How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

American snapshots: The cultural club

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Yesterday I posted a single photo from a weekend verbena - a big party, essentially - at the Sociedad José Martí, a Cuban cultural club in Hawthorne founded by then-new immigrants more than 40 years ago.

Immigrant cultural clubs and mutual aid societies are as old as immigration to the United States itself, with each group of newcomers reaching out to their countrymen, finding ways to keep traditions alive, and, depending on the type of association or club, raising money to help new arrivals, those left back home (including elaborate hometown infrastructure projects) or both.

Just in Southern California there are are Mexican clubs, Salvadoran clubs, Cuban clubs, Russian clubs, Armenian clubs, Chinese clubs, Vietnamese clubs - the list is too long to mention all.

The immigrant cultural club tradition was a part of my childhood. While L.A. is no Miami, Cuban cultural clubs abound here, from La Cofradia in South Gate to the Club Cultural Cubano in Monterey Park. Attending the dances and picnics put on by these and other clubs was a way for my first-generation parents to connect with people they could relate to, all of them seeking familiarity in an unfamiliar place.

I learned of the Hawthorne verbena thanks to my mother, who asked me to accompany her. I hadn't been to one of these events since childhood, but the verbena was just as I remember these events to be - the food, the DJs blasting loud salsa music, the kids running around, the politics, the homespun entertainment and above all, the intense nostalgia - although now with a crowd that spans at least three generations, if not four.

There was something oddly comforting about the setting: An old Tudor-style building incongruously adapted, as happens in this immigrant town, into a haven for people from the tropics. Wood beams and the smell of Cuban coffee, stained glass and dominoes. It was great.

Glad I brought a camera.

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