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Cuban whips up life in S.L.

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This is the right place, Adalberto Diaz thought when he saw Salt Lake City. This is nothing like home.

"There's a lot of anger in Cuba. And you learn to be afraid," said Diaz, who left his native island almost a year ago. He has an aunt who lives in Miami, but "being there is too much like being in Cuba. I just want to try and forget about that."

Diaz flew away from Havana May 24, thanks to friends who helped him obtain travel documents. He remembers being terrified all the way to Mexico; when he crossed the border into Hidalgo, Texas, he went straight to the Immigration and Naturalization office to ask for asylum.

"I was shaking. My hand was shaking when they took my fingerprints," he said. "The guy grabbed my hand and said, 'Don't be afraid. You're in America, and you're free.' " Except he was promptly sent "to jail — they call it a processing center. But they have fences," and officers who detained Diaz for 18 days.

But once designated a political refugee, Diaz was free, free to travel. He spent five days on a bus to Salt Lake City, where he looked up friends he'd made in Havana.

Fluent in English and brimming with natural charm, Diaz was perfectly suited for his work in Cuba's tourism industry. But at the hotel where he worked in Havana, he drew suspicion from the military police, who began watching him.

Diaz made a higher-than-average salary working at the hotel: $15 a month. But he wanted a business of his own, so in 1997 he started a bakery in his kitchen. But the stream of customers carrying cake boxes out of his house aroused police suspicion; Diaz was supposed to pay a large portion of his bakery's proceeds to Fidel Castro's government. Since he wasn't doing that, he knew the business's days were numbered.

When he went to the Havana airport, "nobody knew I was leaving. I said I was going camping for a week in the countryside. . . . When I called my mother from Mexico, she was crying. But she knew it was best for me to go. There's no future in Cuba."

Diaz said his Salt Lake friends warned him about the various forms of culture shock he'd experience in Utah. "They told me about the stinky lake," he said. "But it's beautiful here, the way it's green in spring and white in the winter. I've been around the ocean for 28 years. It's time for some mountains now." Instead of looking for reminders of home, he believes in immersing himself in a new culture.

Diaz soon became busy with odd jobs and with baking cakes and treats for neighbors who discovered his talents. Then a few months ago he met Rick Esparza, the manager of the new Orbit Cafe on 200 South and 500 West. Esparza, an immigrant who has built a new life here after leaving Mexico, hired Diaz to be Orbit's bakery chef.

"He's a hard worker, and he's really creative," Esparza said. "He's understanding of the issues of opening a new restaurant and the sacrifices you have to make in the first couple of months."

Diaz works six or seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to "whenever I finish," but he doesn't see it as a sacrifice. Cuba "is a sweet country — we live on sugar," he says, but cream, cheese and butter are scarce as jewels. "One cream cake costs $6 — for a lot of people, that's a month's salary," he said. Instead of dairy products, "you base your cakes on fresh fruits, which are easy to buy. And then you dress your cake with meringue" — Diaz pronounces it like merengue, the dance — "and it's great."

These days in Diaz's kitchen, meringue has been eclipsed by tiramisu. He obviously enjoys tempting visitors with the rich Italian dessert.

When Orbit patrons praise Diaz's creations, especially after a long day, "it's the best feeling. If somebody says, 'The cheesecake was great,' it feels like heaven," he said. Another kind of satisfaction comes from knowing he can choose how he spends most of his earnings. Yes, he pays taxes and has to navigate work-permit and permanent-residency paperwork, but Diaz says he feels free here in a way that he couldn't in Cuba.

"My mother has been working for 45 years. She has a house, but she's not allowed to sell it if she wanted to. And if she wanted to buy new clothes to wear on New Year's Eve or sometime, she'd have to save for a year." Cubans have to ask the government for permission to travel, he added. And if they're granted permission, "only 1 percent can afford to go anywhere."

The one place Diaz can never go is home. "I'm considered a traitor, a deserter. So I'd go to jail," he said. But rather than dwelling on what he can't do, he hops into his new used car and heads for Park City or the Uintas.

Diaz also has a computer for the first time in his life. "I love the Internet. On it, I even go to Cuba sometimes." And while he has no desire to actually travel there, he said American tourists would find such a trip eye-opening.

"I'd like to grab a bunch of young guys and put them in the middle of the island for a week, and let them taste it," he said. "Americans don't realize the freedom they have."

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com