Cuban Stronghold: Union City, N.J.

Article and video by Kevin Cleary

Disembarking from the bus onto Bergenline Avenue and 32nd Street is like stepping into a foreign city street. Walk a few hundred feet and one will find a walk of fame named after Cuban superstar, Celia Cruz, and a park named after the father of Cuban independence, Jose Martí.  The streets are packed with people, almost all of whom are speaking Spanish. Latin music blasts from open apartment windows and passing cars, rich smells waft from the open doors of nearby Cuban restaurants. No way this could be an American street, right? Yet, it is the main Avenue in Union City, NJ.

“The Cuban community has contributed so much to the city of Union City, neighboring towns, and this country as a whole, ” said Union City Commissioner and performance artist, Lucio Fernandez.

Since the 1950’s, Union City has been the home to a thriving community of Cubans. They are given credit for reviving the city’s industry and creating a destination for Spanish-speaking immigrants of varying nationalities. Over the last several decades their numbers have been declining, but in their wake, a large number immigrants from all over Latin America have arrived to fill in the blanks.

At one point there we so many Cuban’s here that it acquired the moniker, “Cuba’s Northernmost Province.” Although, according to the most recent census in 2010, the number of Cuban’s in Union City has been declining. Of the 66,445 people that live here, 84.7 percent are Hispanic. In the year 2000, there were 10,296 Cubans, but in 2010 the number dropped to 7,510. Which is a pretty significant decline in a city of this size.

According to Fernandez, Union City has a rich immigrant history that began long before Cubans arrived here in the early 1950’s. Before it was known as “Havana On The Hudson,” it was known as the “Embroidery Capital Of The World.” This is thanks to Dr. Robert Reiner, a German immigrant, who arrived here in 1903. He realized the city was perfectly situated to facilitate a bustling embroidery industry, so he began importing the machinery necessary to build several factories. He found that Union City’s thick bedrock foundation was perfect for bolting down heavy machinery. It was also situated right across the Hudson River from New York City’s famous Garment District. In no time at all, Union City would become a bustling hub for all things embroidered.

According to Yolanda Prieto, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Ramapo College, this industry, as well as ample affordable housing, made Union City a highly sought after destination by many groups of newly arrived immigrants looking for work. The Germans, Swiss, and Italians were among the most prominent groups to arrive in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although, by the middle of the 20th century, as many of the more established immigrant communities became more affluent and moved to the suburbs, many factory jobs became available. Around the same time, Cubans began to trickle in and fill those jobs. They would soon become the backbone of the Union City and it’s booming embroidering industry.

Prieto said, the first Cubans to arrive in the area in 1948 were Lyda and Manuel Rodriguez. The Rodriguez’s were on honeymoon in Miami when they met a young woman from North Bergen, NJ. The young woman was about to drive back north, so the couple, who had had dreams of living in New York City, hitched a ride. Shortly after arriving in New York, they decided to move across the river to Union City, where they both found work in local factories. In just a few years Manuel would start several businesses and become a successful entrepreneur. Back home in Fomento, word of their success spread, and soon Union City would become the one of the most sought after communities for Cuban Immigrants, second only to Miami.

Despite its nickname, “Havana on the Hudson,” named after Cuba’s capital city, the majority of the first Cubans to arrive were actually, like the Rodriguez’s, from a rural part of Cuba called Fomento. The majority of whom were economic immigrants from working class backgrounds.

From around 1965 to about 1980, the Cuban population reached its peak in Union City. During this period the majority of Cubans who came were political refugees, fleeing the communist government of Fidel Castro. Most of these refugees belonged to more affluent and educated class, and when they arrived in Union City, they began to open businesses along Bergenline Ave.

“They [Cubans] are given the credit for revitalizing Bergenline Avenue. Before the Cubans arrived, all of Bergenline Avenue was pretty much empty storefronts,” according to Fernandez.

Despite the significant decline in the Cuban population here over the last couple of decades, its influence in Union City is hard to miss. There are several cultural events each year that celebrate the Cuban roots of this community. In mid-May, there is a large Cuban Independence celebration, with a Cuban flag raising ceremony, live performances by Cuban musicians and artists, as well as a huge spread of traditional Cuban fare. Then in June comes the Cuban Parade, where a procession of people, cars, and floats draped in Cuban Flags, make their way down Bergenline Ave, flanked by thousands of proud Cubans.

However, these days you won’t find as many Cuban-owned businesses here on Bergenline Ave. There are still some, but the majority of storefronts and restaurants now fly flags from all over Central and South America. According to Prieto, the decline of the Cuban population in this area follows the pattern typical of many immigrant groups that have come here prior to the Cubans; as they find success and thrive, they leave to the more affluent neighboring suburbs. In fact, each time this cycle turns, those who leave create openings that need to be filled.

Over the last several decades, as Cuban immigration to the United States has slowed, Union City has seen a spike of immigrants coming from other Latin American countries. In the ten year period from 2000 to 2010, according to census data, the population of Central and South Americans grew by 6.2 percent, to a total of 34.9 percent of the total Hispanic population.

What is remarkable about the Cubans of Union City, is that they have created a community where Hispanic immigrants of all nationalities, not just Cubans, feel safe to come and start a new life.

“I myself came to Union City in 1958,” recalls Prieto. “I remember those times, and it was really hard to get used to living in a new place and all that. At the same time, it was it was really very, I don’t know, it was very reassuring to have many other people going through the same thing.”