SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Havana on the Hudson

Where have Union City's Cubans gone?


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Two red, white and blue flags poked out of baskets of flowers on each of the 23 round tables in the multipurpose room of José Martí Middle School. More colorful flags representing nearly every country in the Western hemisphere lined the back of the stage. But in the place of honor at the front of the stage was not one set of stars and stripes, but two: One for the United States; the other for Cuba.

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From an easel on the stage, a portrait of José Martí, the Cuban thinker, writer and revolutionary, looked out on the crowd that had gathered to commemorate his 146th birthday this January night. Clustered with the portrait were the rest of the symbols that define the Cuban community of Hudson County, New Jersey: the flag of their home country, an American flag, and a statue of Virgin and Child.

At ten minutes past the hour, for an event scheduled to start at 7 p.m., the room was barely half-full. Lucio Fernandez, a Union City commissioner filling in for the sick mayor, Brian Stack, was still rushing around, checking on details. Teresita Diaz, the evening's organizer, was standing next to the head table giving directions and talking with her friends. Guests were milling around, chatting animatedly in Spanish, greeting each other with a "cómo estás?" and a kiss on the cheek, while Latin jazz played over the school speakers and more guests straggled in. Others sat at the tables, paging through a magazine on Martí's life and munching on fried plantain chips. The crowd, mostly middle-aged or older, included proud parents – "My daughter is going to sing" – one man said to another in Spanish. It also included former political prisoners being honored for their sacrifice, members of the Cuban community revisiting old friends and those who wandered in for the free food and entertainment.

Half an hour later, the crowd finally took their seats. The evening kicked off with the "Star Spangled Banner" playing over the loud speaker system to a silent crowd. "La Bayamesa," the Cuban national anthem, followed and as the verse came around, nearly everyone joined in. At the end of the music came the shouts: "Que viva la Cuba libre!"

Following the anthems, Fernandez, the commissioner, thanked all the volunteers in Spanish. After of several minutes, he stopped and translated. "I hope that you all speak Spanish," he said from the podium. "Basically I just thanked everyone."

More speakers followed, speaking mostly in Spanish, professing their pride in being Cuban, reading excerpts from poems and honoring members of the community. They paused only sporadically to translate the most important points.

The highlight of the night came when Diaz, the organizer, came to the podium to present la canastilla, a gift of a crib, diapers, toys and nearly everything else a new parent would need, for the first child born in Hudson County on Martí's birthday, Jan. 28. This the winners were an Indian couple celebrating the birth of their second daughter.

As the proud new father accepted the gift and rushed out the door, no doubt back to the hospital, the irony of the moment was probably lost on the party-goers, who turned their attention to the pork, rice with black beans and yucca being served up buffet style from tables at the back. The room seemed to bounce with the Afro-Cuban beats of Tito Puente played by the high school jazz band assembled in front of the stage.


For nearly 30 years the Cuban community dominated the cultural, political and economic life of of Union City and West New York. They helped Bob Menendez, the junior Democratic U.S. Senator, rise through the political ranks of Union City to achieve his current position. Cubans still own many of the businesses and property along Bergenline Avenue, the shared main street of the two towns. But the area is slowly changing.

Cubans in Union City, once the majority Latino group in a largely Latino town, are now an ever-diminishing minority. Many who fled Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s for the United States found success in Union City and have since moved on to bigger houses in the Jersey suburbs or to the tropical weather and beaches of Miami. New waves of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Peru have more recently flooded the town, eroding its Cuban character. Divisions are even starting to appear among Cubans. The younger generations often do not share their parents' and grandparents' love for la patria, a country they have never called home. Last year's U.S. presidential election revealed changes in political views as well. No longer can the Republican Party rely on the older Cuban exile community as a consistent bloc of voters. Many abandoned the GOP in favor of Barack Obama's promise of change. In doing so, they joined their children, many of whom have world views very unlike those of their parents.

Hudson County has a long history of immigration. The Dutch originally settled on the shores of the Hudson, followed by Germans who came in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The Irish and the Italians followed soon after. As groups, each of them prospered and successively moved out to the wealthier suburbs. In the 1960 census, there were not even enough Cubans in the county to warrant a listing as a separate group, but that changed dramatically due to the fallout of the events of January 1, 1959.

