UNION CITY, N.J. (CN) – Days before the highest-level U.S.-Cuban diplomatic talks in decades, New Jersey’s own “Little Little Havana” was readying for the reopening of Pan Con Todo on Bergenline Avenue.
Danny and Pete Marrero, the sons of Cuban emigrants, had opened the restaurant at a smaller location in 2003, but soon found a home on “La Avenida,” as locals call main drag of the Latin-American enclave of Union City, as the restaurant’s decor and authentic Havana-inspired food drew customers from as far as the other Little Havana in Miami.
The restaurant was forced into another move in 2012, however, under the weight of the economic downturn and Pete’s tragic death at the hands of a drunken driver.
Returning to the Avenida this month, Pan Con Todo’s walls boast murals of the Malecón, Havana’s famous seascape; palm-leaf ceiling fans; and paintings of vintage sedans and colorful houses its owner collected during annual visits to Havana.
Speaking inside his restaurant, 35-year-old Marrero said he uses those visits to see his great-aunt and -uncle, connect with his roots and help develop his restaurant’s menu.
“In Cuba, everything’s organic,” he said. “There’s no preservatives. There’s no additives. Nothing, you know. So it’s something you appreciate. Even though it’s the poor country that it is, it’s got all the agricultural stuff.”
Those annual journeys became a lot easier in the wake of President Barack Obama’s speech from Dec. 17, 2014, announcing a plan to normalize relations with Havana, he said.
Previously, Marrero noted that he could only travel to see his family in Havana and central Cuba through a third country, and he would have to be careful about what he brought back through customs.
“They took six boxes of cigars and six bottles of rum away from me at the border from Canada in August,” he said. “Now, I’m glad that they can’t take anything away from me.”
With the embargo still in effect, and a Republican Congress hoping to keep it that way, Marrero’s statement may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but travelers to Cuba got some reprieve at the U.S. border.
Under the White House’s new rules, travelers can now bring up to $400 back in Cuban goods, and up to $100 in cigars and alcohol.
A container of the famous Havana Club rum serves as a tip jar at Pan Con Todo, and the tables are decorated with vintage postcards of American pinups advertising Cuban cigars like the renowned Cohiba brand.
Like several of Union City’s Cuban restaurants, Pan Con Todo offers the Havana-inspired Dos Café for its espresso.
“I can’t even wake up without that in the morning,” Marrero said.
For Pan Con Todo clientele, “everybody’s happy” with the U.S.-Cuban détente, Marrero said.
Ignacio Alfonso, the 51-year-old owner of nearby El Artesano, reported a far more “mixed” reaction along generational lines.
His restaurant celebrated its fourth decade on La Avenida in 2014, the year U.S.-Cuban relations thawed.
In his regular rounds, Alfonso said that he often talks politics with the customers, and many oppose the changes.
“Some of them don’t like the whole decision with the United States trying to negotiate with Cuba because some of them have been impacted,” Alfonso said. “They’ve killed their brothers or sister or cousin or uncle because of the revolution or because they said something, so they’ve been executed.”
Alfonso said that he – and much of the city’s older generation – fall into this category.
“Then, you get the younger crowd that are like, ‘Yeah, it’s about time. Let’s talk to them. Let’s open the door for negotiations,'” he continued.
Alfonso can often be seen chatting up his regular clientele in Spanish and English, whether they are seated at the diner-style counters or the surrounding tables and booths.
A vintage Cuban baseball jersey decorates the wall of one room, and a map of Cuba boasting it as the “Pearl of the Antilles” hangs near the bathroom on the other.
Unlike typical Jersey diner fare, cane juice (or guarapa) is on constant demand, advertised near a counter that sells U.S. cigarettes and Cuban-style cigars.
Customers who order a café con leche pour their espresso directly into a cup of warm milk, rather than the other way around; and one traditional offering is called ropa vieja – a beef stew that literally translates to “old clothes.”
Commenting that a U.S.-Cuban accord “might help me with my business,” Alfonso said he has no problem with talking “as long as we don’t give everything.”
“It seems that we’re giving everything from our side, and we’re not getting any concessions from Cuba,” he said.
Havana’s previous regulations had cramped a medication-shipping service at Sugarman’s Drug Store, but owner Lucy Portela said that arm of her business will likely stay shuttered.
“Before, it would take four weeks. Now, it takes eight weeks,” Portela said. “Before, you would have $13 a pound. Now, you have $15 a pound with insurance rates and shipping rates that they never had, because Cuba’s just looking to get money from anywhere and anybody.”
At 55, Portela quipped that she is “as old as the revolution.” She grew up in Union City “as an exile through Spain.”
The revolution had “stolen” her father and grandfather’s business, Portela said.
“Before the United States can make some money from Cuba, we have to give the people freedom and we have to respect human rights,” she said. “That’s my theory, and there’s nothing that can change my mind on that.”
A sign of such changes in Cuba can be found inside Union City’s Mercado de las Americas, where a vendor selling rock and heavy-metal music collectibles has a “Cuba” sign perched next to Major League Baseball figurines and a rainbow flag for gay rights.
“Maté,” 59, declined to give her full name as she spoke about the strides Cuba has made in rights for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, spearheaded by the activism of Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela.
Speaking only in Spanish, Maté said that she otherwise does not know much about Cuban politics. She summed up the political changes in a word: “Bueno.”
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