As of 2018, Latinos comprised an estimated 47.7% of Los Angeles’s population. 75% of Latino Angelenos were of Mexican ancestry. Salvadorans comprised about 8% of Latino Angelenos. Guatemaltecos comprised about 5% of the Latino Angeleno population. Los Angeles is, additionally, home to the largest populations of Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemaltecos outside of their respective homelands.
I’d wager that many Angelenos subconsciously think of Latino as being synonymous with people with roots in Mexico or Central America. There are, however, 33 countries and dependencies in Latin America, and representatives of all are likely living within Metro Los Angeles. One such people, Cuban Angelenos, were estimated to number approximately 39,793 in 2017. The 2010 census counted 49,702 Cubans living in the greater Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area. Both figures mean that Los Angeles home to the fourth-largest Cuban American population after Miami, New York City, and Tampa.
Cuban Americans are the third most numerous Latino people in the US and California is home to the second-largest state-wide population after that of Florida (home to roughly 70% of the nation’s population). Today most Cubans have some combination of African, European, and/or indigenous ancestry. Asian ancestry is also fairly common — especially Chinese — but also Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
Cuba was settled by humans at least as early as the 4th millennium BCE. The oldest known archeological site in Cuba dates from approximately 3100 BCE. The Guanajatabey are believed to be the island’s indigenous humans. The Ciboney and Taíno — both Arawak peoples — arrived from the Caribbean islands to the south and initially settled in Cuba’s eastern end.
The Spanish arrived in 1492 and conquered the island. Indigenous Cubans were enslaved and forced to work on sugar and tobacco plantations. After the indigenous population was mostly decimated and absorbed through intermarriage, attention was turned to Africa and ultimately, over a million Africans were abducted and forced into slavery on the island until 1867. In the 19th century, more than 100,000 Chinese were recruited to work on the plantations under harsh conditions.
A series of rebellions in the 19th century failed to dislodge the Spanish. Ultimately, it was their defeat in the Spanish–American War which led to Spain’s withdrawal from the island. In 1898, the USS Maine (ACR-1) sank in Havana Harbor following a mysterious explosion that killed 260 American seamen. Whether or not it was a false flag operation, which many still believe, it provided the pretext for the US to attack Spain. As a result, the US expanded its empire extensively establishing military occupations in the Philippines and Cuba. In 1902, Cuba formally gained independence.
CUBAN MUSIC IN LOS ANGELES
The music of Cuba includes many genres, several of which are quite popular in Los Angeles and, to a degree, throughout the country. It seems to me that Cuban music is — of all Latin American music — more likely to be appreciated by non-Latinos than the music of other Latin American cultures. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I occasionally took my lunch breaks at fast-casual Mexican chains like Baja Fresh and Green Burrito. Inevitably, the speakers would play Cuban, and never the Mexican or Tejano music that would seem, on the surface, to be more appropriate. When I find myself in such restaurants now, I make a point of cocking my ear toward the kitchen, where more often than not I can hear the cooks listening to either banda or cumbia.
One Cuban genre, bolero (filin), originated in eastern Cuba in the late 19th century, where it emerged out of the trova tradition. In the 1910s, bolero’s popularity spread to Puerto Rico and Mexico, where it was picked up by composers like Agustín Lara and María Grever. In the 1930s and ’40s, bolero spread throughout Latin America and Southern California, where one can still hear it being performed live at some Mexican restaurants.
Mambo was pioneered by the charanga Arcaño y sus Maravillas in the late 1930s and later popularized in the big band style by Pérez Prado. In the late-1940s, following the earlier beguine, tango, rumba, and samba crazes; mambo became the latest Latino music-and-dance craze to hit the US, thanks in large part to Pérez Prado, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. In the mid-1950s, Americans and others fell for the chachachá,— a slower style of mambo. In the 1970s, Cuban music was influential in the development of salsa.
Other Cuban music genres include Afro, Afro-Cuban jazz, bakosó, canción, charanga, conga, contradanza (habanera), criolla, cubatón, danzón, descarga, guajira, guaracha, Mozambique, nueva trova, pachanga, pilón, pregón, punto guajiro, rumba (guaguancó, columbia, yambú, batá-rumba, guarapachangueo), son (montuno), songo, timba, and trova.
In 1997, the musical group Buena Vista Social Club released their debut album, produced by American guitarist Ry Cooder, a collection of pre-revolutionary style Cuban music. It was an enormous international success. Its success was compounded when Wim Wenders released a documentary, also titled Buena Vista Social Club. The success of both sparked a craze for more traditional Cuban music although, not surprisingly, not so much popular contemporary Cuban enjoyed by young Cubans like reggaeton, hip-hop, pop, or rock.