On that day, forces led by Fidel Castro took Havana, deposing the government of Fulgencio Batista and establishing a political regime that has lasted for more than half a century. In the years that followed, thousands of Cubans escaped Castro's communist government and found their way to the United States.

Those who arrived first were businessmen and professionals, people of the middle and upper classes whose businesses and property the new Cuban government had confiscated. Many also fled in fear of imprisonment or execution. Thousands of refugees inundated Miami, the first stop for most and more than the city could reasonably accommodate. The Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program moved these immigrants to other metropolitan areas. Union City and West New York were two of these locations, and together they soon found themselves host to the second-largest Cuban community in the country. Within a decade of the revolution, Cubans represented a full third of the area's population.

Mario Fernandez was among those to arrive first, in 1962. Jailed by Castro for continuing to practice his Catholicism, he escaped to the Ecuadorean embassy, and eventually got to Miami. After a few years, a friend from Luyano, his neighborhood in Havana, convinced him to move to Union City. Fernandez's explanation for the attraction of Union City is simple: "New York is full of opportunity."

Like many Cubans who left the island in the first years of the revolution, Fernandez had not planned to stay in the United States for long. "I came to Miami with only one goal in my mind: go back to my country," he says. Most Cubans believed the problem in their country would be solved and they could go home quickly. Many were reluctant to set down roots, as the act of doing anything that resembled permanence negated the hope of a quick return. In a 1968 study in West New York, 65 percent of Cubans said they would certainly return to their country if things changed. Eleven years later, a similar study showed only one percent saying they would certainly return.

Fernandez attended but did not finish university in Cuba, but in New Jersey he had to take work in a plastics factory. He, like many others in the community, suffered from downward mobility, a common problem among refugees. Doctors and lawyers had to take other jobs while they studied to pass new tests in order to practice. Businessmen who lost everything when they left turned to manual labor. Women who were previously housewives took up jobs in embroidery factories.

Although his English was still minimal, Fernandez was able to quickly rise through the ranks to factory supervisor in only a few years. "I worked in the factory like anybody else," he says, "but the difference is, when you speak the language, in the land of the blind, a person with one eye is the king." He left the factory in 1970 to work in sales for Prudential Insurance and within 20 years reached the point where he could open his own office as an agent.

It was the famous business sense of the Cubans that allowed them to emerge from their humble re-beginnings in America. This reputation has earned them the not-so-politically-correct nickname "the Jews of the Caribbean."

Older Cubans say that when they arrived in Union City, the area was struggling and many storefronts on Bergenline were empty. The city's German and Italian communities had long since left for the suburbs. Cubans began buying these storefronts to open their own bakeries and bodegas, revitalizing the street.They also became homeowners, renovating old houses. During their time off work some started delivering produce and other miscellaneous goods into the city. Unlike more recent waves of Latin American immigrants, the Cubans in those early years could not send remittances back home. Everything they earned stayed in the community, giving it an extra economic boost.

Economic power brought political power. Cubans are known to take their citizenship and right to vote seriously, and turn out in high numbers for elections. By the mid-1990s Cuban-Americans had a tight hold on local politics, with Cuban mayors in office in both Union City and West New York. Currently, Cuban-Americans are represented by Senator Menendez; Democratic Rep. Albio Sires, and Mayor Sal Vega of West New York. The mayor of Union City, Brian Stack, although Irish, counts on considerable Cuban community support.

Cubans also had their hands in some more shadowy enterprises. José Miguel Battle Sr., a former police officer in Havana and a member of the Bay of Pigs invasion, established a crime network known as La Corporacion, which made most of its money from bolita, an illegal lottery. In the 1970s, bolita netted some $45 million a year from illicit gambling in New Jersey, New York and Miami. Battle's mafia continued to operate into the new millennium. This was despite his conviction in connection with a 1977 murder, which an appeals court quickly overturned, and a war with the Lucchese crime family. He eventually pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in 2006, but died before he could serve his sentence.

