More Cubans calling Ocala's 'horse country' home

Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 11:55 p.m.

OCALA — The television news flashes steadily, silently, above the counter, off to the side of the espresso machine.

The Cuban-American owners of the Tostones restaurant keep it on all day. Sometime soon, they hope, it will alert them to the death of Fidel Castro.

At that point, they'll invite all of Ocala's Cubans over to celebrate.

In Florida, most Cuban-Americans still call Tampa or South Florida home, places where arrivals from the communist island have started fresh in America. Increasingly, though, Cuban-Americans are spreading their wings. Many are escaping the high housing costs and traffic of South Florida for quieter enclaves in Central Florida, like Ocala. Even as the Border Patrol prepares for a wave of Cuban migrants washing ashore in Miami after the death of Fidel Castro, their predecessors are blazing a trail northward.

"It is noticeable," said Ocala City Manager Paul Nugent.

New Cuban and other Hispanic restaurants and businesses dot downtown and the main highways, he noted. Cuban-Americans also helped fuel the recent frenzy in the housing market.

But Cubans aren't strangers to Ocala.

It was dubbed "Marti City" in the early 1900s in honor of Jose Marti, the Cuban independence hero in the war against Spain. The area buzzed with Cuban cigar factories until freezes crippled the citrus industry. Factories closed and workers moved to Tampa.

Lola Gonzalez, a business owner, recently helped launch the Hispanic Council within the local chamber of commerce.

"History," she says, "is repeating itself."

But the adjustment can be bumpy.

New beginnings

Armando Abreu was a child when his family fled Cuba. They lived in New Jersey and then Miami, where he met his wife, Jackeline, the daughter of Cuban parents.

Armando, 42, and Jackeline, 39, cooked in restaurants for years, dreaming of running their own. But Cuban diners were too common in Miami. They'd heard of smaller towns in Central Florida. But, they thought, wasn't that "horse country"?

A few years ago, the couple drove up to Ocala to check it out. Not a Cuban restaurant in sight.

After Armando Abreu's father died, they made the move, buying a 1,500-square-foot storefront down the road on Highway 441 and opening Tostones.

They painted the walls a soft yellow and hung the old black-and-white photos of Cuba that Abreu inherited from his late uncle, a political prisoner who had protested Castro's regime.

His uncle had dreamed of taking those photos back to Cuba one day after Castro died. "I just wish my father and uncle were alive to see it," Armando Abreu said of Castro's death.

The couple strives for authentic, with a nod to their clientele. Dishes are in Spanish, but their descriptions on the menu are in English. There's the Cuban sandwich, black beans and rice and hamburgers. Flan for dessert, along with pecan pie. There's oxtail on Saturdays and roasted pork on Sunday, made in abundance for the after-church crowds.

The market has been a challenge, Abreu says, though the restaurant is slowly attracting regulars.

Most times they feel welcome. Except for the other day, when two men laughed at the Cuban and American flags on their menus and walked out.

It's not Miami

As Cuban-Americans settle in as the minority in mid-Florida cities, their members will eventually work their way into politics, says Dario Moreno, an expert in Cuban-American politics at the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.

But since Central Florida cities tend to elect more "mainstream" candidates, future Cuban-American politicians from the area will have to focus on far more than the Cuba question.

"I think it's going to add to the diversity of Florida politics," he said.

The numbers still remain small in Ocala. The 2005 American Community Survey from the U.S. census put the number of Cubans in Marion County, where Ocala is located, at 1,082.

Community leaders believe they're undercounted and think the number is probably closer to 3,000 to 4,000 and counting.

Ani Brioso loves the change of scenery in Ocala, but the adjustment from Miami is a noticeable one.

The business owner won't let her employees speak to her in Spanish. She doesn't want to make her customers feel uncomfortable.

Horses drew Brioso's family to Ocala, where her sister moved 14 years ago to train, board and breed Paso Fino horses.

The family owned horses in Cuba, and Brioso has a picture of her father serenading her mother while perched on a horse. Brioso and her sister were born and raised in Miami.

"When I came to visit my sister up here, I fell in love with Ocala," she said. "I thought it was a great place to raise children."

So Brioso, 38, bought 15 acres of land from her sister. A former set and graphics designer for Univision, she made jewelry on the side. She decided to go into business for herself after Shania Twain, visiting her sister's farm, bought several pieces from her. The singer encouraged Brioso to open a boutique.

Two years ago, she did. She now runs Alei & Ani's Shabby Shak in downtown Ocala, named for herself and her sister.

Selling fashion in Ocala is far harder than Miami, so she mixes up her jewelry with Western-style pieces that the locals like.

Still, Brioso loves raising her daughters, ages 5 and 6, in a small-town environment where they're sure to learn English. She'd worried about them being surrounded by Spanish in Miami.

"The fact that my little girls could grow up and see nature," she said, pausing. "In Miami, you can't even see the stars anymore."

Lucia Rodriguez and her husband, Jorge Castro, left Cuba in the 1990s. It offered a bleak future for their sons, they felt.

But Miami worried them, too. High housing costs. Crowded schools. Snarled traffic.

After three years there, they moved to Orlando. They stayed for a year and moved to Ocala nine years ago.

"All my family is in Miami; they were telling me, 'You're crazy,'u2009" Rodriguez said.

But she and her husband were able to buy their first home an 1,800 square-foot house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge patio and garage for $65,000.

Then they bought another one, in shambles, for $27,000 and fixed it up. In two months, they resold it for $56,000.

In the past nine years, they have bought, fixed and resold about 18 houses while working their regular jobs, said Rodriguez. Earlier this year she became a real estate agent. Most of her clients are Cuban-Americans, Rodriguez says, calling from Miami or New Jersey.

In April, she brought her mom to the United States from Cuba to live with them in Ocala.

Rodriguez says she would like to go back to visit Cuba one day if things change. But she'll never live there again. Nor in Miami.

Besides, all her relatives are planning to leave South Florida. They want to move to Ocala.

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