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Safe Harbor

Luis and Miriam Abreu embrace the aboundance of Orange County but long for family left in Cuba

December 10, 1996|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Luis Abreu savors a shrimp cocktail and sips an American beer from a chilled glass. It's a sunny fall afternoon, and he's enjoying a day off from his job driving a big-rig produce truck.

"If I like," he says eight months after making a remarkable journey from Cuba to Southern California, "I can enjoy what presidents enjoy: a steak, good wine, shrimp."

It was friendship found in a sea-drifting bottle that brought Abreu and his wife the 3,000 miles from their coastal hometown of Caibarien to Santa Ana--and helped them fulfill the immigrant's dream of building an American way of life.

The bayside eatery where he sits is on Balboa Peninsula, a place he recognizes from a postcard sent to him by his grade-school pen pals in Corona del Mar. It was one year ago that the students and their imaginative teacher, Judy d'Albert, pooled their resources to enable the Abreus to make their journey.

It was one of many acts of kindness and improbable circumstances that have touched their lives, an odyssey that unfolds daily.

Like the seemingly random currents that put the bottle with a message in it in his hands six years ago, the lives of Luis Abreu, 52, and Miriam Abreu, 47, have shifted drastically over the past year.

"People say I'm the luckiest man alive," Luis Abreu said when he arrived in the United States. So lucky, he said recently, that he knows he will one day win the California lottery. "Ya veras," he says. You'll see.

*

"Against astronomical odds . . ." began television newscasts the night of March 6 as pictures were beamed around the world of the Abreus listening to the Harbor Day School fifth-graders' welcome song, "This Land Is Your Land."

The Corona del Mar children crowned Luis Abreu with an Angels baseball cap. They had known through correspondence he once played semiprofessional baseball. The family of one of the students provided the plane tickets from Miami to Orange County.

"You are my family," he said after pulling from his pocket the original message he found in the oceangoing bottle to show reporters and new friends.

The couple was given a hero's welcome earlier that day at John Wayne Airport by many who had seen a Times article about the lucky couple.

On that very first day, the Abreus met with people who have become anchors in their lives--helping them land jobs, find a home, even give them a bed to sleep in that night.

Cuban natives Jose and Nora Cueto offered to host the Abreus at their five-bedroom Santa Ana home. The Abreus, who came from the same city as their hosts, stayed with the Cuetos for five months until they were able to get out on their own in August.

The Cuetos helped them cut through red tape, shuttled them to the immigration office and the DMV. (Luis passed the driving test on his third try.)

Others also stepped in to help.

Francisco F. Firmat, an Orange County Superior Court judge and Cuban immigrant, helped the Abreus through the immigration process and made sure there was clear communication with the couple as they prepared to leave Cuba.

Oscar Nunez, 46, who emigrated from Cuba at age 11, was there at the airport to tell the Abreus he would try to help them find work through a friend who is a supermarket executive. The parents of one of the Harbor Day students offered job contacts too.

Nunez and the Cuetos helped form what became known as El Club del 200. The dozen families in the "club" donated $200 or more each to finance Luis' truck-driving schooling, which cost $2,400.

"We have to be grateful to be able to help," says Jose Cueto, 72, a physician who emigrated from Cuba in 1952, seven years before the Cuban Revolution. "It was easy for us to come here. . . . I believe the more you have, the more you owe to society."

Besides sharing their home, the Cuetos helped the newly arrived couple cope with what most people here take for granted.

"It was shocking to go into a market for the first time," Miriam Abreu says, recalling seeing America's abundance: She wept upon seeing the variety of fresh produce and meat in stores--things absent in shops back home.

Miriam had worked in a bodega, a neighborhood grocery about the size of a small garage, where she would check customers' ration cards and parcel out the limited stock available that day. Families were allowed a monthly ration of 5 pounds of rice and 10 ounces of beans per person. When she arrived, Miriam had been suffering from malnutrition. But now, bare food shelves and empty stomachs come only in letters from Cuba. Miriam and Luis have each gained weight--the gauntness is gone from their faces.

In the past few months, Luis has spent nearly $50 sending letters home. He has the addresses of 50 people to whom he writes. "It's so difficult to compare six months of this to 36 years of Cuba" since the revolution, his letters say.

*

For the past 25 years in Cuba, Luis and Miriam lived in a drafty house the size of a two-car garage.

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