A Taste Of Cuba Pops Up In Juárez, Mexico A new restaurant has become a haven for the city's Cuban community, as they deal with the uncertainty of living in a foreign land and an increasingly complex immigration landscape.
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A Taste Of Cuba Pops Up In Juárez, Mexico

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A Taste Of Cuba Pops Up In Juárez, Mexico

A Taste Of Cuba Pops Up In Juárez, Mexico

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border has highlighted a reality; not only is it a magnet for many refugees and migrants, it attracts a remarkably diverse group of refugees and migrants - people from Central America, South America and beyond. A few years ago, we walked into a shelter and met asylum-seekers from Ethiopia. Recently, NPR's Amara Omeokwe walked into a restaurant in Juarez, Mexico, and found Cubans.

AMARA OMEOKWE, BYLINE: It's 12 noon in Juarez, and the customers who have stopped into this busy restaurant for lunch didn't come for Mexican food.

MELBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: Melba is a waitress here. Reading off the menu, she says there's ground beef with vegetables, pork chunks in a tomato stew, shredded pork and rice and beans. The restaurant is called Little Habana, a nod to Cuba's capital city. It's about a 10-minute drive from the border with El Paso, Texas. The walls are painted a bright yellow and orange, and reggaeton songs blare from speakers.

All of the restaurant's 14 employees and most of its customers are from Cuba. Like Melba, many are in Juarez because they want to seek political asylum in the U.S. Melba asked us not to use her name while she's in the middle of immigration proceedings.

MELBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: When they got to Juarez in April, Melba says she and her husband registered with the State Population Council. That agency keeps a numbered list of migrants in Juarez who want to go to a U.S. port of entry and make an asylum claim. An official tells me there are some 3,000 Cubans on the list. The journey to Juarez took four months, and it was difficult, Melba says.

MELBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: They went from Cuba to Brazil and then crossed through several countries, including a trek through the Colombian jungle. Along the way, she says they saw the bodies of other migrants who had fallen sick on their journeys and died. People told Melba the trip would be dangerous, so she left her 5-year-old son behind in Cuba with her parents.

She had hoped all her sacrifices would pay off when she and her husband's numbers were finally called off the list earlier this month, but when she crossed into the U.S. and met with immigration officials, she learned it was only an initial step. They were processed and sent back to Juarez on the Fourth of July.

MELBA: (Through interpreter) We felt very sad. It was America's Independence Day. It was also the eight-month anniversary of the beginning of my journey to come to the United States to be free, to realize my dreams. It was very sad, very hard. But what can we do?

OMEOKWE: Before the Trump administration started a new policy earlier this year, Melba might have been able to wait in the U.S. while her asylum claim was processed. Now she and thousands of other asylum-seekers have been sent back to Mexico to wait there instead. So in the meantime, Melba is anxiously anticipating an August appointment in U.S. immigration court, while focusing on her work at Little Habana.

MELBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: Melba says she enjoys serving her fellow Cubans food they're used to, plus her job helps her afford to rent a hotel room for about $12 a day. That's why she's grateful to the restaurant's owner, a woman named Cristina Ibarra, for the opportunity to work.

MELBA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: Melba cries as she explains how Ibarra has looked after Cubans in town. And that takes us to Ibarra's story. For one thing, she isn't Cuban; she's Mexican. Food has always been her business. She spent 20 years running a taco restaurant in Juarez.

CRISTINA IBARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: And then, she says, she noticed the growing number of Cubans languishing in Juarez. She says she saw a business opportunity.

IBARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: So almost four months ago, she switched from tacos to Cuban food and opened Little Habana. It took some getting used to.

IBARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: Ibarra says tacos are simpler - a tortilla, meat, salsa. Cuban food is a lot more complicated; vegetables, rice and meat mean a lot more work. And, she says, she's found meaning in that work.

IBARRA: (Through interpreter) Cubans leave their hotels and come here to eat, as if it were their own home. They stretch out, relax and chat about their experiences, their fears, their achievements, and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OMEOKWE: As lunchtime approaches, dozens of people trickle in, and Ibarra turns the music up. A group of well-dressed Cuban men sit down at a table in the back. They gossip as they scroll through Facebook on their cellphones. And here's where you can see the difference between many Cuban migrants and those from places like El Salvador and Guatemala. Keeping up with Facebook, stylish clothes, eating out - the Cubans arriving in Juarez, by and large, are more well-off than other migrants in the city. Several Cubans we met said they left their country not for jobs or safety, but for more political freedom.

There are Mexican customers at the restaurant, too. Juarez native Yadira Lopez said it was her second time visiting Little Habana. She likes the food.

YADIRA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OMEOKWE: "It's something different here in Juarez," she says. She was surprised to see a Cuban restaurant pop up in the city, but she thinks it's good Cubans here are finding a way to make a living. Cristina Ibarra, the owner, says business is good, so she plans to keep things going. And as we walked out the door after trying the food ourselves, Ibarra handed us a business card. Little Habana, it says at the top, and at the bottom - (speaking Spanish) - all are welcome.

Amara Omeokwe, NPR News, Juarez.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO Y GABRIELA AND C.U.B.A.'S "LOGOS")

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