More than 40 American publishing professionals traveled to Cuba in February as part of the first U.S. publishing mission to visit the Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana (Havana International Book Fair), and to participate in four days of dialogue with their counterparts in the Cuban publishing industry.
Among those who made the trip were four Cuban-Americans, including Raquel Roque, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami. Roque’s father, Jose Rábade, operated a bookstore—with titles in Spanish and English—called Rábade Libros y Revistas in Havana from 1949 to 1965. In 1965 the family moved to Miami, and shortly after, Rábade opened Downtown Book Center. The bookstore grew and became one of the premier wholesalers and distributors of Spanish-language books in the U.S. The retail location closed in 2011, but Roque runs the wholesale and distribution arms of Downtown Book Center and serves as a bookseller consultant. Among her clients is South Florida’s Books & Books. She has been joined in the business by her daughter, Alyson.
We spoke with Roque and Alyson while in Havana about what this trip has meant.
How does it feel to be back in Cuba?
RR: Super nostalgic. I’m not a very sentimental person, but I have been sentimental. I’m very proud of my dad and the fact that he was a bookseller in Cuba. I’m also very proud that once he got to Miami, the first thing he wanted to do was open a bookstore. And I’m proud that I became a bookseller.
You mentioned that you had not been to Cuba in 40 years. How do you see Cuba today?
RR: I see so much hope. I see so many talented young people, and I’m afraid that they are leaving little by little. I want to see them be able to work in their professions. These young people have studied and studied so much and speak several languages, and yet they are working as taxi drivers. I want them to work in their fields and be hopeful for the future.
Were you able to find the location of your father’s bookstore?
RR: Yes. My daughter and I found it. It is still operated as an independent bookstore, and we spoke to the owner. He told us that he acquired the bookstore in the late 1980s, and prior to that, someone else had owned the store. But he had heard that a short Spaniard owned it before the revolution—as if it were an urban legend. He was referring to my father and that made me really sentimental.
Did you purchase any books?
RR: I bought four books at the store and several more at the book fair. Books are my passion. They are what define me.
When did you leave Cuba?
RR: I was 11 when we left, and then I came for a visit with my mother in 1976. Forty years later I’m here with my daughter, surrounded by my people: Cubans and book people. That is the really cool thing about this.
Alyson, what was it like for you to see the bookstore your grandfather owned?
AR: I was excited to see that it was still a bookstore. When we realized it had been my grandfather’s bookstore I came to tears. I grew up hearing stories about the bookstore and how it was the place where people came together. It was very nostalgic.
Have you ever thought of going to Cuba to open a bookstore?
AR: Definitely. If I were to go to Cuba it would be to open a bookstore. And as I heard at the conference, the digitization of books is playing a growing role within my generation. I would love to somehow bring that to Cuba.
Raquel, if the economic embargo were lifted tomorrow, what would you do?
RR: The first thing I would do is buy books to develop curated collections for public libraries throughout the U.S.