Did You Know? | Fidel Castro visited the Bronx in the ’90s

castro glove
Cuban President Fidel Castro was the guest of honor at Jimmy’s Bronx Café in October 1995, where he was bestowed with numerous gifts including a novelty boxing glove.
Photo courtesy “Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx”

Test your knowledge of Bronx history with our installment “Did You Know,” featuring interesting and otherwise unknown tidbits that expand on the lore of what is often referred to as the forgotten borough.

Fidel Castro.

The name itself recalls a history of conflict: JFK, the Cuban Embargo, the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, which was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. For more than 60 years, the United States has blockaded any involvement with the Cuban government and most American-based airlines won’t even fly there. But in 1995, Castro, the Cuban president, visited New York City and had dinner in none other, than the Bronx.

The United Nations was celebrating their 50th anniversary in New York City and invited more than 100 heads of state to the three-day celebration, including Castro. He was even on the agenda as one of the speakers, according to a U.N. press release. But his participation in the opening-night dinner was nixed by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who publicly disinvited Castro and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for “humanitarian reasons,” said Julio Pabón.

Pabón, who now splits his time between the Bronx and Puerto Rico, is the author of, “Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx.”

“I felt that, whoa, you disinvite Yasser Arafat and I understand why, because New York has a very strong Jewish population, a very powerful, economically [sic], Jewish population — but Fidel Castro, I just didn’t understand why,” Pabón told the Bronx Times.

To be clear, Castro and Arafat both attended the anniversary of the U.N., it was the dinner being thrown by the city’s mayor that they were uninvited to, making the gesture all the more symbolic. In his book, Pabón writes that his friend David Galarza believed there was more to the rejection than Giuliani was letting on.

Julio Pabón, far left, with Fidel Castro and others at Jimmy’s Bronx Café. Photo courtesy “Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx”

“There was a rumor circulating that Cuban exile leaders allegedly told the mayor that if he spurned President Castro during his visit to New York, in gratitude, they would contribute generously to his future political campaigns,” Pabón writes.

In what Galarza and Pabón felt was a slight to the Latino diaspora in New York City atlarge, they set out to right the wrong but only had less than a week to do it.

Born in Puerto Rico, but raised in the Bronx since he was four years old, Pabón is a long-time activist for the Latino community and in the ’80s, he was director of Latino affairs for City Council President Andrew Stein. Through his years of activism and work at City Hall, Pabón, now 71, had developed many relationships from the top down, including Jimmy Rodriguez, owner of the famed and long-gone restaurant and event space, Jimmy’s Bronx Café. It was there that Castro and Pabón would make history.

Jimmy’s Bronx Café was the place to be and be seen in the Bronx. It was said to be a hangout for the Yankees and that even Derek Jeter hosted several events at the location. The interior felt like the kind of place mobsters took their girlfriends and wives to. In fact, the restaurant was rumored to be a meeting place for drug dealers. It was a mammoth space with a 300-seat dining room that specialized in seafood and Latin Caribbean dishes and sat on the corner of Fordham Road and Cedar Avenue overlooking the Major Deegan Expressway.

Today, the building has been split and houses both a Dallas BBQ restaurant and the Latin restaurant/night club Salsa con Fuego.

If there was going to be any place for Castro to visit the Bronx, Jimmy’s was the spot. Now that the venue was secure, it was time to lock in the invite.

Pabón was vice president of the grassroots collective, the National Puerto Rican Business Council — a South Bronxbased group of Puerto Rican business owners. He approached his friend Carlos Nazario, also the council president, with the idea to invite Castro to the Bronx to spite Giuliani’s renunciation. After a meeting with the rest of its members, the council agreed to be the official organization to host the event and the roll-out began. They even got local Congressman José Serrano to add his name to the invite.

Fidel Castro receives gifts from guests (and Pabón’s children) at Jimmy’s Bronx Café in October 1995. Photo courtesy “Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx”

They drafted the press release and sent it to as many media outlets as possible one day before Castro was to arrive to NYC, according to the book. The next day, Pabón received a call from Serrano — Castro had accepted the invitation. And on Oct. 23, 1995, Castro was welcomed at Jimmy’s Bronx Café by media and hundreds of guests bearing gifts; one of which was a red, oversized novelty boxing glove that read: “FIDEL – #1 – BRONX, NY – DANTE – Oct. 23, 1995.”

Dante Ortiz owned a store that made trophies and boxing apparel, and he had designed the glove for Castro’s visit. In his five-day tour of the city, Castro also visited the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and spoke to media outlets. 

However, the aftermath wasn’t as illustrious. Pabón’s radio program “La Hora del Taxista” (“The Hour of the Cab Driver”) on WADO 1280 AM was cancelled the next day. While the reason for the cancellation was not directly attributed to his affiliation with Castro, Pabón made the correlation. And Nazario “had long-time business associates — that ended their friendship over his participation in the dinner,” Pabón writes.

Not much could be found on Giuliani’s response, but in a New York Times article published three days after the event, Castro, who died in 2008 at the age of 90, said that he would not vote for the mayor. “It’s not just because he didn’t invite me to dinner, but because on my way into town from the airport, there were such enormous potholes,” he said. Some things never change.

Know any obscure facts about the Bronx that you’d like the Bronx Times to feature in its column? Let us know by dropping an email to [email protected] with Did You Know in the subject line.

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