A Taste Of Cuba Pops Up In Juárez, Mexico

Jul 30, 2019
Originally published on July 31, 2019 7:37 am

The Little Habana restaurant is a standout on its street in downtown Juárez.

The block's mostly dilapidated buildings are nondescript. It's not easy to tell what they once were or the last time they were maintained.

Little Habana is different. Outside the restaurant's doors, two big banners bearing its name and printed with Cuban flags flap in the wind. Passersby can hear reggaeton music blaring from speakers inside, evidence that the place is very much occupied.

But the restaurant's appearance and ambience aren't the only things that distinguish it.

In a Mexican city just a 10-minute drive from the border with El Paso, Texas, the restaurant is serving food the area isn't used to. As its name suggests, Little Habana brings a little bit of the Cuban capital to Juárez.

Little Habana, a Cuban restaurant in Juárez.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Owner Cristina Ibarra opened the restaurant about four months ago after she noticed a growing number of Cubans in the city. Ibarra is a food industry veteran who ran a taco business for 20 years until she saw a new business opportunity.

Cristina Ibarra, a Juárez native, ran a taco business for 20 years but decided to start a new restaurant catering to the Cuban community.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"There started to be such a strong Cuban presence [in Juárez], I decided to stop selling tacos so that I could start feeding the Cubans," she said.

Ibarra's opening of Little Habana nearly coincided with the beginning of Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a Trump administration policy that was first implemented at El Paso ports of entry in March. The policy, sometimes referred to as "remain in Mexico," requires migrants seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed. Before the policy, asylum-seekers were frequently allowed to live in the U.S. while their claims proceeded.

The State Population Council, an agency in Juárez that registers migrants, estimates that more than 10,000 asylum-seekers have been sent back to the city from the U.S. under MPP.

Since May 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has also implemented its metering policy, placing strict limits on the number of people allowed to approach land ports of entry to request asylum. Prior to the policy, asylum-seekers generally were free to approach ports at any time.

The combination of both policies — MPP and metering — has caused the number of migrants, including Cubans, living in Juárez to swell.

So far this fiscal year, 6,312 Cubans have presented themselves at El Paso ports of entry, most to make asylum claims, up from 394 in all of the prior fiscal year. More than 3,000 Cubans are on the State Population Council's waitlist for those who want to approach a port of entry and seek asylum, according to the agency.

Carlos Fonseca Leal, one of the 14 Cuban employees at Little Habana, serves food during a recent lunch rush.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Ibarra, Little Habana's owner, says the restaurant is a haven for the Cuban community as they deal with the uncertainty of living in a foreign land and an increasingly complex immigration landscape.

Melba, a waitress at Little Habana, says she arrived in Juárez in April after she applied for political asylum in the U.S.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Inside, she has conjured the feel of the Cuban capital to make it welcoming. The walls are painted bright orange and yellow — and across one there's a poster of a Cuban street scene. On another, the Cuban flag.

"The Cubans leave their hotels and come to eat at the restaurant as if it were their own home," Ibarra said. "They stretch out, relax and talk. They share their experiences, their fears, their accomplishments ... and that gives me tremendous satisfaction right now."

All 14 of Little Habana's employees — and most of its customers — are from Cuba. Ibarra said she relies heavily on her Cuban kitchen staff to cook and advise on the menu.

Melba, 32, is a waitress at Little Habana. She arrived in Juárez in April, hoping to seek asylum in the U.S. (NPR is not using Melba's last name because she is in the middle of an immigration proceeding.)

Melba said Little Habana offers authentic Cuban cuisine like she would eat at home. On a recent visit, the restaurant's menu included Cuban-style ground beef with vegetables, pork chunks in a tomato stew, shredded pork, and three types of rice: rice with beans, yellow rice and white rice. The food was laid out cafeteria-style, and customers watched as servers dished meals onto lime-green plates.

Melba, who walked quickly around the restaurant tending to a bustling lunchtime crowd, has found meaning in her work.

Cristina Ibarra stands behind the counter with one of her restaurant's Cuban employees while a customer orders food from another employee.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Hand-drawn signs, with prices in pesos, adorn items for sale on the counter, including flan and different types of juice.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"Working here with [Ibarra] means I know that I am feeding my fellow Cubans. ...We have a different eating culture than Mexican people," she said.

Melba's journey to Juárez was long and difficult, she said.

She and her husband crossed through several countries and trekked through the Colombian jungle to reach the city. Along the way, 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 her sacrifices would pay off when she and her husband's numbers were called off the waitlist maintained by the State Population Council earlier this month.

But when she finally crossed into the U.S. and met with immigration officials, she learned it was only an initial processing. Like many migrants who have been affected by MPP, Melba was told she had to return to Juárez to wait for her next appointment, which will be in U.S. immigration court on Aug. 19.

Melba picks up a plate of food to serve to a customer at Little Habana.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"We are waiting for that day, if they are going to give us the opportunity to enter [the U.S.] or if they return us [to Juárez]," she said. "In reality, we don't know what's going to happen on that day. We are all just waiting."

As Melba waits, she is living in a hotel room she rents with her husband for about $12 a day. She earns about $20 per day at Little Habana, plus tips — a wage she is thankful to Ibarra for. She said Ibarra has supported her and shown her kindness.

"[Ibarra is] super special to me, my husband and all Cubans that are here," Melba said. "She's a very special woman that God put in our path."

Ibarra's establishment has attracted some Mexican customers, too.

Fresh limes, cabbage and tomatoes sit on the counter as the restaurant prepares for the lunch rush.
Claire Harbage / NPR

On a visit earlier this month, Juárez native Yadira Lopez said it was her second time dining at Little Habana.

"Frankly, it surprised me when I heard rumors that there was a Cuban restaurant in Juárez. ... But I understand their [the Cubans'] situation. They want to survive and to have an income. So it's good that they find a way to work," Lopez said.

Ibarra said business is going well, and that she foresees a continued need for the restaurant as her Cuban employees and customers continue to experience drawn-out immigration proceedings.

True to form, her business cards embody her welcoming attitude: "Little Habana," they say at the top and at the bottom, "Todos sean bienvenidos" — all are welcome.

Freelance journalists Robert Moore and Monica Ortiz Uribe contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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.


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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.