Cuban Who Arrived in U.S. with $10 Heads Successful Bus Company With PM-Cubana Bus-Trip.
Jun. 11, 1990
MIAMI (AP) _ Jose Espinosa fled Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1961 with $10 in his pocket. He now heads a $3 million-a-year company that caters to Latins by operating up to 15 buses daily between Miami and New York.
English is a second language on Espinosa's La Cubana buses, except for the movies on the overhead VCR system that entertain riders traveling the 1,300 miles on Interstate 95.
Like many Cuban exiles, Espinosa settled in Miami for what he thought would be a temporary stay.
''After Castro took over, everybody I knew who came to Miami agreed Fidel would be out of power within months. Everybody was mistaken,'' he said of the Cuban strongman, in power since 1959.
Espinosa came to Florida alone, but was able to get his wife and young daughter out of Cuba when it became apparent Castro's reign would not be short. His parents and most other relatives eventually moved to Miami, too.
His business began with a simple notion: that many of the Cuban exiles who traveled between New York and Miami to visit relatives or work feared using a carrier that conducted business only in English.
''He saw that Spanish-speaking people weren't getting the service they need,'' said Espinosa's daughter, Rosa Theodorou, manager of the company's New York-area branch office in Union City, N.J.
But getting the bus business off the ground proved to be a decade-long fight. Espinosa applied for a permit from the Interstate Commerce Commission, but bus-giant Greyhound Lines Inc. opposed him, and the battle dragged on until 1978, when Espinosa finally convinced the commission his line would be unique.
''I proved to the (commission) judge that there was a market for my service that other companies weren't providing,'' he said. ''Our passengers were not like other passengers. Our passengers didn't speak English. They couldn't talk to the drivers.''
To make ends meet, Espinosa worked at a freight-forwarding company, unloading goods and driving trucks.
And he began shuttling passengers without a license. In an old station wagon, he picked up fellow exiles in Miami at their doors before dawn, drove all day and night to the New York area, dropped them off, and then reversed the whole trip within days.
''It was so much work,'' he said. ''That was before I had the permit. I wasn't supposed to do it, but I needed to make a living.''
Espinosa likened his pre-license hustling to Nicaraguan vendors, new to the country, who today sell fruit on the streets of Miami's Little Havana section without a permit.
''It was a way to bring some food to the home,'' he said.
Through word-of-mouth, his business grew. He bought a van and attached a trailer to carry passengers' possessions. Once, weary from a long haul to New York and a quick turnaround, he forgot to lock the trailer door, only to discover in South Carolina that the goods had been strewn somewhere earlier along I-95.
He was on the road constantly to meet demand, so Espinosa expanded again, buying a bus that he drove for years until singer Andy Williams purchased it for his tours, his daughter said.
Now the business is established and Espinosa, 71, no longer has to drive for a living. He has about 25 employees, including bilingual reservation clerks who answer phones in New York and Miami. Cubana, in step with the times, has a toll-free 800-number.
The company has at least two buses on the road daily between Miami's Little Havana and New York, and up to 15 traveling each day during the busiest season - Christmas and July.
''I don't know why the Latins pick July to spend the month in Miami Beach,'' Espinosa said with a laugh.
He advertises on Spanish TV and radio in the Miami and New York-New Jersey markets, but Cubana generates most of its traffic from satisfied customers.
''They feel like they're in a family atmosphere,'' said Ms. Theodorou.
Passengers on a recent trip southward were unanimous in their praise.
''I like the music, and it's a fun atmosphere,'' said Katia Chamah, 18.
But at $69 each way, the trip isn't much cheaper than the lowest airfares; some air carriers have restricted one-way fares between Miami and the New York-area as low as $79. And Greyhound's fares range from $68 to $99, one way.
Many Latins, however, fear flying, said Ruben Dario Lugo, a Miami security guard who boarded the bus at Cubana's small storefront in Manhattan, even though the trip takes an entire day and sometimes longer if there are any breakdowns along the way.
''The thing to remember is if this falls,'' Lugo said, patting the seat of the bus on a recent journey, ''it doesn't fall nearly as far as a plane.''
Added Ms. Theodorou, ''We tell them, 'If you were on a plane and it broke down, you wouldn't be here to tell us.'''