U.S. organized crime got a major boost in 1980 when Castro emptied his prisons and asylums and sent the former inmates, along with other refugees, to the United States during the Mariel boatlift. The marielitos, who arrived with no money, no family and no job prospects, overran Miami, and many ended up in being sent to New Jersey by the U.S. government. Marisel Valles-Meljen, who has lived in Hudson County since 1970, says this is when crime was at its worst in Union City. "My family used to take it as a joke," he recalls. "'Well don't worry because in about 20 years none of them will exist because they will all have killed each other.' It was that bad. It was every day in the newspaper." She has lots of stories about the shady people who controlled the town in those days. One of her favorites is about the time a group of young mafiosos came to her birthday party. Before they all left to do their Saturday night business they asked her for a favor. "Everybody was like, 'Can you hold this 'til tomorrow?' I swear, all of them whipped out guns."

These illegal activities were not just limited to business. On Nov. 25, 1979, two men in ski masks shot and killed Eulalio José Negrín on 10th St in front of his 12-year-old son. Negrín had participated in talks in Cuba one year earlier that freed 3000 political prisoners and allowed for the first time Cubans living in the United States to visit family members still on the island. The New York Times reported that an anonymous caller claimed responsibility for the slaying on behalf of the organization Omega 7, saying, "We will continue with these executions until we have executed all of the traitors living in this country."

Omega 7 was well-known as a terrorist group in the 1970s and 1980s, operating out of New Jersey, New York and Miami. Its exploits often ended up on the front pages of the national press. Its members considered themselves freedom fighters, seeking to topple the Castro regime, and Union City was one of its suspected headquarters. The organization also claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11, 1980, murder of an aide to the Cuban Mission to the United Nations, Felix Garcia Rodriguez, as well as the attempted assassination of Dr. Raul Roa Kouri, Cuba's U.N.ambassador and its most senior diplomat in the United States. A bombing at the New York office of a Soviet airline as well bombings at the foreign consulates of Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela in Miami were attributed to the group. The organization's most famous member and leader was Eduardo Arocena, also known as "Omar." In 1984, he was convicted as the mastermind of Omega 7 and sentenced to life in prison. Other terrorist groups operated out of Union City, but many faded away or disbanded in the 1980s as its leaders were arrested and convicted of crimes varying from weapons trafficking to murder.

These headlines, however, are not typical of Cuban-Americans, most of whom successfully integrated into the society and achieved the American Dream, even when it was not what they sought most.

Yet today, a walk down Bergenline Avenue reveals little of this vibrant history. Latinos still remain the town's majority; reggaeton pumps from the speakers of cars stuck in traffic and Spanish talk radio flows from open storefronts. Spanish is still the language of the street, and customers are more likely to be greeted with "buenos dias" than "hello." But the flags of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia have replaced the Cuban stars and stripes on many of the storefronts and signs. Businesses advertise the prices of phone calls to Guatemala City and San Salvador, not Havana. Cans of Inca Kola—"La bebida del Perú"—stock deli refrigerators. But even the uninitiated can see a few remnants of Union City's Cuban-American glory days. Forty-third Street is also called Celia Cruz Way in honor of the late Cuban singer. Just three blocks north is Pan Con Todo, which offers Cuban sandwiches along with tropical décor and Cuban music. A block south of Celia Cruz Way, just west of Bergenline, is José Marti Park, where older Cuban men play dominoes under pavilions Mayor Stack had built just a year ago. Other businesses spread along Bergenline advertise flights to Havana or Western Union to Cuba.

Tucked away just west of Bergenline on Celia Cruz Way is the headquarters of the Union de ex-presos políticos, the union of ex-political prisoners. One of these former prisoners is Israel Abreu, whose calm and soft-spoken demeanor, at 76, does not betray the 14 years of imprisonment and torture he underwent in Cuba.

