Cuban-Americans leaving New Jersey for the South

Warmer climate, jobs, family ties, retirement all listed as reasons

March 22, 2002|By Elizabeth Llorente | Elizabeth Llorente,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The framed artwork has come down, the posters

are rolled up.

The Cuban flag that sat on the mantel is stored away.

Rolando Brito is leaving New Jersey for a warmer climate, extended family, and job opportunities in South Florida. When he drives down I-95 in his new black Nissan Altima, Brito will become another of the thousands of Cuban-Americans who have left New Jersey in the last decade.

The reasons for the exodus range from relatives and job opportunities in other states to retirement in Florida - the closest that graying Cubans believe they'll ever come to their native island.

"New Jersey is getting more expensive all the time," said Brito, a soft-spoken 33-year-old, as he took down a light fixture in his nearly vacant Guttenberg apartment last week. "There's not much left of the Cuban community here, not compared to what I saw up to the 1980s. You ask `What happened to so-and-so?' and you hear `He left, she left.' In Miami there are more job opportunities, and it's cheaper. The Cuban community is all around, I feel like I'm in Cuba there, like I'm home."

The 2000 Census shows that while the Cuban population in the United States grew by 19 percent since 1990, and in Florida, the flagship Cuban hub, it grew by 23 percent, it declined in New Jersey by 9 percent, from 85,378 to 77,337. It was the first time the census showed a decline in New Jersey, which up until the drop attracted about 15 percent of Cubans entering the United States.

Virtually every Cuban-American in New Jersey can name several friends or relatives who have left in the last decade.

In Union City, standing outside El Artesano Restaurant on Bergenline Avenue, several Cuban men sipping espresso nodded knowingly when asked about the Cuban exodus.

Elizabeth, N.J., resident Oscar Lopez, 27, said several friends have moved to Texas, where the Cuban population grew 41 percent, to 25,705, in the last 10 years. Indeed, a Cuban-American, Orlando Sanchez, ran unsuccessfully for mayor in Houston in the last election.

Lopez, who plans to move to Homestead, Fla., this year, said his Texas friends report that "housing is more affordable, and there are more career options, more jobs."

Evelio Espinola, who lives in West New York, said his daughter and grandson moved to Virginia last year. Espinola, 86, plans to leave New Jersey, too, and "spend my last years of life in Florida."

The Cuban out-migration from the state is more than just another statistical shift.

It means that a potent well of influence in New Jersey is shrinking. Though nationally less visible than their compatriots in Miami, New Jersey Cubans have etched a formidable mark in politics, business, and culture.

Perceptible impact

The impact of their arrival - and, now, steady departure - is most

perceptible in Hudson County, where the towns of Union City, West New York, and North Bergen boasted the nation's second-largest Cuban exile community in the nation. Thousands of Cubans who fled after the Communist revolution bypassed Miami and settled here, lured by the promise of embroidery work and word that about a dozen Cuban families from the same town lived in the area.

From the 1960s until the mid-1980s, a Cuban feel enveloped Bergenline Avenue, the main commercial artery that runs through those towns.

Cuban-accented Spanish prevailed everywhere. Exiles celebrated their daughters' 15th birthdays the way they did in Cuba - with lavish parties in local ballrooms. On block after block, older exiles stood outside Cuban eateries, puffing on cigars and waxing nostalgic about their homeland.

"Next year in Havana," they'd say, confident that the regime of Fidel Castro would not last another 12 months, and that they'd spend the next Christmas in what they called "the pearl of the Caribbean."

By the 1980s, the exile community had clenched the brass ring. Many who had arrived with little money, and begun their life in exile sweeping floors and waiting on tables had become owners of successful businesses, or climbed to corporate positions that earned them handsome salaries.

Outgrowing Hudson towns

Economically and socially, they outgrew the old urban Hudson towns, among the most densely populated in the nation.

Many older Cubans decided to build on property they'd bought in Florida a decade or two earlier, and spend their twilight years there if they couldn't die in Cuba, 90 miles away.

Clara Nibot, a Bergenfield resident, said many of her Cuban friends - particularly those who have retired - have moved to South Florida in search of "the illusion that they're living in Cuba."

"In South Florida, you put on the radio, you hear Cuban music. You put on TV, you hear about Cuba. You're living the culture, but with the freedom that doesn't exist in Cuba."

Younger Cuban-Americans moved to the suburbs of more affluent New Jersey counties, while others began leaving the state for enticing jobs.

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