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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What’s left of Echo Park’s Cuban community finds a new home

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 the  Episcopal Church in Echo Park 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.”



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18 comments

  1. Thanks, Jesus. I was pleased to learn more about this gentleman, Mr. Dominquez, whom I’ve observed here since I first arrived in 1991. His well dressed countenance walking in Echo Park, or sitting in the much missed El Carmelo’s, anchors my experience here!

  2. Wow, I remember this place from when I was younger. I grew up in the area and it’s amazing how much it has changed in the last 10 years.

  3. IamJacksSilver

    Ive seen that old man around for years. He’s like the Cuban Frank Sinatra of Echo Park. lol

  4. Former Lemoyner

    Masa used to be a Cuban bakery where Mr. Dominguez and his friends hung out and drank coffee. Then it was sold to a Korean (who bought it to get a green card, according to one of the owners of Masa). They didn’t change the fare but suddenly the guava cream cheese pastries were stale. I’m glad Masa rescued the place but I miss that bakery.

    Jose Marti Square was dedicated in the late 80s or early 90s – my then girlfriend worked for Cultural Affairs and worked on the project. I don’t believe there was the statue until that time. The Cuban festival in Echo Park used to be incredible – they would lay down parquet flooring on the grass and you could see some of the best dancing anywhere. Much better than Lotus Festival or any other event – there was different food than you find at any other street fair and the music was outstanding. Those are my Cuban memories of Echo Parque…

  5. I’ve always thought he had a bit of WC Fields about him.

  6. Carmelo’s was the place to be if you were ditching Sunday school 🙂

  7. I grew up in Echo Park (off Temple St. on Laveta Terrace) in the 60s thru 1980. I still travel thru these parts and boy has it changed from quaint barrio to gentrified Melrose place (yikes!). Always enjoyed the Lotus festival and the Cuban festival was always a blast. The boat house gets no usage…so sad!…all the old haunts along Sunset are mostly gone…I even miss Pioneer Chicken!…Well nothing stays the same for sure….but aaahhh the memories!

  8. Nice article.

    One nice side-benefit is that it helps the average USian be less ignorant about “latinos” as it has an example of a person from El Salvador that is in turn of Lebanese or Syrian extraction (i am guessing – Hussain).

    As opposed to this weird notion of a big monoculture of brown people.

    -G.

  9. I also grew up in Echo Park, went to Virgil Jr. High and Belmont High. I am cuban and also was part of all the gang activity in the area at the time. I wish I had some of that Pioneer Chicken and some of the pastries from Carmelos. “miss the good old days”

  10. “not that I was a gang member or anything” just grew up around all of it. I loved my home town Echo Park. We where close to all the areas of different cultures, we had China Town, Olvera Street, Hollywood. We where so close to Downtown, we could see the tall buildings from my room at night. At Christmas time we would go walk around and view all the Department Stores displays all animated. (Broadway, May Co.) those where the days!!!

  11. Mr. Dominguez i am a cuban american who is very intrested in learning more about our culture, i live close to echo park i live in silver lake, i have been wanting to know my culture for years now. in conclusion if there is anything you can teach or let me know i would really appreciate it.

    Thank You,
    Pedro Montalvo

  12. As we found out just a few days ago, the Mena family was probably behind an Atari 2600 game (Air Raid from Men-A-Vision) which now became a high priced (>30k!) collectors icon. The game must have been created around 1982. Now we are trying to get some new background information about the game’s origin.

    Does anyone know anything about this game or video games being sold their in general? Or can you give us any additional information about the Mena family or their shops?

    If yes, please contact me: [email protected]

  13. I’ve seen Cuban business and culture disappear from Echo Park, it was a wonderful thing to see, smell and feel that Cuban spirit around there. And the FOOD! Oh man… so good!

    As a child and through my teen years, Alamar was a place my mother, whose South American, would shop regularly and probably got air tickets there, I vaguely remember that.

    I remember she bought me my first radio, one of those funky silver and black radios with a tape player/recorder and handle. I LOVED that thing. I think it was a Zenith, anyway.

    Recently I’ve been missing Cuban anything in Echo Park. Sadly and probably tragically, the area is now two extremes – hipster gentrifiers and Mexican pocho culture.

    Sadly is probably an understatement.

    I used to LOVE the diversity of Echo Park and even pre-hipster gentrifier Silverlake (yes, one word), but its all gone pretentious and horrendous at the same time.

    I will say this, that I do somewhat believe the Cuban community was pushed out by Mexican immigrants. Mexicans have a tendency to dominate or think of themselves as representative and superior than other cultures and have little to no respect for other Latin American cultures. I know, I’ve lived amongst them and have observed things that would probably rock you to the core.

    ” 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” Yeah, probably, most likely… a Mexican person. I’m being totally realistic here, its happens. I’ve seen this sort of disrespect.

    Many people today talk about “diversity” and so on, but the really tragic part of this disappearance of Cubans in Echo Park, is that NOT ONE OF THOSE that came in, whether affluent (don’t fall for the hobo-hipster look, its a con) gentrifiers or the majority, culturally aggressive and discriminatory Mexican community, ever tried or attempted in preserving Cuban immigrant communities.

    Keep this in mind, Echo Park and the actual lake was preserved by Cubans, they didn’t come to this country to destroy or ‘urinate’ on it, they came to make it and their lives actually BETTER.

    As a post-note of interest and slight cultural tragedy, the Last Cuban bakery which is still fully running well is Gigi’s Bakery & Café. The owner was Cuban, he passed away and left his business to his Salvadorian wife.

    BUT… BUT… the good thing about non-Mexican Latin Americans from other Latino countries is that she retained the bakery’s CUBAN pastry delicacies and feel. If it would of been a Mexican wife, trust me, it would of been turned into an awful pan dulce bakery and any, ANY hint of Cuban culture, done away with.

    • your comment sounds racist I believe there good and bad people in all we can’t category people for there for any difference

  14. The Madrid was the best Cuban restaurant in the Sunset/Echo Park area. It served great Cuban and Spanish food (not always distinguishable, as most Cuban dishes are Spanish anyways). The Cuban community in adjacent Silver Lake was also quite vibrant in those days. The still functioning but bland Cafe Tropical on Sunset and Silver Lake was a major Cuban meeting place. On weekends they would make roast suckling pigs, and Cubans from all over L.A. would come to hang out and then take home large portions of roast pig with ‘moros y cristianos’ (a rice dish quaintly named Moors and Christians), Cuban baguettes, and pastries. The Porto family, fresh from Cuba, used to sell cakes door to door in Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and East Hollywood. It would be great if they would come back and open up one of their wonderful bakeries in the heart of Echo Park. There were a series of nightclubs in the area that would play real Cuban dance music before the monotonous and unimaginative commercial ‘salsa’ moved in along with other poor imitations of Cuban culture. Most of the Cubans then living in the Echo Park/Silver Lake corridor moved out to the beach areas in the South Bay, Orange County, or Florida.

  15. I’ve been eating at El Conchinito lately. Very good Cuban food next door to the wonderful Alegria.
    http://www.elcochinitola.com/
    http://cuban-food-usa.com/la_el_cochinito.html

  16. Hello, My name is Janelle and I am currently trying to do a research paper on the Cuban Culture in Los Angeles. I was wondering if anyone would be interested in helping me and also give me a brief interview about your culture.

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