Virginia may not seem to be home for many of the 55 million Hispanics in the United States, whose largest members are Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban. Only about 600,000 Hispanics now call the Old Dominion their home.
But what about Cubans living in Southwest Virginia? Miami’s Little Havana is more often associated with this ethnic enclave.
Here are the stories of four local residents of Cuban descent who are thriving in Southwest Virginia. The decade in which they arrived reflects the broader political and economic relationships between Cuba, the United States and the rest of the world.
‘We build great things’
Yuri Torres hails from Holguín on the eastern side of the island, a region with high levels of unemployment.
As his first name indicates, the Soviet influence following the Cuban revolution of 1959 was strong. In any given Cuban family on the island, those born in the 1950s would often use traditional Spanish names (Francisco, Maria, Juan, Amalia). Yuri’s generation got Soviet names like his, or others such as Nuirca, Vladimir, or Boris.
Yuri was aware of Roanoke because a relative emigrated there in the 1990s.
While on a trip overseas in 2005, he and his then-fiancée sought political exile status and made their way to the United States, where his grandparents, uncles and cousins sponsored him. He joined their construction business and married his fiancée. Today, both are parents to a six- and three-year-old.
Yuri owns Towers Construction (no relation to Towers Shopping Center in Roanoke). The name is a direct translation of his last name (Torres), because — in Yuri’s words —“we build great things, like towers!”
Yuri has no regrets: “I feel fortunate to live in the greatest country in the world where I can fulfill my dreams, take care of my family here, and send money back home.”
Never has he felt or heard overt prejudice, he said, or been called derogatory names.
A hit out of the park
If cigars, rum and salsa music are synonymous with all things Cuban, so is baseball. Introduced onto the island by Cubans studying at southern military schools after the U.S. Civil War, the game is now the national sport.
So when 28-year-old Carlos Mesa was vacationing in El Salvador and a recruiting scout saw him hit one out of the park, his life was about to change.
“I weighed 250 pounds, and the trainer sent me right to the gym for 90 days, without ever once stepping on the baseball diamond.” He shed 35 pounds and was signed to the Pittsburgh Pirates Single-A division team in Bradenton, Fla. in 2012.
Mesa knows what it is like to live in medium-sized southern U.S. towns.
“I can honestly say, after having lived and worked with baseball teams in Greenville, South Carolina, and Charleston, West Virginia, the warmth and affection of Roanoke and Salem is striking. And people recognize me when I go into the store: ‘Hey, you’re the player from the [Salem] Red Sox, right?’ ”
Mesa feels especially at home when he and his Venezuelan and Dominican roommates dine at El Cubanito restaurant in Salem, whose owner turns out to be a relative of Estela González (see below).
“I love southern pulled pork, mind you, and the barbecue around here is great. But El Cubanito brings me back home in so many ways.”
From refugees to
In her first trimester of pregnancy, Estela González and her husband Manuel Hidalgo set out for the United States on a rickety boat in 1994, when the loss of Soviet aid made life tough. After five days at sea the Bahamian coast guard, who repatriated them to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo, picked them up.
After six months of living with 35,000 other refugees in tents on the beach, the Catholic Church resettled them.
“The migration officer pointed to Roanoke on a map and said, ‘This city is going places, and you and your husband seem like hard workers. In 15 or 20 years you’ll be glad you went there.’”
Fast-forward 20-plus years. Estela’s daughter, Helen, is now studying nursing at Virginia Western. She and Miguel operate Cuban Island Restaurant on Williamson Road in Roanoke.
“We tested the waters, first with a food truck. Things went well, so we saved and started the restaurant,” reports González.
Beaming across the table she tells me, “Roanokers from all walks of life have received us spectacularly well.”
Across the dining room I speak with a local mom and her two home-schooled children, an engineer and her husband, and a Dominican family.
“Is the food good?” I ask the customers. They all smile and give a big thumbs-up.
‘A great place to call home’
Gilda Machín of Blacksburg had three days back in June 1967 to decide whether she wanted to leave the home of her aunt and grandmother — with whom she had lived for seven years — or join her mother in New York City. Unlike Estela and thousands of others who took to rafts to cross over to the United States, Machín was part of the orderly, weekly “Freedom Flights” started by President Lyndon Johnson.
From a small town in Cuba’s Camaguey Province, she found herself living on the 26th floor of a Manhattan high-rise.
“When I reached New York, I was mesmerized by the city lights,” she says.
Thanks to English as a Second Language classes and a tutor in the first year, she went on to earn a B.A. at Rutgers University.
“I have moved quite a few times, but I’ve been in Blacksburg almost 30 years, and it is a great place to call home.”
Like Estela and Carlos, Cuban food is important to Machín. She blends a little bit of Cuban cuisine in her home cooking in Blacksburg, where she works as an event planner. Her Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, for instance, includes fried plantains to add a bit of sweetness and to absorb the turkey’s succulence.
Like Mesa, González and Torres, Machín says the New River and Roanoke valleys offer a great place to raise a family.
“The slow pace and friendliness of Blacksburg is a welcome change from life in the big city. Blacksburg is a wonderful place to spend my golden years, too.”
*Joseph L. Scarpaci is Executive Director of The Center for the Study of Cuban Culture + Economy in Blacksburg, VA. He is the author of Pittsburgh and the Appalachians: Cultural and Natural Resources in a Post-industrial Age (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) and co-author of Marketing without Advertising: Brand Preference and Consumer Choice in Cuba (Routledge, 2012). He is married to Gilda Machín, attests to her good cooking and has visited Cuba 80 times.