Jose Angel Dominguez Mondejar of the Asociacion Patriotica Cubana with Bienvenda Husssain, owner of Havana Travel.
Echo Park’s Cuban community was already fading when Jose Angel Dominguez Mondejar arrived in Los Angeles in 1983. While a monument to Cuban patriot Jose Marti was installed at Echo Park Lake in the 1970s, a block north on Sunset Boulevard, the cafes, shops and even a newspaper that catered to Cubans like Dominguez had begun to disappear. Tonita’s restaurant. Mena’s Toys. El Carmelo’s bakery. The newspaper 20 de Mayo. They and others are either out of business or out of Echo Park. “Little by little, they went and moved away,” said Dominguez, a member of a small pack of elderly Cuban men who hang out in Echo Park. “Everything started changing.” There was more change earlier this month when Havana Travel, perhaps the last Echo Park business connected to that former strip of Cuban commerce, closed its Sunset Boulevard office and moved a few blocks away to Alvarado. Watching Havana Travel move off Sunset “made us sad” said Dominguez.
Echo Park’s Cuban community emerged following the arrival of refugees and immigrants in the early 1960s. Many credit Echo Park churches for drawing Cubans to the neighborhood by supporting the new immigrants who were fleeing Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power. In 1961, the Los Angeles Times reported that 38 young Cubans met at the Echo Park Lions Club to plan a counter revolution against Fidel Castro. In 1962, a Cuban club with English classes opened at the former St. Athansius Episcopal Church.
In the mid 1960s, Sotero Machin, one of Echo Park’s pioneering Cuban business men and community leaders, opened a jewelry store, Alamar, and travel agency, Cubamar, in the 1800 block of Sunset Boulevard. Here, Sotero and his wife, Elsa. worked for more than 30 years. About three years ago, Sotero retired, leaving a long time employee, Bienvendia Husssain, to run her own travel business, Havana Travel – though the Alamar and Cubamar signs were never removed from the building.
The fact that Hussain is from El Salvador has not diminished her agency’s popularity among Cuban old timers. On Monday, Dominguez, dressed as usual in a suit and tie, and a small group of longtime friends chatted away in Havana Travel’s new Alvarado office, stocked with Cuban newspapers and decorated with Cuban travel posters. The small waiting area in the middle of the agency, which also sells gifts and other items, had become the men’s newest hangout, where they share news and talk about upcoming meetings of the Cuban societies.
Dominguez, an official with the Asociacion Patriotica Cubana, concedes that the glory days of Cuban Echo Park are over. He often cleans up trash dumped near the bust of Jose Marti at Echo Park Lake. He even confronted one man who was urinating near the monument. However, Dominguez said many Los Angeles Cubans remain deeply interested in Echo Park – site of an annual Cuban music festival – and have inquired about opening or buying businesses in the neighborhood.
Will signs of Echo Park’s Cuban culture and commerce completely disappear? Not on his watch, said Dominguez. “Never – not while I’m alive.”