The Little Habana restaurant is a standout on its street in downtown Juárez.
The block’s mostly dilapidated buildings are nondescript. It’s not easy to tell what they once were or the last time they were maintained.
Little Habana is different. Outside the restaurant’s doors, two big banners bearing its name and printed with Cuban flags flap in the wind. Passersby can hear Reggaeton music blaring from speakers inside, evidence that the place is very much occupied.
But the restaurant’s appearance and ambiance isn’t the only thing that distinguishes it.
In a Mexican city just a 10-minute drive from the border with El Paso, Texas, the restaurant is serving food the area isn’t used to. As its name suggests, Little Habana brings a little bit of the Cuban capital to Juárez.
Owner Cristina Ibarra opened the restaurant about four months ago, after she noticed a growing number of Cubans in the city. Ibarra is a food industry veteran, who ran a taco business for 20 years until she saw a new business opportunity.
“There started to be such a strong Cuban presence [in Juárez], I decided to stop selling tacos so that I could start feeding the Cubans,” she said.
Ibarra’s opening of Little Habana nearly coincided with the beginning of Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a Trump administration policy that was first implemented at El Paso ports of entry in March. The policy, sometimes referred to as Remain in Mexico, requires migrants seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed. Before the policy’s implementation, asylum-seekers were frequently allowed to live in the U.S. while their claims proceeded.
The State Population Council, an agency in Juárez that registers migrants, estimates more than 10,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to the city from the U.S. under MPP.
Since May 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has also implemented its metering policy, placing strict limits on the number of people allowed to approach land ports of entry to request asylum. Prior to the policy, asylum seekers generally were free to approach ports at any time.
The combination of both policies – MPP and metering — has caused the number of migrants, including Cubans, living in Juárez to swell.
So far this fiscal year, 6,312 Cubans have presented themselves at El Paso ports of entry, most to make asylum claims, up from 394 in all of the prior fiscal year. More than 3,000 Cubans are on the State Population Council’s waitlist for those who want to approach a port of entry and seek asylum, according to the agency.
Ibarra, Little Habana’s owner, says the restaurant is a haven for the Cuban community as they deal with the uncertainty of living in a foreign land and an increasingly complex immigration landscape.
Inside, she has conjured the feel of the Cuban capital to make it welcoming. The walls are painted bright orange and yellow — and across one there’s a poster of a Cuban street scene. On another, the Cuban flag.
“The Cubans leave their hotels and come to eat at the restaurant as if it were their own home,” Ibarra said. “They stretch out, relax and talk. They share their experiences, their fears, their accomplishments … and that gives me tremendous satisfaction right now.”
All 14 of Little Havana’s employees — and most of its customers — are from Cuba. Ibarra said she relies heavily on her Cuban kitchen staff to cook and advise on the menu.
Melba, 32, is a waitress at Little Habana. She arrived in Juárez in April, hoping to seek asylum in the U.S. (NPR is not using Melba’s last name because she is in the middle of an immigration proceeding.)
Melba said the offerings at Little Habana are authentic Cuban cuisine like what she would eat at home. On a recent visit, the restaurant’s menu included Cuban-style ground beef with vegetables, pork chunks in a tomato stew, shredded pork and three types of rice: rice with beans, yellow rice and white rice. The offerings were laid out cafeteria-style, and customers watched as servers dished meals onto lime green plates.
Melba, who walked quickly around the restaurant tending to a bustling lunchtime crowd, has found meaning in her work.
“Working here with [Ibarra] means I know that I am feeding my fellow Cubans…We have a different eating culture than Mexican people,” she said.
Melba’s journey to Juárez was long and difficult, she said.
She and her husband crossed through several countries and trekked through the Colombian jungle to reach the city. Along the way, they saw the bodies of other migrants who had fallen sick on their journeys and died. People told Melba the trip would be dangerous, so she left her five-year-old son behind in Cuba with her parents.
She had hoped her sacrifices would pay off when she and her husband’s numbers were called off the waitlist maintained by the State Population Council earlier this month.
But when she finally crossed into the U.S. and met with immigration officials, she learned it was only an initial processing. Like many migrants who have been impacted by MPP, Melba was told she had to return to Juárez to wait for her next appointment, which will be in U.S. immigration court on August 19.
“We are waiting for that day, if they are going to give us the opportunity to enter [the U.S.] or if they return us [to Juárez],” she said. “In reality, we don’t know what’s going to happen on that day. We are all just waiting.”
As Melba waits, she is living in a hotel room she rents with her husband for about $12 a day. She earns about $20 per day at Little Habana, plus tips — a wage she is thankful to Ibarra for. She said Ibarra has supported her and shown her kindness.
“[Ibarra is] super special to me, my husband and all Cubans that are here,” Melba said. “She’s a very special woman that God put in our path.”
Ibarra’s establishment has attracted some Mexican customers, too.
On a visit earlier this month, Juárez native Yadira Lopez said it was her second time dining at Little Habana.
“Frankly, it surprised me when I heard rumors that there was a Cuban restaurant in Juárez. … But I understand their [the Cubans’] situation. They want to survive and to have an income. So, it’s good that they find a way to work,” Lopez said.
Ibarra said business is going well, and that she foresees a continued need for the restaurant as her Cuban employees and customers continue to experience drawn-out immigration proceedings.
True to form, her business cards embody her welcoming attitude: “Little Habana,” they say at the top and at the bottom, “Todos sean bienvenidos” — all are welcome.
Freelance journalist Robert Moore contributed to this report.