Cuban community divides by age

Published August 2, 2006

TAMPA - In the old Santaella Cigar Factory on Armenia Avenue, two friends whose art studios line the same hallway also share a homeland. But they do not always share the same opinions.

Guillermo Portieles, 43, went to jail in Cuba for painting Fidel Castro as Adolf Hitler. Even after he moved to Tampa 16 years ago, he never stopped looking over his shoulder. So when he learned Monday night that Castro had stepped down, Portieles longed to celebrate with fellow exiles in Miami.

Maida Millan, 44, shook her head. She knows some may call her a Fidelista, a sympathizer, but Castro is a human being, too. She senses the end of the island she remembers. She fears it will become commercialized by outsiders.

Cuban-Americans all heard the same news Monday night: Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily relinquished presidential powers to his brother Raul.

But they responded to it differently, their views reflecting the nuances of the Cuban-American experience, shaped by waves of immigration, geography, age and family upbringing.

Christina Morejon, 31, had a textbook reaction as the Miami-born daughter of a Cuban exile, whose childhood was filled with stories of the large plantation her father lost to communism.

"Party on," Morejon said while lunching at La Teresita.

Morejon's father journeyed to Florida in the same 1960s wave as Millan's family, but Millan settled in Tampa, where she assimilated quickly into American culture.

"The people in Miami have created an extension of Cuba," Millan said. "So though you might be second or third generation here already, you're still thinking what your parents thought."

Morejon and her father share the same nostalgia for the island and hatred for its leader, but Morejon disagrees with the U.S. trade embargo, and her dad agrees with it.

"He grew up with the whole 'This was taken from me, I want to punish,' mentality," Morejon said. She is more removed from those emotions. She jokes about her dad swearing he will return and reclaim his lost property.

But artist Portieles sees that idea as a real threat.

"I got in a fight with someone who said to me they were going to come there and claim their house. You know who lives in your house? Fifty people," Portieles said, speaking of former Cuban estates that have become apartment buildings. "Is that how you're going to rebuild there?"

Morejon shares her dad's perspective on recent generations of Cubans who have lived under Castro's regime.

"The people from my father's generation knew what freedom was. They saw the change," Morejon said. "The second generations saw the difference, but they saw it as a sacrifice made for the revolution."

Terry McCoy, a professor of Latin American studies and political science at the University of Florida, sees a similar dynamic as the later generations arrive in the United States.

"They don't have the political baggage," he said. "They came because their careers were going nowhere, their kids are unhappy, they are fed up and want out."

Milene Velazquez, 34, is among the recent arrivals. Over breakfast Tuesday morning at La Ideal restaurant in West Tampa, she illustrated the middle ground of Cuban-American opinion.

She wants Americans to be free to travel to Cuba. Unlike hard-liners, she thinks people in America should be able to send money.

Her parents, brother and extended family remain there. She recently visited. For most of her three-month stay, no one in her family's neighborhood had toilet paper. They used the national newspaper, Granma.

Recent immigrants share the moderate views of those who left Cuba long before Castro took power - among them, the historic Tampenos, who migrated to Tampa during the cigar factory era in the late 19th century.

Compared with the exiles, the cigar workers "are very different in their view of the world and in their political beliefs," said Maura Barrios, a West Tampa historian whose cigar family roots go back to the 1870s.

She says the Cuban exiles who fled Castro in the 1960s cannot see Cuba for their hatred of its longtime leader.

"For the historic Cubans, it's much more of a historic heritage attachment to Cuba. It's the place where our grandparents and great-grandparents lived. It's sort of a roots journey for us," Barrios said.

"For exiles, it's a place of loss. It's a trauma. It's a negative memory. I don't personally carry that baggage," Barrios said.

"Fidel didn't take my family mansion."