the primacy of the Cuba issue in shaping the political agenda of Cuban Americans. In other words, newer generations and perhaps even newer arrivals may at various times exhibit attitudes and behaviors consistent with the traditional exile ideology, but their political agenda is more diversified. Unlike the older generation’s exclusive preoccupation with Cuba, today’s Cuban Americans do not see the world exclusively through the traditional exile lens. It is this development that has turned down the ideological volume of Cuban Miami.

A Miami friend, not Cuban, but also a longtime observer of the local scene, agrees with me that the Cuban cause is no longer a driving force in Miami. He says there are only two causes left in Miami today: David Lawrence’s Children’s Trust and Norman Braman’s efforts to curb what he sees as municipal fiscal excesses. Both of those causes have influential leaders and clear goals and have an impact within and outside their constituencies, something that is now missing from the traditional Cuban cause.

My friend traces the start of post-ideology Cuban Miami to the death of Jorge Mas Canosa in 1997. He may be right. It is undeniable that no one has replaced Mas as a leader in the Cuban community. Despite the fact that I strongly disagreed with what he was doing (and how he was doing it) and I took every opportunity to say so — even to his face in a televised debate in 1989 during his unsuccessful attempt to muscle into Florida International University a research institute controlled by the Cuban American National Foundation — I always recognized his extraordinary ability to project the exile cause both within and without the community in a way that had not been done before (or since).

Jorge Mas Canosa in President Reagan’s face when he hosted the President’s visit to Miami in 1983

Those that now seek to lead Cuban Americans are apparently doing so through the ballot box, getting elected to local offices, the state legislature, and even the U.S Congress. As Mas recognized, however, those are not ideal positions from which to most effectively push the Cuban cause (he never ran for public office), because elected officials must attend to a variety of issues that have nothing to do with Cuba. As with most leaders of causes, Mas’ political focus was exclusively on Cuba, and that was part of the reason for his success in keeping the exile agenda at the forefront of Cuban Miami.

That is not to say that the Cuban Miami gang in the U.S. Congress has been unsuccessful in advancing the traditional hardline agenda of keeping U.S. Cuba policy frozen in the Cold War. [Given the likes of David Rivera in that group, I feel justified in using the term “gang”.]  On the contrary, they have been quite successful (together with their New Jersey compatriots) in keeping U.S. Cuba policy unchanged. But that is a different ball game. To the extent that the leadership of the anti-Castro cause has defaulted to the Washington gang, it means that the stage has shifted from Miami to D.C., and that it is less about ideology and more about electoral politics and succeeding as a politician. To be sure, Mas Canosa lobbied in Washington, but he was always careful to tend to his ideological base in Miami, making sure it stayed focused and committed to la causa.

In this visit, I have seen symptoms everywhere that Miami has now fully transitioned to a post-ideology stage. There seem to be only scattered remnants of what had been a cause capable of being the major driving force in the political landscape of Miami. Let’s look at the media. The AM radio dial, formerly on fire with inflammatory political rhetoric and call-in programs expressing outrage about the Cuban regime, is now largely devoted to music, infomercials, religious programs, and ads and commentaries about local politicians and local politics. Only in Radio Mambí, la grande, la más potente, are there a few hours of programming a day devoted to castigating the Castro brothers in programs with long-standing formats and longtime participants that now sound pitifully decrepit.

And where are the periodiquitos, the fly-by-night free tabloids devoted to the cause that once proliferated in the stands of restaurants? The ones I have been able to find now are entirely devoted to advertisements or to stories lauding one or another political candidate or declaiming on a local issue.

There used to be at least two primetime talk show programs on Spanish-language cable channels that were devoted to stoking the flames of anti-Castroism, Miami versions of Cuba’s dogmatic Mesa Redonda where only the party line is presented. Now only one survives and it has diversified its format to include non-Cuban topics.  The rest of the programming on those channels is devoted to telenovelas or to incredibly inane “comedy” programming.

