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VOL. 40 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 8, 2016

Back to Cuba? No, Martinez happy in Nashville

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Cuban memories line the walls at Alejandro “Alex” Martinez’ Back to Cuba Cafe.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

When Chuchi hugs me after his black beans and rice, I mentally thank Barack Obama (I’ll get back to him much later) for leading me to one of Nashville’s most urban intersections, where I sit at an alfresco café table, watching the traffic whip by and listening to sirens and parking-lot conversation conducted, for the most part, in a foreign language.

Well, it’s really mostly just Spanish. On this day it is hollered happily by Cuban expatriates like Chuchi who for a decade have been dining at Back to Cuba Café, owned by Cuban-born Alejandro “Alex” Martinez, son of two of Fidel’s political prisoners, a guy who spits at the legend built around Che Guevara.

“He was just a killer,” says Alex, who admits only to being “in my 50s.”

Actually, this story isn’t about Chuchi, who came to Nashville from Cuba 22 years ago … stopping briefly in Miami and quickly moving on.

“I got to Miami and was making $5 an hour. Up here, they were paying $7.58 an hour. So I came up here.”

Jesus Ricardo Rodriguez – “but no one would know who you were talking about unless you called me Chuchi, which comes from Jesus. I was born Dec. 23” – and his Three Amigos Paint Company crew have dropped in at Back to Cuba before driving to East Nashville where they are painting “a new house.”

Plenty of them are going up there as “it city” real estate prices chase old-timers to Antioch and elsewhere. Perhaps even to Madison, which Alex tells me has Nashville’s largest settlement of Cuban immigrants.

“He’s my best friend,” Chuchi says, pointing to Alex, sitting across the table from me. “I come here at least two times a week. … for black beans and rice and whatever he puts on it.”

He rattles off a string of meats and the like served with the rice, but I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

I do learn, when departing customers open the doors to my alfresco dining and interview locale, that what’s being prepared inside smells richly rewarding.

Alex laughs as his pal bounces his vehicle out into the deadly traffic quagmire created by this intersection, where Trousdale Drive spills into Harding Place at its widest, just a football field or so east of the Sidco-into-Harding collision factory, with I-65 ramps just beyond.

“My father was a political prisoner for 20 years. My mother for seven years. They disagreed with Fidel after he changed (to communism) after America helped bring him to power,” Alex explains.

While the parents were jailed, Alex went with other relatives to Mexico City, where they waited two years before immigrating to the United States. “Make sure to say that it was legal. There’s all the talk about immigrants. They need to come legally.”

Alex isn’t shy about his politics. Fidel was OK, was going to fix schools and hospitals, until he got under the spell of communism.

“I don’t think Khruschev liked him. I think he was using him,” he says of the late shoe-pounding,“we will bury you” Russian Cold Warrior who blinked in the stare-down with JFK over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

That was back in the age when most new-home developments in the U.S. came with fallout shelters and school kids were taught to duck beneath their desks during A-bomb attack drills. (What protection would those desks provide when nukes were falling around Dickinson Elementary School?)

Fidel, Alex says, was “harsh” and “stubborn.” Raul, Fidel’s little brother, who took over the country when the bearded wonder’s insides began to rot, has been allowing things to open up.

“I was in Cuba for the first time (since he was 8) five years ago. I could see then how things were changing. The main thing was the people were being helped by humanitarian aid from the churches. Fidel had closed down the churches.

“I think reopening the churches was one of the big reasons for what has happened. I said back then that this day would come” when America and Cuba would again work toward friendship.

He says the other thing that happened early in Raul’s “term” as dictator is that Cubans were allowed to travel, often visiting long-lost refugee relatives in Miami’s Little Havana. “It had been like they were in prison. Suddenly, they were free,” he adds, smiling.

As we talk at a wrought-iron café table in front of Back to Cuba Café, a scruffy young man of questionable intent and appearance shuffles over and begins to beg. “I’m from Columbia and….”

