Four kilometers west of Manhattan is Union City, New Jersey, an area teeming with immigrants since the mid-19th century.
Over the decades, a steady influx of immigrants has introduced new tongues and new foods to Union City, which is only 49 blocks long and fewer than 10 blocks wide. No group has had a more profound impact than the newcomers from Cuba.
Nicknamed “Havana on the Hudson,” Union City has acquired an outsized reputation within the Cuban diaspora, a reputation second only to Miami for Cuban flavor and influence.
The first substantial Cuban influx occurred after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, when large numbers of Cubans in professional occupations left their homeland, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Three more waves followed: from 1965 to 1974, when the “Freedom Flights” transported middle- and working-class Cubans to the United States; in 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, when Castro authorized a mass exodus; and post-1989, when communism in Europe collapsed and the United States tightened its economic embargo on Cuba.
In 1980, the U.S. Census reported that 32 percent of Union City residents were of Cuban origin. By 1990, Cuban Americans owned 80 percent of local businesses.
Recreation, culture and politics
Cuban-American men play dominoes at all hours in José Martí Park, a tiny, vest-pocket park named in honor of the 19th-century national hero, a poet and revolutionary. An art gallery across the street, QbaVa Gallery, features the work of Cuban-American and Cuban artists. El Artesano restaurant pulls in customers looking for café con leche or authentic Cuban sandwiches.
Afro-Cuban salsa is played at the Park Performing Arts Center, dedicated to the memory of Cuban-born salsa singer Celia Cruz.
Every year, people come to watch the procession of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint, and the Cuban Day parade along Bergenline Avenue.
“The Cubans have arrived. Big time.”
Upon arriving in America, most Cubans were readily accepted by established Union City residents and overcame their initial challenges to become upwardly mobile.
Yolanda Prieto, for example, arrived in Union City in March 1968 at age 21. In her 2009 book The Cubans of Union City: Immigrants and Exiles in a New Jersey Community, Prieto recalled: “I left many friends in Cuba, and had only a rudimentary knowledge of English. Very soon, however, I started to make new friends. Many came from Saint Augustine, the Catholic parish I attended with my family. Later, at college, I started to also make American friends.”
Prieto went on to build a successful career as a professor of sociology at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
Many second-generation Cuban Americans in Union City and surrounding municipalities are active in civic and political life. Albio Sires is a former speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly who now represents parts of Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City in the U.S. Congress. And in 2006, after then–New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine tapped Cuban-born attorney Zulima Farber to be state attorney general, the New York Times reported: “The Cubans have arrived. Big time.”
And they keep on coming
Like many other immigrant groups, many of the original Cuban exiles’ children have moved to the suburbs. Between 2000 and 2010, the Cuban-American population grew in four out of every five of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities. By 2010, emigrants from Central and South America had moved into Union City’s brownstones and small homes, and the Cuban share of the city’s 66,455 residents had slipped to 10 percent. Cuban Americans, however, still own much of Union City’s real estate.
But thousands of newly arrived Cubans still find their way to Union City, which remains an important gateway to the American dream. They are not highly visible and are not nearly so politicized as earlier emigrants, according to Prieto. Government policies in both Cuba and the United States make it easier for Cuban immigrants to maintain old ties, and it’s easier for recent arrivals to send money back to relatives, Prieto notes.
“After they become permanent residents, they can go back and visit Cuba. For the most part, they want the political situation to improve between Cuba and the U.S.”
Juan Carlos Rojas, born in the U.S.A.
Juan Carlos Rojas was born in New Jersey, but didn’t speak English at home because his father forbade it. His father was a political exile who left Cuba in 1961; his mother left the island before the revolution, at the age of 12. When his parents went on their first date, they danced at a Cuban club on Union City’s 26th Street.
Rojas, now 40 and married with three children and living in Rutherford, New Jersey, remembers a wonderful childhood mixing with people from different backgrounds. “There was always someone at school from somewhere else. The neighbors were Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Italian and Irish.”
His identity as a Cuban American remained strong. At Rutgers University, he wrote his thesis on revolutionary cinema in Cuba, and at the New School in New York, where he earned his master’s degree, Rojas produced a documentary on Afro-Cuban music in Union City. Later, he and a friend started a business they named Havana on the Hudson, selling T-shirts aimed at Latino Americans.
Today, Rojas works in government and community relations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He also, with his mother, runs The Learning Depot, a preschool in Union City.
Proud of his cultural heritage, Rojas sends his 13-year-old daughter to a Cuban-owned dance school “so she doesn’t fade into the mainstream. She gets to speak Spanish, and after class she goes to a restaurant across the street to eat rice and beans.”
The author of this article, Mary Jo Patterson, is a freelance writer in New Jersey.