Abreu was first exiled from Cuba in 1954, at age 21, for protesting the suspension of his personal rights after Batista installed himself as Cuba's dictator. Abreu was promptly jailed and exiled to Mexico, where he remained until Castro came to power. He supported the revolution from outside the country, and was allowed to return when it succeeded. When Castro turned to Communism, Abreu again protested, leading to a second imprisonment in 1961. In prison, he continued his protest by refusing to work and eat, and he estimates guards beat him more than 50 times including occasions when he was sent to the hospital with bayonet wounds. Abreu was finally able to come to the United States in 1980, where he graduated from college, and worked for 18 years in the office of the New York Racquet and Tennis Club. He also made time to found a political organization and human rights group, as well as gain coverage in The New York Times for a publicity stunt he orchestrated at the Statue of Liberty, in which he and a group of men chained themselves to the inside of the crown while colleagues handed out fliers.

Abreu is part of the Old Guard of the Cuban exile, the people who suffered most at the revolution's hand. Their politics remain very conservative – not only because of a continual fear of communism, but because they are a community of who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and think others should do the same.

Like many other Cubans of his generation, Abreu is leery of Barack Obama's promise of change. "I hope those changes will be good," he says, in Spanish. "Fidel said he would change things, look at what changed." The accusations of socialism during the election evoked very real memories for Abreu. Sen. John McCain's tough stance on terrorists and communism was also more appealing to men like Abreu than Obama's offer to sit down with America's enemies.

Living in Union City, Abreu is an anomaly in his generation. Many others, upon retiring, left New Jersey and moved to Miami, closer to the sights and sounds of the homeland. Like Mario Fernandez, who left Union City for the Miami suburbs in 2004, after he retired from his job as an agent for Prudential Insurance and moved to a house complete with a remote-controlled gate, mango and guava trees, a pool with jets, and a pavilion with a grill designed for roasting pork. His reason why every Cuban older than 60 is drawn to Miami is simple: "We have something here," he says, pointing to his head.

Fernandez is equally skeptical of Obama's ability to bring change to Cuba. The President's promise during the election to sit down with Raul Castro without conditions was especially troubling for Fernandez. "You are going to sit down without preconditions, what are you going to talk about?" he says. For him, little to nothing has been accomplished in the past 50 years, and one meeting between two leaders, is unlikely to have any effect. He sees it as a ï idea that will only give the Castros, masters of spin that they are, more fodder for political propaganda against the United States.

Just the discussion of Cuban politics gets Fernandez fired up, and he knows his facts. He draws comparisons between communism in Cuba and communism in China. He knows that 1.7 million Cuban exiles are now spread around the world and he knows about the oil discovered off the island's northern coast. When he gets especially angry about what he is discussing, he will drop a "fuck you man" in reference to Fidel. Yet, despite the harsh words for Cuba's revolutionary leaders – Fidel is commonly referred to as "el asesino [murderer] del Caribe" – he, like other Cubans of his generation, will say that what they really want is democracy. "Let everyone go back to Cuba and have open political parties," Fernandez says. "Then if you win, you win. Then I'll recognize you."

Dr. Lillian Manzor is not convinced by the rhetoric of the Cuban American elite. Manzor is the director of the Latin American Studies program at the University of Miami, and a Cuban American herself. She sees little difference in the politics of people running the current regime in Cuba, and the generation of exiles from the '60s and '70s. "Politically, they see eye to eye, believe it or not," she says. "They [in Cuba] are autocratic, these people are autocratic. These people are claiming democracy, when push comes to shove, they don't believe in democracy, the exile community. The exile community is autocratic."

Evidence of this can be seen in this older generation's view of the embargo. For Fernandez, the lifting of the embargo will only provide more money to Castro and a new vacation spot for American tourists. "How many tourists do they have from different countries, from Spain, and they don't do anything," he says. "Are the Americans going to be different?" But, at the same time, he criticizes Castro for not allowing his people to travel and for not accepting aid from the United States for Cuban hurricane victims.

The old guard also left its mark on local politics. It was with their support that Menendez was able to start his political career as the mayor of Union City in 1986. Fernandez still fundraises for both Menendez and Sires, even though he lives nearly a thousand miles away from their constituencies. Stack also regularly visits José Marti Park to chat with the Cubans playing dominoes under the roofs he constructed.

Just a block away from that park, Abreu echoes Fernandez's beliefs, but in less fiery terms. "The embargo is a [weapon] of pressure that we have so that the government of Cuba will cede something," he says. The United States and Cuba are in a stalemate, he explains, and he does not want Obama to give up anything if the Castros don't reciprocate.

