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SOUTH GATE : Exiles Find Solace at Casa Cuba


Rafael Estevez left Cuba in 1974 with little hope of seeing his friend Rene Cruz again.

But a few years later they bumped into each other at an L.A. political rally for Cuban immigrants and began discussing the problems of living in exile.

"There are a lot of Cubans who came here and we found ourselves alone in a completely different culture that has a different way of life," Cruz said. "So we got together and formed the group with the idea that we wanted to help give other Cubans who come here a network they could tap into so their lives would be better."

The group is Casa Cuba-Comision Pro Libertad Presos Politicos/Cubanos, a nonprofit organization founded in June, 1985. With the Cuban community representing just 1% of the Latino population in the state, according to 1990 Census figures, Casa Cuba serves as a temporary shelter and a comforting link between immigrants and their culture.

At Casa Cuba, a small three-bedroom house in the 8600 block San Luis Avenue, newly arrived families can stay for as long as they need, although a typical stay is about two months, Estevez said. The group also provides newcomers with food, job-referral assistance and help in seeking public assistance, if needed.

"More than 1,300 people . . . have passed through this house at one time or another," said Cruz, 65, who left Cuba in December, 1979.

Most people are referred to Casa Cuba by residents or church groups who work with Cuban immigrants, who numbered 6,365 in Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, Vernon, Cudahy, Commerce and South Gate according to the 1990 Census.

Estevez, 56, said Casa Cuba maintains a connection to the families after they leave the house, often helping them with medical needs. Several of the group's 600 members are doctors and dentists and donate their time.

The organization spends about $1,500 a month on rent, food and other expenses, but shrinking donations have depleted its resources, Estevez said. Casa Cuba, which receives no public money, is primarily funded by monthly donations from its members, but many of them are out of work or underemployed, Estevez said. The group has planned a fund-raiser June 27.

"Right now it's hard for us to help those who are coming here because we aren't getting the same donations," he said.

Currently, there are four residents at Casa Cuba, including Pedro Angel Castillo, who arrived in California about two months. His situation is typical of many who seek the organization's help.

A 54-year-old construction worker who was recently allowed to leave Cuba and is awaiting the arrival of his wife and two children from his hometown of Santiago, Castillo emigrated directly to South Gate and sought out Casa Cuba.

"I found out through other political prisoners in Cuba who know about Casa Cuba," said Castillo. "This place has been a huge help for me. Here I can be with other Cubans and can try and get ahead. This place has meant so much because they've helped me in every way, from helping me figure out the paperwork of applying for a job to understanding what life is like here."

Information: (213) 569-4599.

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