The Miami Herald

Cement transforms Mariel -- and my family

In 1895, Cuba opened the first cement plant in Latin America -- the same year it won its independence from Spain -- and my hometown of Mariel soon became a focal point of the industry.

The American-owned Portland Cement Co., opened in 1916 to help provide much of the cement during the early years of the growing republic. Landing a job there was a source of great pride among the newly arrived Spanish immigrants. Among them was my great-grandfather, Jose, who was hired as a miller.

With his good job, he married my great-grandmother and started a family in Mariel -- four daughters and a son. Among them my grandmother, Nena.

In 1928, at the age of 20, she married my grandfather, Emilio, a shocking union -- descendants from Galicia didn't marry Andalusians, like my grandfather.

Still, together they opened a small eatery in Mariel called El Bodegón. Their main customers became the cement plant employees, who worked around the clock, allowing the eatery to grow into a country store, then a bar, serving the hard-drinking Spanish workers from the cement plant and the San Ramon sugar refinery.

Throughout the years, my grandparents employed many of the town's teenage boys. In 1962, following my father's defection to the U.S., some of these boys became members of Castro's Urban Reform and were sent to confiscate El Bodegón -- and our home as well, except that my grandmother made it clear that they would have to kill her first.

They eventually took everything from the store, although she did manage to bury several dozen cans of her precious Eagle brand condensed milk in the backyard. When milk was scarce, Abuela would have a gift for new Mariel moms.

Abuelo Emilio died in 1967, followed by my great-grandmother Pepa in 1968. Their Mariel home was finally confiscated, and in 1972, Abuela Nena arrived in Miami on a Cuban Freedom Flight.

She died four years ago at age 97 -- but not before passing on to me her love of Mariel.

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