But the politics of the Cuban community are changing, and Abreu sees it. The organizations he helps to run attract mostly older Cubans. "The majority of the people who maintain the fight against Cuba are those of us who suffered ourselves," he says. "Young people can't be expected to feel the same way we do."

And they don't. The politics of Cuban Americans as a whole are often misrepresented as the politics of its small, conservative elite, but the divisions in the community are becoming more visible.

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In the corner of the living room on the second story of his Union City row home, Rafael Martel taps away on a new Mac desktop. He brings up his Nov. 1 blog entry, on which he had posted a reader's e-mailed comment.

In an earlier post, Martel had confused the names of two Cuban brothers running for Congress in Miami, and this reader pounced on the mistake. Martel peers through his black half-rim glasses at the computer screen and reads the end of the comment aloud:

"Get your facts right, you communist dick."

Contrary to what this reader may believe, Martel isn't a communist. At 50, he is just as anti-communist as those a generation ahead of him. Like Abreu and Fernandez, as well as many others of his generation, the fight against communism is a life-long struggle that defines much of what they represent. "We are obsessed by it," Martel says.

His obsession led him to create, where he comments on politics, Cuba, Miami, Kate Winslet and the Australian Open. The blog also chronicles the convoluted politics of Hudson County, and has become a player in the recall election of Sal Vega, the current mayor of West New York. Comments on the blog come from local readers, students from Union City High School, where he teaches Spanish, as well as Cubans from around the country who are well-represented in the blogosphere. The blog also represents a change that is going on in the Cuban community. Martel, like many others, has brought the discussion of Cuba away from the domino tables and offices of the exile community's hundreds of organizations and into the public forum of the Internet, changing the discussion's focus.

"The majority of the people who maintain the fight against Cuba are those of us who suffered ourselves. Young people can't be expected to feel the same way we do."
–Israel Abreu

Last year, for the first time in his life, Martel voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. He even endorsed then-candidate Barack Obama on his blog. In this election, issues beyond Cuba became more pressing for Martel. Taxes, the economy and Obama as the candidate of change inspired Martel's endorsement. "He moves me personally," Martel says. "He has the power of Martin Luther King Jr." But the vote also shows how Martel's beliefs have shifted to the left.

Martel is just one of many to realign politically. During the 2008 election, stories in the Miami Herald and AP chronicled the increasing number of Cubans supporting Obama, including many who had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate before. Martel admits that 10 years ago he never would have voted for Obama because of his own more radical position on Cuba. At that time he was opposed to any dialogue or concessions to Cuba until democracy was restored. But over the years this view has softened. He sees Cuba as a campaign issue that is often exploited by politicians for personal gain while little real progress is made and others profit from the black market of Cuban goods and illegal aid shipments. Obama's emergence coincided with his own long-in-the-making change of heart. "Only stupid people don't change their politics," he says.

Martel's intense interest in politics comes because he, too, suffered under communism in Cuba. Although he was only in third grade when he left, he says he suffered the insults of his schoolmates and teachers for being a gusano, a worm that leaves after the good feeding is gone. Those insults stayed with him and continue to inspire his fight for the freedom of Cuba. He says this is the reason that Cubans have so much political power, because they know what it is like to have none.

"People, like me for example, lived a portion of our lives without being able to vote," he says. "When they take something from you as precious as your ability to express yourself politically, you know how great this country is." Martel remembers the exact day that he came to this country, May 5, 1973. "No one forgets the day they came to this country," he said. "It's the day you're finally free."

Valles-Meljen too remembers the day she first set foot in the United States, April 17, 1970, but for a different reason. "We have to write it down on so much paperwork that you can't forget," she says.

Her experience was different from most Cubans who moved to New Jersey. Her family moved into North Bergen, just a few blocks from the Union City line, into what was still an Italian neighborhood. At the age of six, she was the only Hispanic in her school. "They kicked my ass almost every day," she says. "They called me 'spic' almost every moment of the day. And it wasn't only from kids, it was a lot from the teachers." Isolated from the Cuban community during the week, she had trouble making friends, but on weekends she was able to visit friends and family nearby.

