As a child, Betty Porto remembers running and playing with her friends around the streets of Manzanillo, Cuba, a place she describes as a naïve, little town. Life changed drastically for her family when Fidel Castro came to power. Castro’s socialist government shut down all private enterprises, including the company where Porto’s mother, Rosa, worked.
“The government took the keys and they lost the business,” Porto said. “And then my mom had to invent herself and she went around that [by] baking cakes at home.”
Porto’s mother started baking and selling cakes illegally at her house. She could have faced up to 25 years in jail had she been caught.
“So it was all done underground,” Porto remembers. “The neighbors knew when the secret police would be coming, so she would hide all the stuff in the neighbors’ houses.”
Food was rationed and there was no money. People would pay her with anything they had, such as chickens and black beans.
Porto’s parents applied for Freedom Flights, a program established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to welcome Cuban exiles into the United States. After years of waiting, the family was able to leave Cuba in 1971.
Porto reflects on how coming to the U.S. was a dream come true.
“We never felt like, ‘Oh, we want to go back,'” Porto said. “We don’t miss anything, because all over there is what my parents hated, which was communism, lack of freedom, [and] lack of opportunities for us.”
No more black market. No more secret police.
“So coming to this country for me, it was easy; it’s a piece of cake,” Porto said. “I learned the language in three months because I was desperate to learn. My mom–making a cake here? My god! She could go to the market [and] buy everything. So it was easy.”
Forty-six years and four bakeries later, the Porto family has more than 200 items on their menu. From shortage to abundance, “We still kept our roots,” Porto said with pride, “and we were able to transcend all that through food.”