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 bay-side eatery where he sits is on Balboa Peninsula, a place Abreu recognizes from a postcard sent to him by his grade school pen pals in Corona del Mar. It was in 1990 that teacher Judy d'Albert and her fifth-grade students put the note into the bottle that drifted to Cuba. A year ago, d'Albert and her new students 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 Abreu, 52, and his wife, Miriam, 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.
"You are my family," he said after pulling from his pocket the original message he found in the oceangoing bottle.
On that very first day, the Abreus met with people who have become anchors in their lives.
Oscar Nunez, 46, who emigrated from Cuba at 11, was 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.
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.
Francisco F. Firmat, an Orange County Superior Court judge and Cuban immigrant, helped the Abreus through the immigration process.
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.
In Cuba, Miriam had worked in a bodega, a small neighborhood grocery, where she would check customers' ration cards and parcel out the limited stock available that day. 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.
Before they arrived here, Luis and Miriam Abreu lived for 25 years in Cuba in a drafty house the size of a two-car garage.
Today, they live in a $500-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in a Santa Ana complex called Villa Clara--the namesake of the Cuban province where they lived. Most of the couple's furniture is secondhand--gifts from well-wishers. A sewing machine in the bedroom is on loan until Miriam can afford her own. She's hoping that when her English improves, she can become a seamstress for a department store.
Although their walls are bare, the rooms are furnished with the things found in most American homes: a TV, a radio, a kitchen table.
On Luis Abreu's desk is a portrait of Jose Marti, a poet and hero of Cuba's independence from Spain. Next to the painting is a photograph of Luis and Miriam's two adult sons standing with their half sister, a daughter from Luis' first marriage. A son from that marriage has been missing for a decade--since he made the dangerous boat trip to Miami in hopes of immigrating to the U.S.