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Cubans of ORANGE COUNTY : 5,000 of Them Live Here but They Are Hard to Spot, Having Quietly Assimilated

HERITAGE: Sixth in an occasional series of stories on Orange County's diverse ethnic groups.


Victor Cueto of Santa Ana took to the streets when he heard that the Cuban national water polo team was coming to Southern California.

He rounded up two dozen Cuban friends and staged a protest demonstration at Newport Harbor High School, one of the contest sites. He called newspapers to arrange for coverage of his demonstration at the exhibition games. And he and his friends distributed to the surprised young athletes anti-Communist T-shirts that had "Cuba, Volveremos" ("We're Coming Back") printed on them.

Cueto, 31, was born in Washington state and his only view of Cuban soil was when his parents took him for a visit when he was 3 months old.

He was too young to have understood that he was seeing pre-revolutionary Cuban life for the last time. It would be his parents' memories and passions that fostered his anti-Castro fervor.

The Cueto home is rife with near-daily discussions about news of Cuba. So when Victor Cueto heard about the visit by the Cuban water polo team earlier this month, he put into action what began as talk at home among his family.

His mother explained, with understatement, "He was brought up that way."

Cueto wanted to shake up the complacency of Americans who accept President Fidel Castro and Communist Cuba as an irrevocable fact of life.

"We were cheering for the team," Cueto said. "But we were also trying to raise the awareness of Americans. They should know that there's sentiment here (in the United States) that's very anti-Fidel."

Conversation turned to an exchange of insults, with the team players calling Cueto and his friends gusanos ("worms"), the common name for emigre Cubans.

He was surprised the team players, who were 18 to 30 years old, were offended by his protests. "I guess they're too young to remember any other Cuba," Cueto said.

"It turned out to be quite a show," he said, explaining that he didn't interrupt the play, but he did make his presence known.

The estimated 5,000 Cubans who live in Orange County are hard to spot. While the Cubans in Miami have prominent power, the Cubans here have quietly assimilated. In Santa Ana, with its large Mexican population, a grocery store owned by Cubans is called La Mexicana, instead of something like Little Havana. There is no cultural center here and the Cuban Assn. of Orange County--the Circulo Cubano--lapsed into inactivity three years ago.

In their homes, however, they will say that Nestor Almendros' film "Improper Conduct," with its testimony by Cubans imprisoned for unconventional behavior, is closer to the truth in its depiction of Cuba today than the series of PBS programs hosted by Harry Belafonte praising the great improvements under Castro.

And if discussion turns to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's latest book, these Cubans won't be talking about the plot but rather about the author's friendship with Castro.

Most of the more than one million Cubans in the United States live on the East Coast, in Miami and the greater New York area. Of the Cubans in California, the greatest concentration (44,000, according to the latest census figures) is in Los Angeles County.

In Orange County, Cuban families cluster in Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Westminster and Anaheim. Some frequent the Felix Continental Cafe in Orange for a home-style meal and look forward to the annual New Year's Eve dance put on by Club de los Amigos, an informal Latino group centered in Santa Ana.

Cuban-born Isabel Alvarez, associate director of the World Affairs Council in San Diego, said few will branch out as far south as Orange County or San Diego. "Others stay (in Los Angeles) where there is a larger number of Cubans," Alvarez said. "But the most venturesome (Cubans) risk being outside their culture, their food.

"They have more courage," she said, "more atrevimiento. "

Cubans typically adapt well; they like to get involved and are socially active, Alvarez said. They want to excel, educationally and economically. "There may not be many of them, but they like to make their mark."

In the traditional Cuban family, children will marry and settle close to home. The extended family, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, will assemble at the parents' home on weekends for conversation and the Sunday midday meal. At Christmas, relatives come to the parents' home for traditional noche buena celebrations of roast pork, black beans and rice, platanos maduros, malanga or yucca and flan.

Paintings displayed on the walls of the De la Cruz home in Santa Ana recall Cuban landscapes: the beach at Varadero; a typical bohio with walls made of tabla de palma; the town of Camarioca, and the Valle de Yumuri. All were rendered from memory or photographs by Aurelio de la Cruz, who is now retired.

The bumper sticker on the family car, "Reagan '84," tells you the De la Cruz family's politics are anti-Communist and Republican. They feel at home in Orange County, where the majority of registered voters are Republican.

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