Repressive, American-backed military dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown during the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Fidel quickly proved as uninterested in democracy as his predecessor and ruled the island as a repressive one-party state until his death in 2016. Some democratic reforms have been introduced in recent years and the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) now ranks Cuba 142 out of 167 countries — just above Afghanistan. The US, for the record, has moved in the other direction in recent years, sliding down to 25, just below Estonia.
CUBANS AMERICANS AND ANGELENOS
The first Cuban Americans lived in La Florida, the Spanish land province established in 1513 and governed by the Captaincy General of Cuba after its establishment in 1607. St. Augustine was established by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565 and was colonized by hundreds of Spanish-Cuban soldiers and their families.
In the 19th century, significant numbers of Cubans migrated to New Orleans, New York City, Key West, and Tampa. A mass exodus followed the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution, in 1959 and continued into 1962. Another mass exodus took place from 1965 until 1973. The former lead to the Cubanization of Westchester, the latter of Hialeah — both in the Miami metropolitan area. That Cubans favored Florida was natural, not only because the two are separated by a mere 169 kilometers.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, is about 3,600 kilometers west by northwest. Still, between 1961 and ’66, some 14,000 some Cubans exiled settled there, most aided in doing so with government assistance. Many were former members of Cuba’s bourgeoisie and naturally, many opened businesses. One such entrepreneur, Sotero Machin opened a jewelry store in Echo Park called Alamar, and a travel agency, Cubamar. Other Cuban-owned businesses included Guiro Records, Havana Travel, La Economica, Mena’s Toys, and two newspapers: 20 de Mayo — a newspaper that published from 1969 until 2008 — and La Voz Libre — launched in 1981. Cubans formed organizations like Abdala, Alpha 66, and the Cuban Assistance League. In 1980, some 135,000 Cubans arrived in the US, with some settling in Los Angeles. Having departed Cuba from the Port of Mariel, they were nicknamed Marielitos. Among them were freed criminals and many established Cuban Americans viewed them with, at the very least, a degree of mistrust.
CUBAN RESTAURANTS IN LOS ANGELES
Many Cubans opened restaurants. Among the first were Gigi’s Café Cubano, which opened in Filipinotown in 1968; El Colmao, which opened in Pico Heights in 1969; and El Rincon Criollo, established in Culver City — also in 1969. The Madrid, which opened around 1971 in Echo Park, was a de facto community center. La Cubana Café, in Glendale‘s Mariposa neighborhood, was founded in 1973. Silver Lake‘s Café Tropical opened in 1975. The famed Cuban Bakery chain, Porto’s Bakery & Café, also began in Silver Lake, in 1976. Ramón Calderón opened what’s likely the oldest Cuban Restaurant in Orange County, Felix Continental Cafe, in 1979 (in the city of Orange). Orlando Garcia opened the first location of the local Cuban chain, Versailles, in Palms in 1981. Nightclub and restaurant El Floridita opened in Central Hollywood in 1987. El Cochinito opened in Silver Lake in 1988. In 2015, Caroline Lafaurie opened the world’s first vegan Cuban restaurant, Equelecuá Cuban Vegan Café in Inglewood. It has since relocated to Pasadena‘s Playhouse District. Evanice Holz has since joined them on the cruelty-free quest, offering vegan Cuban food at Señoreata, at Row DTLA‘s Smorgasburg.
Cuban cuisine developed from a blend of indigenous Cuban cooking traditions with those imported — along with ingredients — from Africa, Spain, China, France, Italy, Haiti, and broader Caribbean traiditions. Typical dishes and items include Moros y Cristianos, mixtos, arroz con leche, arroz con maiz, arroz con pollo, batido, bistec de palomilla, boliche, buñuelo, butifarra, camarones, chivirico, churros, croqueta, cucurucho, dulce de leche, empanada, flan de calabaza, flan de coco, flan de guayaba, flan de huevo, frijoles negros, frita, fufú de plátano, guayaba, majarete, medianoche, Mermelada, Mojo Criollo, Morcilla, Natilla, Papa rellena, Papitas fritas, Pasteles, Picadillo, platano maduro frito, pudín de pan, pulpeta, ropa vieja, sopa de pollo, tamale, tortilla de patatas, tasajo, tostada, tostones, tres leches cake, turrones, vaca frita,yuca con mojo, and yuca frita. Cuban drinks include Cafe Cubano, Carajillo, Cortadito, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, El Presidente, Guarapo, Hatuey beer, Ironbeer Malta, Jupina, Materva, Mojito, and Piña Colada.
Other local Cuban restaurants, caterers, and food trucks (or, in some cases, restaurants with Cuban items) include Ay Papa Que Rico, Baracoa Cuban Cafe, Buenavista Bakery & Cafe, Café Con Leche Catering LA, Cafe Cuba & Cakes, Café Tropical, Crispy Cuban, Don Francisco’s Coffee Casa Cubana, El Cochinito Restaurant, El Criollo, Florida Restaurant, Habana Vieja, Havana Herbs, Havana Mania, Isla Cuban-Latín Kitchen & Rum Bar, La Bamba Island Cuisine, La Taverna Cubana, Mambo’s Café, Mercedes Bar & Grille, Tropicana Bakery & Cuban Cafe.