He’s interrupted by Alex, who in Spanish tells him, sternly, that there is not going to be any begging here at his restaurant.

“I don’t want money, I just want gas to get back to Columbia,” the man says, reverting to English and directing his plea toward me.

“Not interested. Not interested,” Alex says, waving the guy off, then turning to me. “We get a lot of that around here. We’re right here on the road that connects I-24 and I-65, and there are always people like that stopping by.”

Even with a sometimes rough-and-tumble location near Harding Place, this restaurant is the flagship of Alex’s dreams.

“I want to build another one in Nashville, a bigger one sometime,” he says, noting that he did open one in Murfreesboro, but it closed after four months. “Murfreesboro is a strange place.” (His words, not mine, folks. I like Uncle Dave Macon Days as much as the next guy.)

“But I’m going to keep this restaurant here until I die,” Alex says. “With so many nationalities who have come to Nashville, a lot of Hispanics, Vietnamese and then the Americans, we’ve always been pretty busy.”

Inside, at least on this day, tables are jammed with pale Anglos mostly dining on lechon asado (roast pork), black beans and rice, his most popular dish.

“But we sell a lot of Cuban sandwiches, too,” Alex says, proudly noting that for a while corporate America tried to slice a piece of his customer base.

“Even O’Charley’s had a Cuban sandwich.” He won’t say if it was good or bad. Only that it was long ago removed from that chain’s menu, perhaps making space for Free Pie Wednesday.

Actually Alex and his wife, Rebecca, (who live in Smyrna with their four teenagers, a daughter and three sons), came to Radnor Shopping Center 22 years ago when they opened Mama Mia’s, a dandy little “EYE-talian” (as so many hereabouts pronounce my ancestral heritage) joint where the polite waiters speak Spanish with each other, saving the English for clientele and pasta.

“My wife always wanted to have an Italian restaurant. She’s Colombian,” he says, as if that explains it.

“Then 10 years ago, Mama Mia’s was doing pretty well, and I looked at how Nashville was growing and decided it finally was time for a Cuban restaurant, so we went ahead and opened the Back to Cuba Café because we knew people would like to learn about different types of foods.

“It was very well responded [to] by the community because of the past relationship between America and Cuba. Cubans always had a great relationship with America, other than the 55 years with Fidel.

“I’m glad the Nashville people supported me and backed me up on it. That’s one of the blessings of this country: Work hard and accomplish your dreams. Why wait for people to give you handouts? I got my opinions on how America is changing and it is not good.

“The federal government is always to protect the people, not to go against the people.”

Mostly, he notes, he sees a creeping sort of socialism and believes it discourages people from taking the initiative to live what he proudly terms “The American Dream.”

And, while he does not name names, something else troubles him.

“We will only survive if we unite …. Politicians should help people unite and not make it into a career.” Wily old Fidel, after all, exemplifies “career politician.”

“In America we should not go back to the king’s era and pass the crown from one generation to the next.” I’m not sure if he’s taking a shot at Clintons or the Bushes. Regardless, there is passion.

“And our country, America, was founded on the most basic principle: One God, One Nation.” Sure, the Supreme Being has many names and titles, but religious devotion is at the heart of a safe and sacred America.

If someone is looking for a wake-up call, they might want to sample the thick, sweet Cuban coffee that is a specialty at Alejandro “Alex” Martinez’ restaurant.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“And we never should forget: ‘We the people….’” While he drops his U.S. Constitution quote there, I have no doubt he could transition into the rest of the preamble with the stuff about forming a more perfect Union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, keeping misogynist billionaire biz bullies out of the White House, etc. (That last part from me…. Not Gouverneur Morris. Nor Alex.)

Star-spangled jubilation flavors much of what Alex says as we enjoy the sunny day in the café chairs surrounded by the potted palms, which move just slightly in the wind, both natural and that provided by cars pulling from the parking lot.

