Cuba a land of opportunity for local Hispanics

Non-Cubans visit island, forge ties

May 01, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

From his seafood restaurant on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, Jose Luaces dreams of his next business venture. Like his place, the Fishery, it will offer hefty portions and fresh catches, at an urban location not far from the water.

In Havana.

Luaces, a Spanish-born naturalized American, is one of dozens of members of Baltimore's Spanish-speaking community who -- in the face of the American government's embargo -- are quietly forging personal, economic and religious connections to the island nation.

Those traveling to Cuba include working-class Latino tourists looking for beaches where their dollars go further, Pentecostal ministers trying to help along fledgling churches and entrepreneurs like Luaces scouting prospects.

What they have in common is antagonism toward the embargo and ethnic identity: They are not Cubans. In fact, it is Baltimore's non-Cuban Hispanics who have the closest ties to the island nation.

Last year, Luaces spent six weeks in Cuba, playing tourist, meeting distant relatives and gathering intelligence on the business venture he imagines there. He is making plans to return this year. If the United States relaxes the economic embargo, he will sell the Fishery, the restaurant he started 32 years ago and use the proceeds to start over.

"I believe it will happen one day before too long," he says. "Cuba is such a potential market, you can't resist. And it's a beautiful island. So many of us here in Baltimore have spent time in Cuba, it feels like a second home."

Such affection helps explain a key dichotomy in the local reaction to Monday's game between the Orioles and the Cuban national baseball team. Cuban-Americans are divided about the game, with many longtime exiles such as Dr. Luis Queral and Towson University professor Jorge Giro refusing to attend. But more Cuban immigrants of the 1990s -- known as balseros because they es- caped Cuba in balsas, or rafts -- generally say they support the game as a way of opening relations with the economically battered country, where many left behind large families.

"I think it's great that this game is happening," says Jorge Salas, 40, who came from Cuba to East Baltimore four years ago, and now works in a laundry and lives across the street from Patterson Park with his wife, Maria, and their 7-month-old child. "And we'd like to go."

While Cubans like Salas and Queral differ, the overwhelming majority of non-Cuban Hispanics have embraced the unprecedented contest and are clamoring fiercely for tickets.

Dominican, Salvadoran and Mexican ethnic clubs have secured blocks of tickets. Jose's Caribbean Lounge, a neon-lighted nightspot at the corner of Highland Avenue and Baltimore Street, is reportedly sending a delegation of 30 patrons. Pablo Osorio, a Colombia-born deacon at Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel on East Lombard Street, filled a list with the names of dozens of parishioners -- many of them Central American -- who wanted tickets.

"This is something that everyone is talking about," Osorio says. "The demand exceeds the supply."

Wouldn't miss game

Carlos Diaz, 26, a Dominican busboy at Boccaccio Restaurant in Little Italy, has never been to Camden Yards before, but will attend this game with a ticket he got through the church. "I would not miss this for anything," he said.

"For non-Cuban Hispanics, this is a historic event, and it reflects the warmth they feel toward Cuba and the Cuban people," says Haydee Rodriguez, director of El Centro de la Comunidad in East Baltimore. "They do not share the feelings that come with being displaced from your homeland, as Cuban-Americans were."

Many of the local Hispanics who have visited have done so under church auspices. The Rev. D. Santos, the Puerto Rican-born pastor of a Pentecostal church on Broadway, has made nine tourist visits in recent years. His collection of postcards -- of Marina Hemingway, Holguin and a mural of Che Guevara in Havana -- belies a more serious interest. He drops by Pentecostal churches, and sometimes passes messages from Cuban immigrants in Baltimore to their families there.

"In Cuba, the Pentecostal churches are growing all over, like a jungle," says Santos, recalling places where the shade of a tree serves as meeting place and temple.

Stream of Cuban pastors

Back at his home church, a converted adult theater, he receives a steady stream of pastors visiting from Cuba to his rock 'n' roll services, during which Santos wears a suit and plays a red electric guitar. One such pastor is scheduled to preach at his church on May 16.

Behind the pulpit is an old plastic water bottle full of coins donated by the congregation. Santos plans to save the money until it is possible to provide it to churches and the poor in Cuba.

"It is time to lift the embargo," he says. "People are hurting there."

In Cuba, Luaces, a Republican-leaning businessman who once wore black-and-red checkered shirts in support of GOP presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, found himself moved by the scenes of professionals lined up around the block for food.

One day, he went into a government-run grocery store and tried to pay for some food in Cuban money.

He was rebuffed.

"You know, that's just like my restaurant here," he said. "I only take dollars, too."

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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