September 15, 2011
By Sue Arrowsmith, The Miami Herald
As the adage goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
That’s often the case for thousands of Cubans who have settled outside of Miami. As summer draws to an end, Miami-bred students get a taste of that experience, heading off to colleges far away from doughy Cuban bread, pastelitos and black beans.
But there is hope.
With kids off to school and holidays around the corner, it’s peak season for Cuban Food Market, an online supplier of everything Cuban based in Miami. For more than a decade, owners Maria and Miguel Vasquez have been shipping beloved Cuban goodies throughout the U.S. and the world, including Spain and England, which are some of their biggest markets.
This month, the store will begin sending Cuban Care Packages to U.S. soldiers, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. The owners said they will cover shipping costs.
“Satisfaction is worth more than putting a thousand dollars in your pocket,” Maria said. “This is doing something for your people, your country.”
Two warehouses, in Doral and Little Havana, are continuously stocked with thousands of items — such as Badia seasoning, Bustelo and Pilon coffee, Cuban crackers, canned beans, fruit preserves, and more. They even offer ready-to-eat Cuban bread and guava pastelitos, as well as customized party items. On average, they send 50 to 60 packages per day.
Living in a remote farm town in Kentucky, Placido H. Serafin still indulges in one of his childhood favorites: Ironbeer. The native from Las Villas province gets his supply of the sweet soda, which originated in Havana, through Cuban Food Market. He also likes to order canned guava shells, Cuban bread, beans, and Spanish turrónes, a favorite during Christmas.
“Thank God for UPS and the Cuban Food Market!” he says.
The other half of the Vasquez family business is a memorabilia store in Little Havana called Sentir Cubano (to feel Cuban), brimming with more than 5,000 items, including guayaberas in a rainbow of colors, flags, espresso coffee cups, fedoras, and domino tables.
The old and new Cuba are reflected throughout the store. T-shirts with messages such as “Married to a Cuban” and “Made in the U.S. with Cuban Parts” appeal to younger generations, while most of the contents in the “memorabilia room” pay homage to pre-revolutionary Cuba, displaying glass-cased coins, black-and-white photos, and yellowed yearbooks that spark fading memories for older folks.
In some way, the store is a living museum. Locals often drop by to donate family heirlooms and share their personal stories.
“Everyone who walks through that door, whether they came 50 years ago, or just the other day, feel Cuban. They want to celebrate their heritage,” Maria said.
The store carries a dizzying array of unique novelties, everything from Mariquita Perez dolls (made in Spain and once abundant on the island), fake roosters that crow when you clap, the popular toilet paper with Fidel Castro’s face printed on it, and art by recently-arrived Cuban artists.
“Nobody has the variety that we have,” Maria says. “We’re a nostalgic store, but we also have pastelitos and croquetas.”
The Vasquez family launched the online store in 1999, fueled by their desire to feel connected with their heritage. Sentir Cubano opened two years later, on the heels of the Elían Gonzalez case, which sparked a new sense of patriotism within the Cuban exile community.
Today, the business has about 65,000 customers registered in its database and hosts hundreds of visitors at the store every week.
Caridad Delgado, who lives just a few blocks from the store, has been a loyal online customer since the beginning, though she has never set foot inside. At age 77, she doesn’t drive and has to rely on others to get around. She puts in an order almost every month.
“Anything that is Cuban interests me,” she said. “I’ve bought guayaberas, Enrique Chia CDs, T-shirts, you name it. I especially love to wear my Cubanita T-shirt.”
Thanks to Delgado, some of the store’s inventory has made its way around the world — even to Cuba.
“I send items to my sister in Cuba, like refrigerator magnets. And gifts to the pilot in Spain who helped me and my family escape from Cuba 46 years ago.”