Celebrating Hispanic heritage with Barby and Luis Toro of Wasabi Juan’s, part 1

"That’s just how communists are. You’re either with the government or you’re not wanted.” -- Barby Toro

07 Oct Celebrating Hispanic heritage with Barby and Luis Toro of Wasabi Juan’s, part 1


Birmingham, Alabama, Hispanic Heritage Month, Wasabi Juan's, Barby and Luis Toro
Barby and Luis Toro at Wasabi Juan’s in Avondale. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

You probably know Wasabi Juan’s in Birmingham for its famous sushi burritos. How did this local restaurant come to tempt our palates with inventive combinations of global flavors? I sat down with owners Barby and Luis Toro to find out. Here is the story of their Hispanic heritage and their American dream come true.

This two-part series takes us to Cuba and Miami, then Colombia and New York. And it all leads to Wasabi Juan’s and the Toros being the biggest fans of Alabama I’ve ever met.

Part 1: Barby’s Story

Barby Toro. Photo by Terri Robertson for Bham Now

Jumping The Fence In Cuba

Born in 1970, Barby spent her first ten years in Cuba. She lived with her mom and dad and had two brothers. She swam and did gymnastics. From a child’s perspective, it was a good life, but scarcity under the communist regime was a daily hardship.

“In Cuba, they gave you a little notebook. They told you what’s allowed for you to buy on a weekly basis and a monthly basis. You were probably allowed two eggs a week—two eggs!” Barby said, holding up her hands to make two egg-shaped circles. “When you made something, you’d have to split it in half and save some for later.”

Port of Mariel is a harbor west of Havana. Image via Pixabay

Then on April 4, 1980, her family’s situation changed suddenly. A group of Cubans who disapproved of the government forced their way into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. The ambassador, Ernesto Pinto Bazurco Rittler, granted them, and anyone else who wanted it, diplomatic protection. Thousands of Cubans flooded the Peruvian embassy. Barby’s family was among them.

“My dad knew it was going to get really bad. He wanted me to have a chance for a future. He told my mom, ‘This is happening. We have to go in,’” Barby said. “My uncle, my aunt, my cousin, my grandpa, my dad, my mom and myself. We all jumped the fence.”

The Mariel Boatlift

Over the next week, the refugees waited in the crowded Peruvian embassy while the ambassador brokered a deal with Fidel Castro. Eventually, they were given papers that allowed them to return home until they could leave the country.

Refugee boat. Photo via Pixabay

“It was worse at home,” said Barby. “They cut off our electricity. There were rallies. They were saying, ‘You die. You’re scum.’ That’s just how communists are. You’re either with the government or you’re not wanted.”

When all was said and done, the number of Cuban refugees—those who wanted to leave and those who were forced—swelled to 125,000. Leaving Cuba via Port of Mariel, the mass emigration became known as the Mariel boatlift.

“People who leave their country, a lot of times they risk their lives,” Barby said. “We came in a boat, and there were more people in that boat than should have been. A lot of people died on the way over here that my parents saw—people who were in ships and boats asking for help, but you couldn’t bring them in your boat because you were already full. It was rough.”

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Frank Rodriguez Junior
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