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For Orange County Cubans, Club Is a Bit of Home

March 03, 1985|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

Every Tuesday morning, Cuban customers grab their wallets when they hear the horn signaling the arrival of the bread man in their small Westminster barrio.

"They always come when they see my green truck turn down Locust Street," said Victor Galvez, who, for two years, has been driving from Los Angeles to Orange County to sell Cuban staples such as pan de agua (fresh bread), galletas (thick crackers), produce and meats.

For Bertha Guerra, the bread man's visits are both a convenience and cultural link to a life left behind.

"Besides, I like Victor. Without him, we would have to travel far to buy our things," she said.

In contrast to Orange County's large Vietnamese community, with its bustling "Little Saigon" commercial center only a few miles away in Westminster, the Cuban-American population is smaller and scattered.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 Cubans live in the county. They are mostly in Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Westminster, and Anaheim, and comprise less than 1% of the total population. Despite their small numbers, however, they are some of the most vocal, closely knit and politically aware Latinos in the county.

As a group, the former political refugees have adapted well. The Cubans interviewed said they were attracted by relatives' and friends' descriptions of the area's balmy climate, its proximity to Los Angeles and the promise of jobs during the county's construction boom.

Nilo E. Lipiz, 31, of Anaheim, recalled that his father "brought us to Orange County" because Cuban relatives spoke highly of it.

"After we were here a few months, my dad ended up calling my aunt in Boston and told her, 'Hey! It's good out here. Come.' And she did."'

Most of the Cubans came from middle-class families and were university-educated. Many arrived in 1962, several years after Fidel Castro came to power. But others, such as the "Marielitos," who arrived in 1980 in the so-called boat lift from Mariel Harbor, were poor and spoke little English. Of about 8,000 Marielitos who settled in Southern California, some live in Orange County, but a majority live in Los Angeles County, according to a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman.

The majority of Cuban-Americans interviewed said they are registered Republicans. They voted for President Reagan and consider themselves politically conservative. They hate the Castro government and believe the United States should remain militarily strong and fight communism.

Some, such as the Carlos Caravia family of Villa Park, have been remarkably successful. The Caravias were able to turn a $500 investment making travel trailers into a $50 million-a-year business. But multimillion-dollar corporations are the exception. Most Cuban-owned businesses are small grocery stores, beauty salons or travel agencies, and the majority of these businesses rely heavily on Cubans and other Latino customers.

At Jose Avila's Anaheim Market, on Lemon Street, instant flan, galletas, frijoles negros (black beans), espresso, malangas (potato-like vegetables) and other Cuban foodstuffs filled the aisles.

Behind the counter, Avila, a portly, 54-year-old Cuban who left Havana in 1964, explained how to prepare bacalao , or salted fish, over the din of a fast Cuban rhythm on the phonograph.

"You get the fish," he said, and he broke off conversation to greet several customers in Spanish. " . . . let it stand in warm water, to get rid of the salt. Then you add lots of spices, and it's delicious," he said with a wide grin.

When Avila first arrived from Cuba, he lived near Guerra's Westminster neighborhood. "I used to be the bread man there for 15 years, but I went door to door," he said.

He saved money, and eventually bought the market at 760 Lemon St. "Now I own this store and the next building. It's all mine," he said proudly.

He has earned enough to live comfortably, and to help his parents, in-laws, and sisters and brothers emigrate to Miami and Orange County, he said.

Despite their success, however, there is growing concern among Cuban-Americans about preserving their heritage.

For that reason, Cesar Hernandez, of Orange, and other Cuban-Americans last September revived the Circulo Cubano, or Cuban Assn., of Orange County, which had been dormant almost three years. (About 16 other circulos are active in Southern California, the largest in Huntington Park and Glendale.)

Hernandez, 44, formerly secretary of the court system in Guantanamo, is now a quality-control manager for a Costa Mesa smoke detector manufacturer. Ties to Cuba are still strong in the community but they are eroding every day, he said sadly.

Hernandez and other Cuban-Americans interviewed noted that Spanish isn't spoken in the home as much as it once was--especially among the second generation. Like the Italian and German immigrants before them, their children have grown up in schools where there is pressure to emulate English-speaking peers.

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