Article and video by Kevin Cleary
Disembark from the bus onto Bergenline Avenue at 32nd Street in Union City, N.J., and within a few hundred feet is a walk of fame named after the singer Celia Cruz and a park named for the father of Cuban independence, Jose Martí. The streets are packed and almost everyone is speaking Spanish. Latin music blasts from open apartment windows and passing cars, rich smells waft from Cuban restaurants.
“The Cuban community has contributed so much to the city of Union City, neighboring towns, and this country as a whole, ” said Lucio Fernandez, a Union City Commissioner and performance artist.
Since the 1950s, Union City has been home to a thriving community of Cubans, though in recent years the Cuban population has declined and immigrants from other parts of Latin America are filling the void.
Cubans are given credit for reviving the city’s industry – Union City became an embroidery hub in the ’50s. At one point so many Cubans lived locally – more than 10,000 in 2000 — that the city was sometimes called “Cuba’s Northernmost Province.”
By 2010, the Cuban population had fallen to 7,500, though Union City’s population of 66,000 is 85 percent Latino.
Union City – situated about a mile west of the Hudson River across from midtown Manhattan – has a rich immigrant history that began long before Cubans arrived, Fernandez said. Dr. Robert Reiner, a German immigrant, arrived in 1903 and began importing the machinery necessary to sustain embroidery, deciding that Union City’s location across from New York’s Garment District. In no time at all, Union City would become a bustling hub for all things embroidered.
The work, and ample affordable housing, made Union City a highly sought after destination by many groups of newly arrived immigrants, said Yolanda Prieto, a professor emeritus at Ramapo College. Germans, Swiss and Italians were among the most prominent groups to arrive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As they became affluent and moved farther into the suburbs, many factory jobs became available, drawing in Cubans.
Prieto said the first Cubans to arrive in the area, in 1948, were Lyda and Manuel Rodriguez, who while honeymooning in Miami met a young woman from North Bergen, N.J., and hitched a ride with her to New York City, where they had dreamed of living. Shortly after arriving, they decided to move to Union City, where they found work in local factories. In just a few years, Manuel Rodriguez would start several businesses and become a successful entrepreneur. Back home in Fomento, Cuba, word of their success spread, and soon Union City was second only to Miami as a Cuban immigrant destination.
From around 1965 to about 1980, the Cuban population in Union City continued to grow, with many of the new arrivals fleeing the communist government of Fidel Castro. Most of these refugees were more affluent and educated and when they arrived in Union City, they began to open businesses along Bergenline Avenue.
“They are given the credit for revitalizing Bergenline Avenue. Before the Cubans arrived, all of Bergenline Avenue was pretty much empty storefronts,” said Fernandez.
Despite the recent decline in the Cuban population, Cuban influence in Union City is hard to miss. Several cultural events each year celebrate the Cuban roots of this community; in mid-May, a large Cuban Independence celebration is held, with a flag raising ceremony, performances by Cuban musicians and artists and a huge spread of traditional Cuban fare. In June comes the Cuban Parade, where a procession of people, cars and floats draped in Cuban flags, make their way down Bergenline Avenue, as thousands cheer.
While some Cuban-owned businesses remain, the majority of storefronts and restaurants now fly flags from all over Central and South America.
“I myself came to Union City in 1958,” recalled 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.”