Public demonstrations against the Cuban government on one issue or another manage to assemble only a few dozen participants (as a recent one on the death of Payá Sardiñas), a distinct change from the marches that Mas Canosa would convene, filling S.W. Eight Street.

The change in the quality of the platanitos is a good thing. The change in the ideological landscape of Cuban Miami is, well, what it is. I certainly do not mourn the passing of much of the intolerant and intransigent discourse that always characterized the climate in the community, a discourse that seems to survive primarily in some fringe sites in the blogosphere. And on a personal level I do appreciate that there are fewer venues, at least venues that matter, in which I can be accused, as I have been in the past, of being a Castro agent, an inflitrado, a communist, a dialoguero, un mal cubano, and a few other things. My point is that if I were to be accused of those things now, few people would notice or care (especially me).

But I must say that I strangely miss the effervescence that existed in Miami over Cuban issues. The community is without a compass. This was not the plan: the struggle for recovering the homeland was to be followed, in exile lore, by the effort to rebuild Cuba. None of that has happened, so there is a suspension of purpose, a loss of guideposts.

I have observed during my trips to Cuba that the same thing has happened there. Only the political elites (as here) are unwilling to abandon the historical struggle. The ideological hardline discourse finds fewer echoes in a population intent on adapting to new realities and going on with their lives. Too much time has passed, too many things have happened while, essentially, not enough has happened. Exhaustion takes its toll.

Havana and Miami have always been, in political terms, mirror images.

The Fritas Magician: Cuban New Yorker Visits Miami

We love it, we hate it, but it is hard to ignore it. For the 1.78 million Cuban Americans, Miami is not just any place. It’s where a majority of us lives and the one U.S. metropolitan area where, as one writer once put it, “Cubans have captured the atmosphere of the city.”  For better or worse, what happens in Miami defines the Cuban presence in the United States. And it’s where many former Cuban New Yorkers now live.

I lived in Miami until I moved to New York two years ago (and for 32 of the 52 years I have lived in this country), and I am now, as many Cubans do, visiting. I am sure that in a future blog I will inflict upon the readers of CNY some oh-so-serious socio-political analysis of the changes I am seeing in la capital del exilio. But for now, the subject is fritas.

It would be too simplistic to translate fritas as Cuban hamburgers. They look like hamburgers, but the meat inside the bun has chorizo, mixed in with beef and who knows what else. Grilled onions and crispy shoestring potatoes are also inside the bun, but no lettuce and tomato, consistent with the tendency for Cuban (indeed, Caribbean) food to exclude uncooked ingredients.

Fritas are part of what we can call Cuban cafeteria fare, along with sandwiches cubanos, medianoches, croquetas (preferably made of ham), papas rellenas, pastelitos (beef, cheese, guava, coconut) and the like. Food to go, food on the run, usually accompanied by a milk shake or a tropical fruit juice, served by places that are frequently little more than drive-ups, open 24 hours, and especially popular late at night.

In the early days of Cuban Miami, El Morro Castle, on N.W. 7th Street, or Badia’s on S.W. 8th Street and in Hialeah, were popular purveyors of cafeteria fare. La Palma on S.W. 8th Street is now probably the most popular of this type of establishment. One of the reasons for the success of the Sergio’s chain in Miami is that it combines cafeteria food with a menu of “regular” Cuban food (BTW, I vote for the pan con bistec at Sergio’s as the best in Miami).

Fritas are not found in all Cuban cafeterias, perhaps because they require a more elaborate preparation than most cafeteria fare. So specialized frita places arose in Miami, such as El Rey de las Fritas and an establishment, now long gone, called El Palacio de las Fritas.

Ropa vieja, black beans, picadillo, arroz con pollo, and other Cuban restaurant items are not among the things I miss most about Miami because I can find reasonably good Cuban restaurants in New York. But I have not yet encountered any true Cuban cafeterias in New York, much less fritas, at least not in Manhattan. Admittedly, I have yet to troll New Jersey or the outer boroughs searching for them [any leads?].  This is why the Cuban food items I miss most are pastelitos, croquetas, medianoches, and, especially, fritas. They are right up there with the beach and The Beach on the Miami most-missed list (local politicians and expressway traffic did not make the cut).

