Cuban flags filled Calle Ocho in July 2021 as Miamians protested in solidarity with those on the island and marched over food shortages, blackouts and lack of access to medicine, among other issues. Amid a sea of Trump hats and conservative political messages common in Cuban-American protests, Daniela Ferrera stood out. She was wearing a T-shirt with the logo of Cubanos Pa’lante, a Miami-based group she co-founded to promote progressive ideals and combat political misinformation in the Hispanic community.
Hailing from Cuba’s Ciego de Ávila province, Ferrera and her family arrived in Miami on a raft in 2001, two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Having been raised conservative and a supporter of Republican politicians, she hit a turning point during the 2016 presidential election season.
“I was seeing the patterns, even as a Republican,” Ferrera says of Trump’s rise to power. “He was someone who did not respect democracy.”
Though she voted for Hillary Clinton, Ferrera didn’t consider herself a Democrat until she saw Ron DeSantis win Florida’s gubernatorial race in 2018. Concerned about the direction of the state and the nation, she met with a dozen Cubans in the middle of the presidential primaries. 2020 and forged a plan to rally local support for then-candidate Joe Biden. On May 20, 2020, the day Cuban exiles celebrate Independence Day, they started a grassroots organization called Cubans With Biden.
During the pandemic, knocking on doors was out of the question, so Cubans With Biden turned to motorcades, the same kind of political street demonstrations popular with Trump fans. Biden’s motorcades provoked strong responses in local communities, ranging from support to outright hostility.
Cuban-American Mike Rivero was inspired to contact Ferrera when he saw one of the Cubanos Con Biden caravans. Rivero, who would become one of the co-founders of Cubanos Pa’lante, was an experienced pollster who had volunteered for campaigns since Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2012. In 2019, shortly before joining Cubanos Con Biden, He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Surviving cancer left its mark on Rivero, but what has impacted him the most is the memory of those who did not have the same luck.
“I experienced firsthand what it’s like to go through a battle with cancer, right? You never think you’re going to get sick in your 30s. I saw people next to me going through chemotherapy who didn’t have insurance, and I saw the gaps in our systems,” says Rivero.
Rebranding and reactivation
Cynthia Pérez stood outside a Miami polling place on a sunny October morning in her Cubans With Biden T-shirt. As she handed out small flyers to passersby, she was approached by a mother with a child in tow, both dressed in Trump gear. The mother encouraged the boy to confront Perez and he followed through with a barrage of obscenities. It was just one of many cases of casual abuse launched against Democrats during the election, but she reminded Perez why she had signed on.
“I have this strong personality trait where I don’t like to see people being wronged,” he says. New Times.
Pérez watched Trump and DeSantis rise to prominence before he decided to get involved politically at the local level. The last straw came when he saw his family members and fellow parishioners repeating anti-Semitic talking points tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory. From there, it only took a short message to her friend, Amore Rodríguez, a member of Cubanos Con Biden, to join the group.
The end of the 2020 presidential election brought big news for Cubans With Biden: According to Rivero, political strategists informed the group that it had forced the Trump campaign to spend more money and resources in South Florida.
“That means it opened up opportunities in other parts of the country where Democrats can push and states can be won. I never like to quantify results like that, but our work had an impact,” says Rivero.
The end of the campaign also brought talk about the future. How would Cubans With Biden stay afloat after the election? The most immediate problem was the name.
“How can we reach out to our community and have a conversation about the issues, but the minute you say ‘Cubans With Biden,’ the minute you say Biden, we’re talking about a Democrat? They think all Democrats are communists.” Rivero says.
The new name was an easy choice: “Cubanos Pa’lante,” which translates to “Cubans Moving Forward” in English. For each member this meant something different, but the idea of getting ahead of the generational political trauma of the Cuban community was shared by all.
When Joe Biden returned to the White House, the members of Cubanos Pa’lante had to figure out how they were going to let the world know that the group existed.
“We just wanted to get the community involved so we could give them a space to feel open, and it was a no-judgement zone. They could share their progressive ideals,” Perez explains.
Their activities, mostly online, ranged from spotlighting interesting members of the community to hosting small-scale retreats. Then came July 11, 2021, and shook all of Miami.
Protesters in Cuba have engaged with the police and marched in rallies across the island, demanding better access to food and COVID-19 vaccines. The protests inspired Miamians to come together as well and sparked a renewed international conversation about human rights in Cuba. Cubanos Pa’lante decided to raise funds for Cubans, and their newly acquired 6,000 Instagram followers got more than the group expected.
