Florida Keys Business
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Turning the corner
Cuban artist improves life with new Key West restaurant

Juan and Lucia O'Farrill believe they could not have found a more perfect location for their Cuban restaurant -- the corner of Havana Street at Mile Marker 1, just 90 miles from Cuba.

The couple's journey to open Havana 1 in Key West -- neither a quick nor easy endeavor -- began in 1994 when they immigrated from Cuba to the U.S., spending many a cold winter in Virginia before landing on the Southernmost City's sunny shores.

After 42 years of living under a repressive government and struggling to earn a living in Cuba, O'Farrill and six others headed out of Havana on a wood-and-inner-tube raft with a 5 horsepower engine.

"My motivation was freedom and opportunity," said O'Farrill, who was paid low wages while working in a government-run television broadcasting station for 15 years, building studios and working on electronics.

The escape attempt was short-lived. A couple miles off Cuba, the small motor broke down. They tried to paddle to the United States, but the Coast Guard intercepted them and sent them to the U.S. military base on Guantanamo Bay, where they faced being sent back. Eight months of legal wrangling ended with them being allowed entrance into the U.S. -- a common outcome before the wet-foot, dry-foot policy was enacted the next year.

"People don't believe me when I tell them it took me eight months to go 90 miles," O'Farrill joked.

His wife was allowed to join him and the two settled in Roanoke, Va., in the southern Appalachian mountains -- a vastly cold difference from their previous tropical surroundings. But he wanted to live in a place where he was forced to learn English and "American life," he said.

"We spoke no English. We had no money and no friends," O'Farrill said.

He first worked in a tire factory, then left the job to open a Cuban restaurant with a friend. The business struggled and his friend quit after the first month.

"It was hard," he said. "Nobody in Roanoke knows about Cuba."

He and his wife toiled to keep the business afloat, even working at other restaurants to make ends meet. Their restaurant eventually began to pay for itself, and they opened a second Cuban restaurant, and then a third.

Despite the success of Paradiso, Madrid-Havana and Ole Cafe, the couple longed to be in a place where people were familiar with Cuban culture -- a place with better weather. Key West was the perfect choice, as it is a "tourist city" and close to Cuba, O'Farrill said.

The couple wasted no time getting to Key West and opening a restaurant. Even without a home or restaurant location picked out, they loaded a moving truck with equipment and arrived in Key West on Nov. 1.

They found the perfect spot and the perfect name for their restaurant awaited them, and Havana 1 opened for business Dec. 28.

The restaurant features traditional Cuban fare, such as ropa vieja, palomilla steak and fried sweet plantains. For sweeter tastes, it has flan, arroz con leche and Cuban coffees.

"We prepare everything traditionally, except in the United States, you have access to good meats and everything you need to properly prepare the food," O'Farrill said.

The business also showcases another of O'Farrill's talents.

He has painted 45 colorful pieces of art depicting significant political aspects of life in Cuba, many of which adorn the walls of Havana 1.

"Ladies in White" features women who have fought for the release of political prisoners and social change. "

Working Ladies" depicts Cuban prostitutes, a social problem that has grown in Cuba as families continue to struggle with poverty.

His paintings also deal with aspects of his own life, such as the one his wife calls "Angry Lucia." While living in snowy Virginia, he painted a self-portrait that depicts him sitting under a potted mango tree on a pushcart, with snow-capped mountains in the background.

"All my paintings mean something," O'Farrill said. "Everything has significance."

tohara@keysnews.com

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