Community

Dozens from Louisville’s Cuban community gathered in NuLu on Sunday evening for a rally in support of an immigrant-owned restaurant that pushed back against demands for greater Black representation in NuLu.

The rally was organized after Fernando Martinez, a Cuban immigrant and partner of the restaurant group behind La Bodeguita de Mima, closed the restaurant at 725 E Market St over the weekend due to protests in NuLu. Protesters were demanding local businesses in this neighborhood increase the representation of Black products in their stores and Black people in their staffs, among other requests. Martinez, who has denounced the demands, said he was threatened by protesters.

On Sunday, Martinez explained his issue was not with Louisville’s Black community but with “socialism,” which he said he escaped in leaving Cuba for the U.S.

“We’re here to work. We’re dreamers. We’re people who love freedom and love this country,” Martinez said about Cuban-Americans. “This is not a race fight. This is an idea fight.”

Graham Ambrose | wfpl.org

Chef and restaurant owner Fernando Martinez addresses the crowd at his restaurant on August 2, 2020.

The demands from protesters were intended as a redress to two decades of redevelopment in NuLu and surrounding neighborhoods, which displaced Black residents. After Martinez said he and his restaurant were threatened, the Cuban community rallied to his support.

Rally attendees carried several signs mostly denouncing socialism: “No 2 Socialism in America.” “Justice 4 All.” “We Are Peaceful People But Don’t Tread On Us.” The rally featured many white and Black Kentuckians as well as locals with heritage from Cuba and Venezuela. Although some individuals affiliated with the BLM protests were present, there was no organized counter-demonstration.

When reached by phone, Talesha Wilson, an antiracist activist who has organized BLM demonstrations in NuLu, called the counter-rally at La Bodeguita “childish” and “performative.” If Martinez felt threatened, Wilson said, he should have reached out to leaders of the NuLu demonstrations, who until recently considered him an ally.

“There were ways for him to deal with it other than calling out a whole movement of people,” she said. “He needs to take into consideration that there are going to be bad apples everywhere.”

In a widely-shared Facebook post, Louisville Urban League CEO Sadiqa Reynolds expressed dismay in Martinez’s stance. “I understand that the owner of La Bodeguita De Mimi [sic] has decided to proactively organize against the idea that Black Lives Matter. Rather than respond to demands tendered, even in the negative, and affirm that he is aware of the pain our people are in, instead he chooses to highlight what he believes is his superiority,” Reynolds wrote, saying she wouldn’t patronize Martinez’s restaurants.

One of the speakers at Sunday’s rally was Ahamara Brewster, general of the Revolutionary Black Panther Party of Kentucky, who denounced the tactics of the BLM protesters as “terroristic.”

“That was another thing that was upsetting: You’re attacking a Black/brown establishment, but you’re in the name of Black Lives Matter,” Brewster said. “Something’s weird about this.”

Brewster spoke at the NuLu rally in solidarity with the Cuban community, asking attendees to support Louisville’s Black community by donating to Black-led organizations. She met with several members of the local Cuban community last week in a bid to open a dialogue and establish a cross-cultural understanding between the Cuban and Black communities of Louisville.

Berta Weyenberg, president of the Cuban American Association of Kentucky, estimated there are 250,000 Cubans in Kentucky. In an interview, she emphasized that Cuban Americans were committed to the values and ideals of their adopted country.

“We came here not because we wanted to come. We fell in love with your city and your country after being here because you welcomed us,” she said. “We are here to defend the freedom that you all gave us that we didn’t have.”

Martinez, a vocal online critic of communism, said the city needs unity, which is undermined by internet recriminations.

“With the internet nowadays, you’re easily and quickly discounted and disqualified. ‘Oh, you don’t agree with everything I believe? You’re a racist, you’re a bigot, and that’s that,’ ” he said. “There’s people out there trying to define me as a man and trying to define my business, and they don’t know who we are.”

Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a Report for America corps member.