“Suddenly we raised $40,000 very quickly that we were responsible for distributing on the island; it was a very intense moment,” says Betty Fuentes, co-founder of Cubanos Pa’lante.
The donations were used to supply food and medicine to Cuba, but the tangible items the group sent did little to persuade right-wing Cubans in Miami.
“There was a lot of [Instagram] messages that said, ‘You are lying. You are stealing. You are assholes. And just calling us all sorts of things,” says Fuentes.
As the group in Miami grappled with its new responsibilities, Washington, DC resident and Cubanos Pa’lante co-founder Marley Pulido was invited to attend a meeting with the White House Office of Public Participation. Two weeks later, she met with President Biden.
Pulido, an Afro-Cuban native to Havana, settled in Hollywood when he arrived in the US in 2014. After the management of the small restaurant where he worked took advantage of the workers’ lack of documentation by instituting massive pay cuts, says Pulido, he witnessed the power of political organization. After three days of strike, they fired the manager and doubled their salary.
“That was the first time I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, another world is possible if you really fight for it,'” says Pulido.
Attending the meeting with the White House Office of Public Engagement, Pulido noted a stark contrast between the representation of the Cuban community in the room and the images coming out of the island’s streets. The July 2021 protests in Cuba, says Pulido, drove out dozens of Afro-Cuban residents and people “from the poorest and smallest towns.” But in the White House, he was the only Afro-Cuban in the room.
“Why aren’t they represented in this space?” Pulido wondered.
The fight for representation as an Afro-Cuban immigrant was one of the inspirations for Cubanos Pa’lante member Lebert Grinan to increase his political activism and join the group.
Just two years after he arrived in the US from Cuba, Grinan’s family, then 14, moved to Texas. The new environment exposed Grinan to racism and discrimination on a level she had never experienced. She quickly learned that there were people in her community and school who didn’t like him simply because of who he was.
“The very fact that you exist really bothers them,” Grinan says of the experience.
Cubans for the World
In February, the NBC program Get to know the press reports approached Cubanos Pa’lante. The subject of the episode has become the main focus of the group in recent months: politically driven disinformation.
During the segment, the group highlighted how false information is spreading through the South Florida Hispanic community in social media posts, with conspiracy theories spreading like wildfire about everything from COVID-19 to Hillary Clinton.
“We are literally living in two different realities,” Ferrera summed up on the Chuck Todd show.
Ferrera and Pérez say that Republican strategists use South Florida as a testing ground for their messages. This lets Republicans know what social issues may be fueled in other areas of the country and contributes to a volatile political environment at the local level.
Cubanos Pa’lante affirms that the strategy has exploited the Cuban trauma.
“I think we were all very angry to see the previous administration and politicians take advantage of the community in that way, because the trauma of the people on the island is real,” Pérez says.
But the scope cannot be limited to the Cuban community, according to the group. Cubanos Pa’lante also sees a disconnect with American voters on the left. Members have shared stories of being called “worms” by American leftists; the term, which literally translates as “worm,” is used by the Castro regime to refer to its political enemies.
The lack of dialogue is especially clear in New York City, says Clarisa Alayeto, a member of Cubanos Pa’lante, a local judicial delegate, and a community organizer. Like other members of Cubanos Pa’lante, Alayeto says her political activism is not a conscious decision, but was embedded in her identity from a young age. While attending college, she wrote for her school newspaper, where she soon realized that all of his articles focused on politics.
During the July 2021 protests, Alayeto called his contacts and scheduled a protest in New York City. To his surprise, only Cubans with right-wing political leanings showed up.
“I felt bad because I wanted to do this job, but I just couldn’t align myself with what they stood for,” says Alayeto.
Today, Cubanos Pa’lante is focused on the 2022 midterm elections and fostering a politically informed community. The group has resources on its website for cultural education, advocacy, and ways to get involved in Cubanos Pa’lante activities. Members of the group say they get hate mail, but they also hear from Cubans who are appalled at the direction their community has been heading and want to do something about it.
“We’re a couple of normal citizens who came together with different issues that motivate us. When I look at the impact we’ve had and the people we’ve inspired and helped, it shows that community organizing, at the end of the day, is one of the most powerful things to generate change,” says Rivero.