Some Cubans of Hispanic descent now living in the District have a New Year's resolution to share.
"No te mueras sin ir a Espana:" "Do not die without going to Spain."
Columbia Heights resident Teofilo Amador, a recent Cuban refugee, and Lucy Carvajal, a Mount Pleasant resident who manages an Adams Morgan senior citizens center, said their teachers in Cuba repeated the adage many times. Maria Bertran, an Adams Morgan resident, said her father stressed the saying in her family.
They heard it first in Cuba. Their grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts would say it. They say it to each other, and to their children.
"I remember having heard my father say many times when I was young, 'If you do not go to Barcelona, you would not know Spain,' " said Bertran, whose father was born in Spain. Bertran was born in Cuba. Her father eventually returned to Barcelona, where he died. She said it was not until she traveled to Spain that she really understood the strong feelings that many Cubans of Spanish ancestry had for the country.
In the last century, many Spaniards from various regions of the mother country emigrated to Cuba, leaving behind small towns and villages, where, in some instances, distant relatives still live. These hard-working immigrants raised Cuban families, and passed on recollections of their birthplaces to their offspring. In many cases, the children developed a desire to visit those faraway places--to find their roots.
Gilberto Gonzalez, a successful store owner on Columbia Road NW, says:
"I heard that saying in Cuba all the time, and that's why I have been to Spain five times already, visiting Catalonia, Valencia, Alicante, Seville, Galitzia, Asturias and Madrid," said Gonzalez, who owns several grocery stores that offer ethnic food staples of many cultures. "I am so elated that I am going back as soon as I can.
Gonzalez was born at the Adelaida Sugar Mill, in Cuba's Camaguey province, and his ancestors were Canarians, from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria--the Canary Islands. He owned a small sugar cane plantation near the Cespedes Sugar Mill, in the same Cuban province, and came to the United States in 1963, when the communist regime of Fidel Castro confiscated his property. He stayed in Miami for one year, tried his luck in the food store business in Baltimore--"that is not a good place for Latin-American food stores," he says--and finally settled here in 1965.
Gonzalez, married and the father of three, has been a part of the Columbia Road scene for the last 17 years, first across the street from his present location, and then at 1813 Columbia Rd. NW for five years. He owns two more ethnic-food stores, one in Hyattsville, Md., and another in Fairfax, Va., plus a warehouse in Northeast Washington. All of them feature typical Latin-American, West Indian and Oriental food staples, and the various languages one hears make these places sound like the United Nations in miniature.
"By all means," he agrees. "Do not die without going to Spain."
Manuel Guixens, a professional draftsman, helps Gonzalez--his uncle-by-marriage--on weekends at the food store. He too was born in Camaguey province and came to the United States when he was very young. He recently visited some cousins at the small Spanish town of El Vendrell, Tarragona province, in Catalonia.
"I remember having heard this saying of 'going to Spain before dying' many times, but I never realized its full meaning until I visited with my cousins in El Vendrell," Guixens said. "They still keep our ancestral home, from which I brought back old family photos and other mementos. They insisted that I had to stay with them instead of going to any hotel, and took me down to the nearby Playa Calafell, plus some other interesting points in the area. Now that I learned what my elders meant, I surely intend to go back."
Calafell is one of the many beaches that dot the Costa Brava and that are famous for their peculiar topography. Instead of a long, open beach, these are coves, small indentations or recesses in the shoreline of the Mediterranean coast of Catalonia from Tarragona, in the southwest, to the French border in the province of Gerona.
"When you go to Spain is when you get the sense of why a lot of people said that we should not die before we went," said Pedro M. Capote, chairman of the District's Hispanic Businessmen Association and the owner of another ethnic food store on Columbia Road NW.
"It's like being in another world, standing there and looking at all those old towns, museums, the narrow streets where not even the smallest car is able to enter. I have been there twice, in 1970 and 1971, and I am really sorry that my business duties have not allowed me to go back, since I certainly enjoyed visiting Madrid, Toledo (once the capital of Spain), El Escorial (site of the tombs of ancient Spanish royalty) and the Valley of the Fallen (a huge monument that the late dictator Francisco Franco ordered built to honor the dead in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s)."
Born in Marianao, a city just west of Havana, Capote said he served in the Cuban Army for 22 years. In July 1962, he left Cuba for Ecuador. He traveled to Miami shortly thereafter and a month later resettled in Washington, D.C.
Capote worked for 11 years as an interior decorator. During this period he also bought the International Bakery in Takoma Park, Md., which he sold to purchase his present store. Like Gonzalez's store, Capote's also features ethnic food from all over the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Spain.
"Make sure you tell everybody that they must go to Spain before they die," Capote emphasized with an energetic gesture and his ever-present smile. "If they try it, they'll like it."
Besides sharing their belief in the adage, Gonzalez, Bertran, Capote and others have something else in common: They all arrived in the United States as poor Cuban refugees and have struggled to find their future in the nation's capital through hard work and personal sacrifice.
From their humble beginnings, they have shown that the "American dream" can become reality for many, if one is willing to go for it and stay with it. Working hard is nothing new to them.
They still wear "guayaberas" (tropical shirts that are popular in the Caribbean), enjoy the typical Cuban dishes "lechon asado" (roast pork,) "yuca con mojo" (yucca with garlic sauce), "moros con cristianos" (black beans cooked together with white rice, dubbed "Moors and Christians" in Cuba), and talk about the old country, in the hope of going back some day.
Their families, bilingual and bicultural, have kept the Cuban traditions, rooted in the small Spanish towns and villages from where their ancestors emigrated to Cuba, looking for better economic opportunities.
It does not matter what region of Spain they left; all of them carried and conveyed to their descendants the sense of family unity that is central to the Spanish culture, the hard-work ethic that has helped their children and grandchildren to prosper in the "Land of Opportunity," and the love for the small towns and villages that were left behind, but not forgotten.
Jose G. Roig is a freelance Cuban-American journalist who has lived and worked in the Washington, D.C., area since 1964. He traveled to the village of his elders in 1980, and hopes to return to Spain this year.