When my children were small and I was not too preoccupied with my weight, some 25 years ago, I had already decided what was the best frita place in Miami: a small place on S.W. 8th street not far from my Coral Gables home, El Mago de

las Fritas, where Ortelio, el mago himself, would do his magic behind a counter with stools and with only a few tables. Back then, the fritas sold for one dollar, $1.25 with cheese.

It remained for many years one of my favorite haunts in Miami. Not only were the fritas the best, but there was something about the place. Ortelio would greet you personally and tell you how he learned to make fritas in his hometown of Placetas in central Cuba. I would run into friends at the counter. And then there

Ortelio (El Mago)

was the ambivalent nomenclature. Ortelio was Ortelio to some and El Mago to others. And the place itself is known to everyone, and appears in the menu, as El Mago de las Fritas, but the sign outside says El Mago de la Frita (singular).

I had not been to El Mago in a few years when, in October 2010, the magician’s place made the national news: on a day trip to Miami, President Obama decided he had to have one of Ortelio’s fritas. Reporters and Secret Service agents invaded the tiny place while Obama had a frita, washed down by what looks in a photo like a Materva.

The President leaving El Mago with a Materva in hand. The framed picture hangs on the wall of the establishment.

As soon as I arrived in Miami this summer I headed for El Mago to see what has changed. I found that everything and nothing has changed. The most notable change is that Ortelio’s daughter has taken an active role in managing the place. She told us her name is Marta. But no, wait, everyone was calling her Belkys. She admitted she is Marta AND Belkys. The tradition of ambivalent names continues at El Mago.

Ortelio’s daughter Marta . . . or Belkys . . .

 Marta/Belkys tells us that El Mago now has a website and a facebook page and participated in the 2011 South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s Burger Bash, where they turned out 2,500 fritas. El Mago has been featured in eating guides, such as Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are, and there is a ZAGAT-rated sign on the front window. Pictures of the Presidential visit fill the walls, and the motto on the glossy business card reads: “Good enough for the President of the USA.”

Another framed picture on the wall: the President, cash in hand, ordering his frita. With or without cheese? The Secret Service guy stationed in the kitchen making sure the papitas are just right . . .

Fortunately and not surprisingly, the only thing that has changed about the fritas is the price: regular fritas are $3.50, with cheese $3.75 (choice of Swiss or American). El Mago has added two additional options: with egg ($4.50) and a double frita for $5.50.

Even with the price increase, the fritas are worth every penny. The success of El Mago’s fritas was never in the patty itself but in three key elements: the bread (essentially a soft Cuban bread in the shape of a bun), the potatoes (homemade crunchy little shavings fried fresh everyday), and the special sauce in which Ortelio grills the fritas. Most frita places use regular hamburger buns and factory-made shoestring potatoes out of a can.

After I exchanged greetings and memories with Ortelio, Liza and I ordered two fritas each (I ordered one of my fritas with cheese). To drink, I ordered what I always ordered at El Mago: homemade fresh watermelon juice, and Liza went

for a mango milkshake. Everything was as good as I remembered. What I did not remember was that the flan, also made at El Mago, is among the best in Miami. My memory was jogged when we ordered one to share: just the right texture, caramel-y, and not too sweet.

The flan, café, and cortadito

I left my cell number with Ortelio so that he could pass it on to a couple of friends I used to see at the counter and who still, he told me, frequent the place.

On my way out I scanned the sayings and tidbits of advice that Orteli0 has placed in frames on the wall behind the counter. One of them reads (my translation): “If you like the food, tell everyone you know. If you don’t like it, tell El Mago.”

So here it is mago, I’m telling everyone I know, and then some.

El Mago de las Fritas

5828 S.W. 8th Street

West Miami, FL 33144



Monday through Saturday 8:00 am – 8:00 pm