Her political experience is also much different. She refuses to participate in local politics, which she sees as a dirty game filled with people with ulterior motives. "The political figures I see here are more showing off than doing anything," she says. For her, local politics among Cubans is more about making money. "If I belong to this certain group I'll get more people at my business," she says. "I think there's always an agenda."

She once benefited from this, when she got a job as a school psychologist before she had her degree. "They gave me the job just because I was Cuban," she says. The favor came with strings attached, though. She says she found herself being called in to hand out turkeys with the mayor or work the polls at elections. Once she got her degree, she found a new job in Newark city schools, and now stays out of local politics.

Like Martel, her vote for Obama was a first as well, but it was less because of his personality or platform than a vote against the Bush administration. Her feelings toward Cuba are also much different than Martel or the Old Guard. She visits Cuba regularly and has been back at least 10 times to visit family, even taking her elder daughter Vivienne with her once. Because of this her stance on Cuba is much more pragmatic. "I understand the embargo and I understand the bigger picture in the U.S.," she says. "But you have family. My grandparents have nothing to do with that, and my cousins have nothing to do with that, so why deprive my children of knowing where I came from, or where their dad came from, and meeting their family?"

Given her political stance, it isn't surprising that Valles-Meljen isn't part of any Cuban political groups, and neither are most of her friends. Most of them have already moved out of Hudson County anyway into suburbs in Jersey suburbs like Rutherford, Allendale and Jackson. "I'm like the last Cuban in Union City," she says. For her, the Cuban community exists among her friends and their families despite their physical distance. "It's no longer Cuban here," she says of Union City and West New York. "The majority are Dominican, Mexican, from Latin America."

She says this is one of the major differences between Cubans in New Jersey and Miami. Her friends from Miami are much more involved in politics and Cuban activist groups, worrying about what's going on in Havana, and celebrating every false rumor about Castro's death. In New Jersey Cuban Americans are cut off from this world, she thinks, more interested in New York than Havana.

Valles-Meljen stays in Union City because she likes it. The child of working-class parents, she is now a school psychologist, and has her real estate license for her "hobby" of buying and flipping houses. Her husband, who came during the Mariel boatlift, owns a trucking and towing company. She stays because she enjoys the mix of cultures, the schools and the fact that the Lincoln Tunnel is all that separates her from New York City. But she does fear that the Union City that her fellow Cubans built has seen better days. "I hope it changes," she says, "because it doesn't look like it can get any worse." She thinks that Bergenline has become "trashy" and that immigrant families are living in squalor in tiny, run-down apartments. She says that the mayor is making changes to improve the city by encouraging developers to build and fixing the school system, turning it into what she calls "mini-Hoboken." Signs of this change are already popping up around the town, as condominiums replace old row houses. She admits that this may destroy some of the character that Union City has developed from its immigrant culture, but thinks that the benefits outweigh what will be lost.

But whatever these changes are, it appears that Cubans will have little to do with them in the coming years. It is the Dominicans who some are calling the next Cubans of Union City. Nino Perez, a teacher at Union Hill high school, says that half of his class is Dominican. They do not yet have the economic or political power to replace the Cubans, but for many the writing is on the wall. Stack seems to have recognized it as well. Just a month after the celebration in honor of José Martí, the school held a celebration in honor of Dominican Republic Independence Day. In 2004, he named a park in the town after Juan Pablo Duarte, a Dominican intellectual and patriot. An article in The New York Times on the new park identified Dominicans as Union City's fastest-growing minority.

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On cold day in early March, 50 people stand at 31st Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City, chanting "Derechos humanos para los cubanos!" – "human rights for Cubans." It is a protest in front of the Cuban Mission to the U.N., a plain, red-brick building marked only by a Cuban flag hanging over Lexington. Chants periodically start from an especially dedicated group of men in one corner of the barricaded section of the sidewalk, are picked up half-heartedly by the rest of the group and then die out. It seems most are here to lend their support physically rather than vocally.