Now-closed Cuban restaurants and no-longer-operational restaurants and food trucks include Cuba De Oro Restaurant, El Rincon Cubano, La Caridad Restaurant, Mayra’s Authentic Cuban and Caribbean, ¡No Jodas!, Tony Cubano’s Café, and Xiomara on Melrose.
While on the subject of food, I also have to mention Cacique Cheese, which cheese lovers like myself probably assume is Mexican since it makes asadero, cotija, manchego, Oaxaca, ranchero, &c — not to mention several cremas. Gilbert and Jennie de Cardenas immigrated to the US in October 1971 and Gilbert originally worked odd jobs as a handyman. Gilbert de Cardenas founded Cacique in 1973 and, with his son Gil Jr., began selling his own queso fresco door-to-door in Downtown Los Angeles. Later that year, Cacique opened a plant in Lakewood. After several moves, it settled in Industry in from 1985 until 2016, when it moved to Monrovia. Today Cacique makes several cheeses which are distributed at over 25,000 grocers.
- “The Best Cuban Restaurants in Los Angeles” (by Cynthia Dea)
- “Gigi’s Café Cubano | Eat the World Los Angeles” (by Jared Cohee)
- “Seven Essential Cuban Restaurants in Los Angeles” (by
Other Cuban emigres, like sculptor Sergio López-Mesa, continued to work in the arts.
He designed the bust of poet José Julián Martí Pérez found in USC‘s Doheny Memorial Library — home of the Boeckmann Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies. López-Mesa also designed the bust found in Echo Park’s José Martí Plaza and Monument, that installed in the park in 1976 by a Cuban American arts and culture group called Patronato José Martí.
In Los Angeles County, Cubans originally favored the Mideast Los Angeles neighborhoods of Echo Park, Silver Lake, Elysian Heights, and Filipinotown. In 1961, a Los Angeles Times reporter covered the plot of 38 Cuban American members of the Echo Park Lions Club to overthrow Castro. The following year, a Cuban club was established at Echo Park’s St. Athansius Episcopal Church, offering English classes to its members.
Although some referred to the stretch of Cuban businesses along Sunset Boulevard as “Little Havana,” the enclave was never formally recognized and after its brief heyday, most of the area’s Cuban Americans left the area in favor of neighboring suburbs like Glendale in the Verdugos; Burbank in the San Fernando Valley; Inglewood and Torrance in the South Bay; Long Beach in the Harbor District; Culver City on the Westside; and Huntington Park, South Gate, and Downey in Southeast Los Angeles. The annual Presencia Cubana (aka Echo Park Cuban Festival), launched in 1993, moved downtown, to El Pueblo, where it became the Cuban American Music Festival.
Cuban festivals and organizations are rare in Los Angeles today. In the past, there was a Cuban festival in Long Beach — the L.A. Cuban Festival. There’s still, as far as I know, an annual one in San Dimas — Mi Son Cubano Festival/Southern California Cuban Festival. The only active Cuban Angeleno organizations of which I’m aware are two Facebook groups: Cuban Heritage L.A. and Cubans In L.A.
There are several prominent Cuban Americans who at least at one time or another were also Angelenos, including:
- Actors (Cameron Diaz, Cesar Romero, Daisy Fuentes, Desi Arnaz, Elizabeth Peña, Eva Mendes, Rosario Dawson)
- Artists (Sergio López-Mesa)
- Athletes (Kendrys Morales, Raúl Ibáñez, Yasiel Puig, and Yasmani Grandal)
- Bloggers (Amy T. Schuster — Backyard Bite, Mari de Armas — A Cuban’s Guide to L.A., Marta Maria Darby — My Big Fat Cuban Family)
- Dancers (Kati Hernandez)
- Filmmakers (Lissette Schuster, Scarlet Perez)
- Internet personalities (Nate Contreras aka Tabasko Sweet).
- Musicians (Al Jourgensen, the Arsenio Rodriguez Project Big Band, Aurélio de la Vega, B-Real, BombaChante, Calixto Oviedo, Changüí Majadero, Juan Croucier, La Charanga Cubana, Las Chikas, Martika, Mellow Man Ace, Rudy Sarzo, Sammy Davis Jr., Sen Dog)
- “What’s left of Echo Park’s Cuban community finds a new home” (The Eastsider)
- “The Cuban Exiles of Echo Park” (Anne-Marie Gregg, KCET Artbound)
- “What to expect at the Cuban Music Festival in Los Angeles!?” (Amy T. Schuster, backyardbite)