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(Photo of Cuda de Ayer restaurant from their website.)

For Cuban-Americans in Maryland, a rediscovered connection

Members of Maryland’s piecemeal Cuban-American community have tenuous ties with their home country — thin if not severed entirely, squeezed by old-guard loyalties and legally sanctioned isolation.

President Obama may have just changed that for good.

Tucked between strip malls on Old Columbia Pike in Burtonsville is Jessica Rodriguez’s Cuba de Ayer Restaurant. During the Thursday afternoon lunch rush, she’s stepping in to help her staff, serving a table of six a hot plate of empanadas.

The décor is a mix of Christmas tinsel and palm fronds, the walls painted a warm brick red and covered in art depicting the Cuba of old — a man smoking a fat cigar, another bent over a conga drum, a sepia-toned collage of mid-century Havana street scenes, some frozen in time to this day, Rodriguez says.

Behind the bar, a TV screen shows White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest relaying the latest — that President Raul Castro himself may pay a visit to the States.

It was in front of this screen Wednesday evening that Rodriguez first heard it: For the first time in half a century, the United States will attempt to thaw its relationship with Cuba.

“It’s been 50 years. They haven’t broken yet,” Rodriguez said Thursday. “We’ve got to try something different.”

Rodriguez and her husband are both first-generation Cuban-Americans — their parents came as teenagers in the 1960s. Both grew up in Silver Spring with strong Cuban influences in their daily lives, from the food to the language to the stories.

It made for a difficult Catch-22, Rodriguez said: Her parents instilled in her a deep love for a culture they would have chastised her for exploring first-hand.

“They have this really dear longing for Cuba, but they will never return,” she said of her parents’ generation — so long as the legacy of Fidel Castro remains.

Her mother has since moved to Miami, where you could buy a Cuban sandwich just as soon as you’ve disembarked from the plane. Rodriguez opened her restaurant in 2005, struck by an intense longing for the home-cooked meals of her childhood.

The 40-year-old Rodriguez identifies with the younger generation of Cuban-Americans, an enthusiastic cultural ambassador explaining to new customers the difference between her food and spicy Tex-Mex. Even so, she reflexively lowers her voice when she utters the name “Castro,” like a dirty word.

With at least one aspect of the long-held Cuban taboo lifted, she said, she’s hoping for even more curious customers — and more Americans who will be able to point out Cuba on a map.

“I hope this will start to pique people’s interest even more,” she said.

The enthusiast

Frank Pratka has been trying unofficially to resume ties between the two countries since 1999.

The same year the Orioles played in Havana, Pratka and his 9-year-old daughter, seeking a sunny spring-break destination, visited Cuba via Canada. The people were warm, friendly, highly educated, he said — and he didn’t see any good reason why the average U.S. citizen couldn’t go.

Though the relationship between Baltimore and Matanzas was never recognized by Sister Cities International, nor by the mayor’s office, Pratka has served as president of the Baltimore-Matanzas Sister City Association ever since.

They’ve hosted service group members en route to Cuban communities, put on events to discuss the issues surrounding the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, and are looking to organize now-legal trips to the island nation.

“We just decided that — everybody knows about Havana, but nobody seems to know about any other cities in Cuba,” Pratka said of his group’s founding, and the selection of Matanzas — a fellow port city with a vibrant art and music scene, filled with beautiful old architecture. It’s an awareness that will only grow now, he said.

The pragmatist

Enrique Melendez, chair of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, happened to be in Miami on Wednesday when he heard the news that he says is good for business across the board — for Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and Americans in general.

He respects the firm position of those who experienced Fidel Castro’s reign at its worst. But businesses touting export services here stand only to benefit, he said — especially those in the Hispanic community, who have a leg up with their Spanish fluency.

“They’re all ecstatic about this,” Melendez said of the business owners he’s spoken to so far who have an eye on expanding their market.

Melendez isn’t referring to an immediate payoff, of course, but rather a gradual change, across years or even decades.

“Economically, it’s going to take a while to figure out how to do things,” he said.

But Raul Castro won’t last forever, he said. And eventually, American business influence will rub off on Cubans, he said, and for the better.

“The people did business before Castro,” he said, “and I imagine they want to get back to it.”