The protesters, mostly middle-aged or older, mingle, chatting and occasionally joining the chants. Some are from the city, others from New Jersey, and nearly all are Cuban. The protest, according to the declaration posted online and read aloud, intends to unite both the young and old in a call for a return to democracy in Cuba, which had once been promised to its people by the revolution that took it away. The protest appears to have succeeded in attracting the older generations, but not the young.

Ariel Fernandez, who is 38, says that this was the first such protest that he attended. As a Cuban-American, he says he found himself drawn to the protest because its organizers framed it in an open-minded and progressive way. He saw this as his call to join the movement. "It's just gone on for a really long time and people are just exhausted, especially the older generations," he says. "And I think it's time for some of the younger generations, especially the younger immigrants – Cuban-Americans who still have ties to some of the problems and politics of the old country – to articulate a new way."

He is one member of what has long been the silent majority of the Cuban community. Their voices are ignored, both in the media and by politicians, in favor of the older, more conservative, and in the words of Manzor, autocratic generation.

Manzor says it is this younger group who will ultimately guide and decide the fate of Cuba when change eventually comes. "Just like on the island, there's a younger generation who believes in the revolutionary project, but who want changes within the revolutionary project," she says. "Those people, they are actors, they are political actors and cultural actors to a lesser extent." But she believes that when an opening arrives, they will be there to question the values and ideas of the older generation.

Jorge Silva is another one of this generation. For him, at 29, the difference comes down to his country of birth, the United States. Second-generation Cuban-Americans find themselves entrenched in a new society which alters their values and ideas. "There's a serious generation gap," he says. In his worldview, the war in Iraq is a much more important issue than anything going on in Cuba. "We don't feel the political dispossession that the older generation did." His views on Cuba are also progressive though, which only support his identity as a Democrat.

Half-Cuban and half-Colombian, he grew up in West New York next to a member of Omega 7. Now, he studying for his doctorate in Cuban history on the other side of the Hudson, at New York University. He admits that he sometimes finds himself, like many others, trying not to upset the older generation. His mother is a single-issue voter who was genuinely afraid of the accusations of socialism aimed at Obama. And, like the older generations, not all young people rejected the conservative beliefs of their parents. "There's some second generation that are as reactionary as their parents," he says, "I think because of an inability to think outside the box."

For his claims of diplomacy, Silva is critical of his parents' generation. While he says many are now trying reevaluate the revolution, many still can't get past the Castro as an evil man. He occasionally wears shirt with a picture, taken from a New Yorker cartoon, of Che Guevara wearing a shirt with Bart Simpson's face on it, and people back home get upset with it. "They can't see the irony of it," he says. "They have a myopic view, they almost have blinders on. They can't see past 40 or 50 years." Silva also visits Cuba to do research, and says that many people see him as a supporter of Castro for doing so.

Frances Martel, the daughter of Rafael, is similarly detached from Cuba, but not as radically different from her father's generation as Silva is. She is almost as politicized as her father, helping him with his blog and the political newsletters they sporadically publish and distribute around Union City and West New York. For her senior thesis at Harvard, the 22-year-old wrote about local political history. But she, like Silva, considers the United States her homeland, and votes accordingly. "I'm American first and foremost," she says. "I don't owe anything to Cuba."

She does admit growing up in Union City is not the typical suburban childhood. "I'm from a different world," she says. The small size of the community and its cohesiveness, in her experience, makes for a different kind of America, one that is hard for kids to appreciate until they've moved on. She too criticizes her friends from high school who were unable to look past their parents' politics. She says calls them "right-wing" and "jingoist," and says that Cubans are still far behind socially. One difference, though, is the influence of New York and its progressivism, something she found lacking when, as a student, she met Cubans from Miami in Cambridge.

While generational differences may create political animosity, family ties bridge the gap. Frances plans working at home for at least a year after graduating and Silva hasn't traveled far either. He says most of the younger Cuban-Americans don't plan to venture too far from home. They are attracted to New York, but want to stay close to their families. Likewise, he doesn't see Cubans abandoning Northern New Jersey completely. Many remain or visit because they still own property or their, or simply the nostalgia of what the place once was. "There's a sense of affinity for it as well as a practical sense of owning properties," he says.

