Voices of the Diaspora: Tony López

By Fernando Espino, CHC Student Assistant

Cuban sculptor Tony López.Tony López’s studio, located in the Wynwood neighborhood, was a community landmark, with customers, art fanatics, and curious passers-by coming in throughout the day. Always present was the sculptor himself, an energetic figure who was constantly hard at work, even into his nineties.

Tony Lopez (1919-2011) was born into an artistic family. Both his father and grandfather were sculptors by trade, and Tony joked that he was born with a piece of clay in his hands. Sculpture was his life’s passion since as far back as he could remember. As he put it, he never wanted to do anything else. His father passed away when Tony was 18, and the young artist finished the project his father had been working on. This was Tony’s first commissioned sculpture.

In Cuba, Tony was best known for his caricature sculptures. Though he was never overtly political himself, he often mocked the political figures of the day through his work. His first caricature, of President Ramon Grau, became infamous in the Cuban political community.

He and his family fled the Cuban Revolution in 1958, and Tony set up his studio in Miami, where he completed hundreds of sculptures. His most famous works include the monument to José Martí in New Orleans, the Torch of Friendship in Miami, and works displayed at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach. He is also famous for his rooster figures that adorned Calle Ocho. These were based on his pet rooster, Pepe, who would wander freely through the studio during the day.

Tony López passed away in August of 2011. A passionate artist who was determined to make a living doing what he loved, Tony dedicated himself to his craft and became a recognized artist of the Cuban diaspora. His art has left its mark in Cuba, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Grand Cayman, and in the hearts and minds of the Cuban community.

Voices of the Diaspora: Israel Bichachi

By Fernando Espino, CHC Student Assistant

Israel Bichachi, Jewish-Cuban entrepreneur and community leader.Following yesterday’s post featuring some of our Jewish-Cuban materials in honor of this High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, today we highlight a Jewish-Cuban voice that forms part of the Luis J. Botifoll Oral History Project.

Israel Bichachi was born in Placetas, Las Villas on February 17, 1929, into a family of Sephardic Jews from Turkey. Bichachi was brought up speaking Spanish and raised as a Cuban first and foremost. “[In Cuba] you saw a bit of discrimination amongst the young people,” Bichachi explains. “But very little from adults.” While his family was not particularly religious, he remembers the difficulty they faced in finding places of worship, since Cuba had very few synagogues.

When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War broke out, Jews from across the world flocked to defend the young Israeli state. That same year, a young Israel Bichachi eagerly left his home to volunteer in Israel for a few months. “There were Jews from all over the world,” he remembers, speaking of the many volunteer corps he met in Israel. “If you spoke less than five languages, it was considered strange. I would tell people that I only spoke Spanish. Everyone was stunned.”

Bichachi’s return to Cuba was followed by the revolution, and he quickly found himself a target of the new regime. After three stints in a Cuban prison, he and his family knew they would have to go into exile. He spent a year in Israel working in a concrete factory, followed by a few years in New York before finally relocating to Miami. He worked primarily in the garment industry, first as a factory worker, and later as a salesman.

Bichachi would eventually open his own clothing shop, Bichachi Originals in Miami Shores in 1966. He also became a leader in the Jewish-Cuban community in Miami. In 1968, he co-founded Temple Moses, a Sephardic synagogue in Miami Beach, Florida.

Today, less than 2,000 Jews remain in Cuba. Like Bichachi and his family, the majority of this once-thriving community was forced into exile by the Castro regime. His story paints a portrait of the life of a Cuban Jew who, like so many of his countrymen, was forced to make a new life in a new home.

Voices of the Diaspora: Andrés Fleitas

By Fernando Espino, CHC Student Assistant

Cuban baseball player Andrés FleitasThe pride of Havana – that’s how Cubans refer to baseball, their popularly adopted national sport. No Cuban childhood is complete without long, hot afternoons spent with a bat and a glove in hand. Before the Revolution, the Cuban League was one of the oldest, most popular professional baseball leagues outside the United States. It was a hotbed of recruiting for Major League Baseball teams and gave local Cuban peloteros a chance to show off their stuff.

Among those peloteros was Andrés Fleitas (1918-2011), a legend of the Cuban Winter Leagues whose career took him from his native Havana to the United States, Mexico, and beyond. Like many Cuban boys, Fleitas was playing baseball since he was old enough to hold a bat. He played many positions throughout his career, but as he put it, he always loved hitting more than anything else. Fleitas got his start in local amateur leagues in 1939, before moving on to play for the Almendares Blues, a Cuban Professional League team based in Havana with an intense rivalry with their neighbors, El Club Havana.

Andrés Fleitas played in the minors of the MLB with the Jersey City Giants, affiliated with the New York Giants, who would later move to San Francisco. He also played for the Monterrey Industriales of the Mexican League, the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association, and the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League, gaining a reputation as an eager and versatile player. His greatest triumph came in the 1946-1947 season of the Cuban Winter League, where he held a .399 batting average with 37 runs and 43 RBI, and hit the game-winning triple in the finals against their heated rivals Habana. He was named league MVP at the end of the season.

Fleitas played professional baseball from 1942 until 1955. He remembered playing with such legendary Cuban stars as Agapito Mayor, Roberto Ortiz, and Minnie Miñoso. Most of all, he recalled an island full of loyal, passionate fans whose intense love of their team was matched only by their love for the game. As a legend in his own right, Fleitas was inducted to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. Sadly, Fleitas passed away in his Miami home in December of 2011 at the age of 95. As one of the last remaining links to Cuba’s pre-Revolution baseball legacy, his story is an invaluable one to anyone interested in the game’s great saga in Cuba.

Voices of the Diaspora: Olga Chorens

By Fernando Espino, CHC Student Assistant

Olga Chorens, Cuban singer.On any given night in Miami, the rhythms of Cuban music fill the air in hundreds of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and private homes. From the hot beats of Celia Cruz’s salsa, to the tropical romance of danzón and the modern sounds of Pitbull and other popular musicians, the influence of the Cuban sound can be found in countless genres of music.

For 70 years, Olga Chorens has been recognized as one of the most passionate entertainers in the world of Cuban music. A singer since the age of 11, Olga performed on the radio and in nightclubs throughout Havana, quickly establishing herself as a talented entertainer with a beautiful voice. She sang romantic ballads and dance tunes with a distinctive Cuban flair. Meanwhile her future husband, Tony Álvarez, was developing a following of his own in Cuba. When the two married in 1945, their wedding was a major celebrity event.

They formed the singing duo Olga y Tony and toured Latin America, from Peru to Argentina, helping to bring the Cuban sound to the international community. Returning to Cuba in the 1950s, Olga y Tony became stars of radio and the new medium of television. After the Cuban Revolution, Tony was briefly held as a political prisoner. This event convinced the couple that they would be safer leaving their home behind. They first sent their children to the United States through Operation Pedro Pan and reunited with them later in Puerto Rico.

For the last thirty years, Olga Chorens has lived in South Florida, where she continued to perform with her husband Tony in radio, television, and live on stage until his death in 2001. In 1999 they were awarded stars on the “Calle Ocho” Walk of Fame. Their eldest daughter Lissette went on to have a successful musical career of her own as well. Olga Chorens is a pioneer –of Cuban music, radio, and television, and of the beloved culture that she left behind.

Voices of the Diaspora: Lidia Mesa-Martí Betancourt Sharpe

By Fernando Espino, CHC Student Assistant

EDITOR’S NOTE: We launched the Luis J. Botifoll Oral History Project in 2008 with funds raised by a committee of the Amigos of the Cuban Heritage Collection. The Project is dedicated to recording oral history interviews with Cubans of the earliest exiled generation. As we near our 100th interview, we will be featuring selected interviews and invite you to explore the many stories we have captured. To find out more and to help us continue this endeavor, visit the Project page on our website.

Lidia Mesa-Martí Betancourt Sharpe, widow of Juan René Betancourt and owner of the Little Havana Restaurant in Manhattan.In an intimate space on Cornelia Street in lower Manhattan, you can find Little Havana, a Cuban restaurant with a simple setup and a mouthwatering menu of authentic favorites. It’s a tiny place – the whole restaurant fits less than 20 people. In the kitchen, Lidia Mesa-Martí Betancourt Sharpe cooks the food that her mother taught her to make, infusing every plate with love and affection.

Mrs. Sharpe was born in the 1930s in the countryside of Pinar del Rio province, the heartland of Cuba’s tobacco country, to a black father and a white mother. As one of seven sisters and brothers, she grew up with a strong sense of family. As a mulata, Mrs. Sharpe notes that she did not experience the intense discrimination that her black father – and later husband – suffered. Mrs. Sharpe attended the University of Havana to study law, but the Cuban Revolution caused the school to shut down before she could finish. It was there she met her future husband, Juan René Betancourt Bencomo, a leading academic in sociology and race relations in Cuba. Mr. Betancourt dedicated his life to the struggle for racial equality. He is sometimes referred to as Cuba’s Martin Luther King, Jr., and held leadership positions in several civil rights organizations, including La Federación Provincial de Sociedades Negras de Cuba (The Provincial Federation of Black Societies of Cuba).

According to his widow, Mr. Betancourt was an outspoken leftist but never a communist. When Fidel Castro came to power, he and his wife fled Cuba and relocated to New York, where he was forced to take menial jobs to make a living. Mr. Betancourt, who died in exile in 1976, never stopped advocating his views. He authored several essays and books on Cuban and American race relations and civil rights.

Mrs. Sharpe opened Little Havana with her son, who managed another restaurant in Upper Manhattan. After her husband’s death, she married Howard Sharpe, an American professor. Though the restaurant keeps her busy and retirement is a long way away, Mrs. Sharpe constantly looks for opportunities to continue Juan René Betancourt’s legacy.