He says there is no excuse for laziness in this country, his country. His father, the long-time political prisoner, finally came to America and, starting with nothing, built a Miami fish processing plant worth millions.

Alex, who wasn’t in the fish business, actually came to Nashville while on vacation and decided this was the truest heart of the Promised Land.

“I fell in love with Nashville, with the culture here,” he says. Single at the time, he moved to Music City, hoping to become an over-the-road trucker – “I needed to get my CDL. …That’s where the money was then. Good money. They still make good money.”

Instead he did a little carpentry as he gradually entered the food industry. “I worked at Mr. Gatti’s, which used to be a major pizza restaurant around here, and I was offered a job to be a manager.”

He enjoyed the work. And that’s when he and Rebecca decided to open a “real” Italian restaurant.

By the way, Alex insists he’s not really a Cuban. Not anymore. As my old amigo Woody Guthrie would put it: This land is his land.

“I am a Cuban-American. Cut me in half and the right side of me is black beans, rice and pork and the left side of me is rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, proclaiming soft spots for The Beatles, Boston, Chicago and more.

“My first concert was that guy who sang “Born in the U.S.A., Born in the U.S.A.,’” he sings robustly in his best Jersey Shore/Cuban hybrid accent. “What’s his name?” he asks, as his singing fades away.

“Springsteen,” I say, and the cool rocking daddy from Cuba nods happily. “I saw him at the Orange Bowl. Born in the U.S.A. My first concert."

The conversation finally turns to the reason I am here in the first place: seeking reflections on the recent barrier-busting visit to Cuba by Obama, a guy I refer to warmly as “The Big O.”

“It was wonderful that it ever happened,” says Alex. “And I’m glad the President took the first step. No matter how much he’s been criticized, he is trying.”

Besides, he adds, the embargoes forced by earlier administrations were not working, so why can’t we be friends as well as trade partners?

“Cuba will benefit because it will not have to import parts and things from all over the world. They can buy them from the United States and save money.”

Americans, he says, will benefit economically from that trade, and of course, will be able to sample the cigars and sugar of that tiny island.

But we also will benefit by being able to visit Havana, its suburbs, and the rest of what he calls “the most beautiful country. When you go there, you will be stepping back in time.” Batista-era cars, black beans and baseball.

I tell him my own dream to soon visit Cuba is hindered by the cost. Cheaper to get to Rome, my favorite city.

“It is expensive,” he agrees, adding he’s hoping to return to Cuba in July. “It is a 21-minute flight. You sit down, put your seat belt on, they pass the drinks out and you’d better drink quickly, because by then you are in Cuba.”

Alex clearly loves this land where he has provided literal Cuban flavor in a restaurant where old refugees gather in the evenings to play dominoes, now with a peaceful contentment they probably hadn’t felt since before the Bay of Pigs.

But not everything is perfect in his adopted homeland, Alex says. He’s an independent restaurateur in a time when private enterprises of all sorts are fighting for survival in a land of the free run by people with lots of money.

“The big corporations are taking control of everything,” he add. “Before you could have a little farmacia. Now you can’t compete with CVS or Walgreens. “

Then there’s the small merchant who wants to open a hardware store and can’t compete with Lowe’s and Home Depot. The family grocer who can’t compete with Publix and Kroger.

“And is buying everything from other countries really helping America?” he asks, referring to the U.S. penchant to buy from China and its ilk as well as to create manufacturing jobs in lands where wages are at a shameful and deadly minimum.

“We should be the only ones selling to the world,” says the proud American.

Before returning to the kitchen to prepare for evening rush, he pours me a sample of his thick-brewed, thickly sweet Cuban coffee.

He sips his small cup and I raise my own in salute to this man who believes more in the future of his country – America – than do many who live here. The same could be said for his love of the land of his family, the place where he was born. A land no longer isolated.

Plenty of question marks fill the future of the Cuba-U.S. relationship, of course. But Alex, the rocking restaurateur, knows the surest answer.

“As John Lennon said: ‘All You Need is Love.’”

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