Tension doesn't only exist between generations of Cubans though. As Silva puts it "the golden age of Union City has passed." The older generation who made Union City what it is has now passed the city on to a new group of immigrants, and like Valles-Meljen, they aren't all happy with what is happening to the city they built. Silva says that in the same way that marielitos were looked down on for their low status, the Central Americans are seen as tarnishing the hard work of a generation of Cuban immigrants.

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Miami looks nothing like North Jersey. Its beaches, luxury condos and mansions are a far cry from the working-class suburbs of New York. But that doesn't mean that Miami's Cuban community isn't undergoing similar changes. Working-class neighborhoods are being torn down in favor of high-rise luxury condos with ocean views. New immigrants from Central and South America are taking over the storefronts and businesses left behind by a generation of retiring Cubans. Little Havana is becoming little more than a name.

Rao Maderal seems to have learned every inch of Miami since she moved there from Cuba in 1963. She knows the tree-lined streets of Coral Gables – and the laws against cutting down those trees – and the art-deco section of Miami Beach, including the hotel where her family stayed during a 1959 visit. Now she says she is one of the few Cubans still living in Little Havana. "Little Havana is where Cubans originally established themselves," she says. "But as they improved themselves they moved to different neighborhoods."

Calle Ocho, the Bergenline of Little Havana, still has Cuban restaurants and a park where old men play dominoes, but its Cuban population is gradually being replaced with Hondurans, Salvadorans, Colombians and Argentineans. The Cuban community isn't disappearing; it's just moving.

Victor Rams' 83rd birthday party was said to start at 2 p.m., but visitors who arriving at that hour are chastised for arriving too early. Preparations are still being made in the kitchen for the party in his suburban Miami home, and the caterers are still ironing the pink tablecloths for the four tables set out in the lawn for dinner. Around 3 p.m., three generations of Rams' family and their friends begin filling the house.

The older generation of men quickly forms a circle on the screened-in porch, sipping red wine and discussing politics in Spanish. Assembled around the table is an impressive representation of 20th century Latin American history. Rams worked for the government of Batista, and fled Havana the morning of Jan. 1, 1959, before Castro entered the city. Maderal's husband, Francisco, fought on the side of Castro before he became a communist. Another man at the table was a colonel in the Chilean army before Pinochet's coup. The men sit discussing the invasion of American businessmen prior to the revolution and the question of dependency and how much it influenced Cuba's history.

During the party, Rams speaks only in Spanish. He is a proud Cuban and a staunch conservative. He wants no part of anything that appears to be socialist, including many of Obama's policies, and during a discussion of journalism says that he wishes The New York Times had folded 30 years ago.

Lourdes Eskert, Victor's daughter, stands in the living room mingling with family members and nibbling on appetizers. Her conservative politics match those of her father, although she doesn't always vote Republican. But in 2008, she did. "I saw socialist inclinations," she says, talking about Obama. "Maybe because of my personal experiences, socialism is the gateway to communism. It's probably embedded in me."

She also admits that because she was born in Cuba but raised in the United States, she doesn't identify with either country entirely. "I don't feel at home in a completely Cuban or completely American environment."

Victor Rams III echoes a similar sentiment. His grandparents helped to raise him because his father was in law school and his mother worked, so he learned Spanish as his first language. But he grew up speaking English, but now, at 26, has forgotten most of the Spanish he once spoke fluently. "I'm definitely American, I consider this my country," he says. "I relate more to Americans more than Hispanics." But now that he is dating a Cuban girl and working at a store where most of the clients only speak Spanish, he is relearning the language and investigating his roots. But only to a point. "I don't think I want it to take over," he says. "I want to learn more about my roots but I want to stay mostly American."

He admits not knowing much about U.S. policy toward Cuba. But what he does know, he doesn't agree with.

At dinner time, everyone moves outside to the three tables with chairs sitting on the lawn. The fourth table holds the staples of Cuban food – pork, rice with black beans and yucca. As the sun sets the final course comes out: cake. Before it can be cut though, a candle is lit and the guests sing to Victor. "Happy Birthday to You." In English.

Dan can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute