Iván García, 5 March 2019 — Twenty-five years ago, Luis David Fuentes pedaled 17 kilometers a day on a rough Chinese bicycle through the dark and dilapidated Havana streets towards the CUJAE, today José Antonio Echevarría Technological University, located in Marianao, a municipality in the south of Havana, where he studied mechanical engineering.
Those were the hard years of the Special Period. The people ate little and badly. The blackouts lasted twelve hours. And hunger caused people to replace the usual animal proteins by eating cats, pigeons and sparrows. Fidel Castro had a Plan B in case the famine worsened. It was called Option Zero. Military trucks would distribute food in the neighborhoods, escorted by armed soldiers. It did not reach that extreme. Luis David still remembers that every day he pedaled as if he were a professional cyclist with a piece of dry bread and a glass of water with brown sugar for breakfast.
“It was a difficult stage. I went from El Vedado to CUJAE on that bicycle with hardly anything in my stomach. When I could, I drank a little jug of powdered milk. I returned home after eight or nine hours without tasting a bite. I do not know how I survived and became an engineer. Like most Cuban homes of that time, my parents were integrated in the process, especially my father, a hard-working man, a fidelista who believed to the core the story that utopian socialism would one day arrive.
My mother was always very clearheaded, but out of respect for my father, she just taught us to believe in God and we knew of the injustice that the Revolution had committed with her father, a Galician emigrant who arrived empty-handed and based on hard work managed to have land, livestock and property. Everything was expropriated by the agrarian reform. My grandfather did not survive that shock and the next year he died. After so much sadness and agony, after a while my grandmother also died. I did not know them in life,” says Luis David by email from Kentucky in the United States.
Very young he began to question the olive green totalitarianism and the economy of barracks implemented by the Castros. “I did not like that the double morality caused by the fear that prevented you from expressing your opinions with sincerity, nor the hypocrisy of the leaders: they preached as if they were proletarians and lived as bourgeois.
I never thought about leaving Cuba. When I graduated, I did my social service of two years in the National Institute of Normalization, an agency where bureaucracy and servility to the ideas of the Communist Party reigned, without the basic resources to work. The salary was 198 pesos a month (8 dollars). I was an engineer, but I felt miserable, with that salary I could not help my parents in the maintenance of the home. That reality made me change my mind and I decided to emigrate.”
He tried first in Venezuela and Colombia. In 1996, finally, he was able to travel to Chile, where before getting a job as an engineer, he was a door-to-door salesman and a doorman in a nightclub. In 2000 he traveled to the United States. Contrary to the vast majority of Cubans, who settle in Florida, because of the weather, to be able to speak Spanish and to see the same sea that bathes the northern coast of Cuba, Luis David, settled in Kentucky, in the southeastern center of the United States. For eleven years he worked as an environmental engineer-specialist in the Kentucky government.
In August 2009, faced with the need for information and publicity from the growing Cuban community, Luis David founded El Kentubano. “It was done with own resources, without external help. Something new for me, because I was not an entrepreneur or a journalist. I did it from nothing. I was learning along the way. The publication is supported by advertisements, one part is distributed free and another by subscriptions.
In the beginning, the money obtained was barely enough to pay the cost of production, printing, distribution and marketing. Many times I had to spend my income to continue putting out El Kentubano. At that time, except for the design, I was the one who wrote, did interviews, looked for sponsors and distributed the magazine, but now I have a team mde up of Yany Díaz, journalist, and Elizabeth Alarcón, designer,
“The digital era has decimated printed publications, but in the case of publications aimed at a specific group, be it health, sports or emigration, far from being extinct they have prospered. And in recent years, thanks to the increase in the Cuban community and new businesses, the magazine’s life was guaranteed. Sponsors contributing this include companies such as Humana, Kroger, Sprint, American Airlines, Toyota and McDonald’s, among others, have seen in The Kentubano a marketing tool and advertise in it. In 2009 a thousand copies of 20 pages per month were printed, today the magazine has 90 pages and 10 thousand copies are printed monthly.”
The Kentubano has color photos on its front and back cover. On the inside pages of the gazette paper, you can see photos and ads in color and black and white. Some of his texts are taken from Cuban digital sites. And in between the ads are interspersed advice to newcomers, interviews with relevant Cubans in Kentucky or recipes for traditional sweets. The business model of digital journalism is under construction. Newspapers like The New York Times already make a profit thanks to their 3.6 million subscribers on the internet. Other media implement proactive strategies and raise money among their readers by asking them what kind of stories they want to read.
“Taking the magazine forward was a titanic task. Two years ago I decided to take a break as an engineer and dedicate more time to my family, to the community through El Kentubano, the Capítulo Kentucky José Martí and the Cuban American Association of Kentucky (ACAK), a group created a year ago and whose members, selflessly, with their own resources, represent and defend the interests of our community under the José Martí motto Helping those who need it is not only part of one’s duty, but of happiness,” says Luis David proudly.
When Luis David arrived in Kentucky in 2000, the number of Cubans did not exceed 500. In 2006 there were already about 5,000 Cubans, currently there are more than 25,000 in Louisville alone, the largest city in the State. “Almost all of them come directly from Cuba and although their knowledge of economics is limited, they have managed to become a thriving and enterprising community that has managed to deal with the cold, language and customs that are so different.
The result of their integration into society is translated into the large number of shops, restaurants, consultancies and small businesses in Louisville. Also important has been the role of doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers, computer scientists and police officers of Cuban origin, among other professionals with prominent positions in large companies and state offices.
Luis David had to pound the streets of Louisville to get sponsors. “At the beginning, it was difficult to convince Cuban business owners of the importance of advertising. The Cuban of the Island has no idea what marketing is. The only thing they had seen was a bodega manager writing out his accounts on the cash register paper. When you convince the first one, the others followed along, little by little.”
In his opinion, “after Florida, the Cuban community of Kentucky is one of the most prosperous in the United States and it is, per capita, where the largest number of small Cuban businesses exists in the world.” In 2018, Governor Matt Bevin received in his mansion about 200 Cuban leaders and entrepreneurs, a recognition of that community’s contribution to the economy and culture of Kentucky. Luis David has received several awards.
In the wake of the January 27th tornado that killed and wounded many and caused enormous material damage in five municipalities of Havana, Cubans from Kentucky raised $ 6,410. A member of the community traveled to one of the affected areas and personally delivered the donations. Words of thanks from the victims can be seen in this video uploaded to Facebook.
Luis David is married. Yamilet, his wife, is also Cuban and works as an interpreter and translator for the Kentucky government. They are the parents of two children, Fernanda, 15, a high school freshman, and Luis Manuel, 12, a 7th grader. Claudio Fuentes, a prominent photographer and dissident, is his cousin.
Despite having been away from Cuba for more than two decades, he is still passionate about Cuban music. “In 1996 I left for Chile with a suitcase with two changes of clothes. in one hand, a bag with my collection of vinyl records by Benny Moré and in the other my bongo, an instrument that I learned to play in my hometown. My professor was Arturo Linares, El hueso, bongocero by Joseíto Fernández.” Besides dancing salsa and rumba, he likes to drink coffee, smoke tobacco, have a drink of rum and play dominoes. He professes a deep respect for the hero José Martí.
Now established in Louisville, Luis David undertook the task of locating a bust of the Apostle, as Cubans call José Martí, given in 1955 to Kentucky by the Cuban government of the time, as a tribute to the brave Kentuckians who fought for the freedom of Cuba in 1850 and who had been missing for years. The makers of the magazine El Kentubano created a project named Facing the Sun, with the aim of replacing Martí’s bust in the Shively Park in Louisville. With the twelve thousand dollars collected, they were able to restore it and unveil it in a ceremony held on July 21, 2012.
Every 28th of January, that place is a meeting point for the Kentubanos, a name created by Luis David Fuentes, who at age 47 confesses that he does not know where life will take him tomorrow. “I never imagined living in Kentucky, it’s already been 19 years and I do not think I’ll return to the Island when things change. Yes I would like to contribute with my experience, do some business, maybe a magazine, be able to travel to my homeland. But the United States has adopted me as a son, here I have created a family, I have many friends and responsibilities in this society.”
As the Cuban poet Eliseo Alberto wrote, Cuba is a distant piano that someone plays behind the horizon.