News and Facts about Cuba

That other Cuban community

Posted on Thursday, 12.03.09
That other Cuban community

Along the Jersey side on the Hudson River, New York City stands vibrant
if now forever scarred. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants
entered the United States through Ellis Island, where a must-see museum
renders tribute to their hopes and the country that blessed them.

Union City welcomed immigrants well before Ellis Island and continues to
do so today. In the 18th century, Dutch and English merchants first
settled the area. Later, German immigrants crossed the river from
Manhattan. Irish, Polish, Armenians, Syrians, eastern European Jews and
Italians followed.

Union City is positioned at the heart of American history in ways Miami
is not. Incorporated in 1896, Miami still has the feel of a city in the
making. A well-known funeral home proudly flags its founding in 1858
without saying — no need, really — that it first opened its doors in
Havana. History is just settling down in Miami. Union City is a grande dame.

In the late 1940s, Cubans began arriving there from New York City. Born
in NYC of Cuban parents (a carpenter and a seamstress), Sen. Robert
Menendez, D-N.J., grew up in Union City. Others, like Manuel and Lyda
Rodríguez, migrated from Cuba in the early 1950s and became pillars of
the greater Union City community.

Decades-long history

In The Cubans of Union City: Immigrants and Exiles in a New Jersey
Community, Yolanda Prieto draws a moving, decades-long history of Union
City from a Cuban perspective. Prieto herself is part of the story: She
arrived there in March 1968 with her parents and her sister Zoila.
Porfirio Prieto, a railroad worker in Camagüey, became a presser in a
New Jersey factory; Juana, a seamstress, worked in the garment industry.
Prieto has observant, empathetic eyes that shine throughout the book.

A plurality of Union City Cubans came from small towns or cities,
especially from Villa Clara province in central Cuba. A little over a
third had graduated high , a much lower figure than the U.S. or
Cuban exile average at the time. Like the author and Menendez, many
children of Union City Cubans — whether pre-1959 immigrants or
post-1959 exiles — became the first in their families to earn a college

There's no gainsaying the generosity of the U.S. government toward us in
the 1960s and 1970s. The Cuban Refugee Program offered broad support,
whether to relocate from Miami (more than half settled in Union City),
facilitate educational loans or offer help while looking for a job.
There's also no denying that Washington benefitted us for imperatives
having to do with undermining or reversing the revolution.

Entrepreneurial class

Like their Miami compatriots, many Cubans in Union City proved
themselves as entrepreneurs. On and around Bergenline Avenue, the city's
main thoroughfare, Cuban restaurants, bodegas, stores of all kinds
opened for business in locales where Italian or Yiddish was once spoken.
Like Porfirio and Juana, others found employment in area industries.
Cuban women soon registered the highest rates of labor-force
participation among women in the United States.

Civic associations, often based on hometowns or municipalities in Cuba,
flourished. So did political organizations, whether nationally based
such as the Cuban American National Foundation, Cuban Nationalist
Movement and Alpha 66 or New Jersey-bred societies such as youth-group
Abdala and the terrorist Omega 7.

Life at St. Augustine, a Catholic parish long-served by an
Irish-American priest, reflected the changes in Union City's human
landscape, first drawing parishioners from the older immigrant
communities, then several waves of Cubans and now an ongoing influx of
Colombians, Central Americans and Dominicans.

Welcoming differences

In 2000, a Cuban woman said: “I'm convinced that, as we welcome
difference among us, we are fulfilling our mission as a people of God.''

In 1998, Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba inspired many Cuban Catholics
in Union City to open their arms to the Cuban Catholic Church.

As in Miami, close ties between New Jersey and Cuban parishes are now
commonplace. Religion and reconciliation go hand in hand, as Prieto
fittingly emphasizes.

The Cubans of Union City is partly based on interviews conducted over 25
years with 209 Cubans who speak throughout. Above all Yolanda Prieto has
written a humane book on what she calls “Cuba's northernmost province.''

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is a professor at Florida International
and Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

That other Cuban community – Other Views – (3 December 2009)

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