Last Saturday, the San Francisco Bay Area Cuban Festival brought the second night of its annual celebration of Cuban culture to the East Bay. The event, held at Brix 581 in Oakland, featured live music, salsa dancing, dominos, and food. The bar and outdoor patio were packed with Cuban immigrants and Bay Area natives alike, and the party went on into the early hours of Sunday morning.
“People hear about Cuba and it’s either political or they’re talking about salsa,” said Manuel Suarez, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Cuban Festival. “Cuba is way more than that.”
Suarez, a dance teacher originally from Guantanamo, Cuba, founded the nonprofit CultuCuba and the San Francisco Bay Area Cuban Festival in 2005 to encourage cultural exchange between the Bay Area and the island. This was the first year it has been moved beyond San Francisco. Since many members of the Cuban community live in the East Bay, Suarez said it seemed like a good time to expand.
The event was held in conjunction with DJ Leydis, one of Cuba’s first female DJs. who has been holding a monthly dance party, La Rumba Q’ Tumba, at various Oakland venues for the past four years. “We’ve been collaborating for a long time,” DJ Leydis said of Suarez, “so he asked me if he could bring people to my party and I say okay.”
The Cuban Festival attracted a wide variety of guests. Lynn Bierer Wilkins, an English teacher from Walnut Creek, attended to dance with her classmates from her salsa class, which is taught by Suarez. “Performing is not something I’m born to,” she said, “but now I like it. It’s takes you out of yourself and there’s a big community that supports you.”
Not everything at the event was strictly Cuban. Eric Rivera, the owner of Boriquen Soul, the Bay Area’s first Puerto Rican food truck, served up dishes like garlic chicken, sweet plantains, and beef empanadas throughout the evening. Rivera is originally from New York, but his parents are from Puerto Rico. “I started this because I got homesick,” he said.
Alberto Soler, a science teacher from Oakland, said that he was excited about the event because, while the Bay Area is a multicultural place, there are few Cuban events. Jessica Sanchez, a baker from Mill Valley, sat at a table in the back of the patio selling homemade pastelitos, Cuban pastries with sweet or savory fillings. Her parents are from Cuba, and she grew up in Miami, learning to bake from her mother and grandmother. She currently operates a commercial kitchen in San Rafael, selling pastries to restaurants around the Bay Area. She specializes in. She moved to the Bay Area from Miami five years ago, but said it’s been difficult to connect with the local Cuban community. After finding Suarez on Facebook, he invited her to be part of Saturday’s event.
“It’s great to be part of this because I feel like there are not a lot of events like this where you can meet other Cubans,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m back home.”