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Exiled from Cuba, Nibaldo Capote brought freedom to many

In November 1960, Nibaldo Capote, then in his early 30s, was mayor of the town of Alquízar, a southwestern municipality in the province of Havana, Cuba. He was also involved in several businesses, including farming.

Cuba was politically tumultuous in the 1950s, with the revolution ending in Fidel Castro’s regime taking over the government. Mr. Capote’s opposition resulted in his imprisonment. 

Nibaldo Capote photo
Nibaldo Capote in Miami Beach in 1962.

“Dad was released from prison after a short time, but on the condition that he would immediately leave the country,” said Jessie Capote, Nibaldo’s son and current vice president of operations for J&C Tropicals in Miami. “A friend who was a pilot for Cubana de Aviacion [an airline company] put him in the cockpit of a plane and flew him to Miami. He had no choice but to leave his wife, Gladys, his son, Pedro and his daughter, Gladys behind.” 

Jessie Capote said his father arrived in the United States exemplifying the cliché, “with only the shirt on his back.” He went directly from jail to the airport with no money or resources. He added that had his father not left Cuba, he would likely have been executed.

 “When he landed at the Miami Airport, the first thing he noticed was a crew of workers resurfacing a landing strip. He walked directly up to the foreman, and in broken English, asked for a job,” said Mr. Capote.

The foreman, figuring Mr. Capote didn’t have a clue about resurfacing, jokingly told him to go ahead and “show us what you’ve got,” gesturing toward the large resurfacing equipment.

“Instead of jumping on the machine and trying to start it, Dad opened the engine compartment to check the oil and hydraulic fluids,” said Mr. Capote. “That impressed the foreman, so he was hired to surface landing strips starting the following morning.”

 Mr. Capote said his father initially stayed with some friends, also recent Cuban emigrants, in a boarding house. But he soon saved enough money to rent an efficiency apartment and started life over again.

 His first order of business was to get on his feet. He spent the first year doing odd jobs, but there was little stability for Cubans in the United States at the time.

 “In the 1960s, Cubans were considered the lowest social level in the U.S.,” said Mr. Capote. “The community was not welcoming, and it offered people like Dad few opportunities. Available work was sporadic, but he persevered. By February 1961, he owned Miramar Auto Sales, a used car dealership. He later sold the business and in a partnership, opened Miramar Auto Parts, next door.

 “Dad was very resourceful and curious, and he had many businesses in Cuba,” Mr. Capote continued. “He and my grandfather were in the heart of the production of potatoes, tomatoes and other commodities [in Cuba]. During his first year in the U.S., he explored and educated himself about south Florida’s agriculture, which fueled his idea to farm.”

 Mr. Capote knew that masses of Cubans were emigrating directly from Cuba to New York and New Jersey because of job market opportunities. He assumed that meant the demand for Cuban root vegetables like boniato and malanga would be strongest there.

 During this time, Mr. Capote was able to secure permission for his wife and children to leave Cuba and go to Jamaica, where he supported them with borrowed money. He was able to bring them to Miami in March 1961. Soon after they reunited, another son, Carlos, was born.

 By 1963, the Castro regime had become highly aggressive, and many people were fleeing the country. Among them was a wealthy Spanish national, Severe Jorge, who had been spending time on his yacht in Cuba. He decided to head for Florida to wait out the political storm.

 “He and my dad formed a friendship, and my dad convinced him to invest in a farming operation,” said Mr. Capote. “Severe admired Dad’s hard work and determination to start a new life, so he agreed to invest about $5,000 in seed money. In 1963, they started a joint farming venture.

 “In order to start his first boniato crop, Dad got my grandfather to send him the seeds by mail from Cuba,” Mr. Capote continued. “An envelope arrived every day for about a year. Dad started seeding the plants in the backyard of his efficiency apartment. By 1964, he had enough seedlings for the company’s first crop.” 

That first crop was produced on a rented five-acre parcel. When it was harvested and packed, Mr. Capote loaded it on a truck and drove directly to the Bronx Terminal Market in New York, hoping to find a buyer.

“He found one,” said Mr. Capote. “He initially sold product on consignment, but the demand for Hispanic and tropical items was there, and that meant the business had a future. The company began in 1965 and was incorporated in 1967 as J&C Enterprises Inc., so named for Jorge and Capote. The business was growing and the horizon looked bright.”

 Then, in 1969, tragedy struck. Mr. Capote’s wife was killed in an automobile accident in Miami.

 “This was a tragic time for the family,” said Mr. Capote. “There was Dad, widowed with three young children, and the responsibility of a new business. But despite his grief, he pushed forward.”

Unrest in Cuba was intensifying during this time, making it urgent for other family members and friends to leave the country. Escape routes were becoming trickier, but Mr. Capote continued his relentless campaign to help them flee. His parents, Esteban and Adolfina, were able to legally leave Cuba and go to Mexico. From there, with the help of friends, they crossed into the United States through El Paso, TX.

“About a year after Gladys died, Dad met my mom, Lourdes, who had also fled Cuba,” explained Mr. Capote. “They were married, and my mother inherited Dad’s family. She fell in love with his kids, and a strong family bond began immediately.

Jessie Capote was born in 1974. In 1976, his brother Adrian was born. From a family perspective, things were once again looking bright. It was then that, after years of loyal and supportive partnership, Mr. Jorge sold his half of the business back to Mr. Capote for the exact $5,000 he had originally invested.

Mr. Capote’s determination to help others leave Cuba grew in intensity during the Castro regime. He made two trips back to Cuba. One was during the 1967 boatlift. The other was during the more famous Mariel boatlift in 1980 — a mass exodus that occurred from April 15 to Oct. 31 of that year, with Castro’s permission. It resulted in as many as 125,000 Cubans arriving in Florida. During the trips, Mr. Capote helped hundreds of people leave Cuba for the United States.

“Throughout my childhood there was always an event at my house to celebrate someone’s arrival from Cuba,” said Mr. Capote. “And it was usually at a moment’s notice. I would walk in the door from school to find people cooking and a short while later there would be 100 people in the house. But even after the boat-lift, Dad would send money to people in Cuba to help them find escape routes. Sometimes he would get a plea from someone to help a family member or friend he didn’t even know, and he always extended his hand.”

The family and J&C Tropicals was on solid ground and doing well as it entered the new millennium. But another major tragedy was about to strike. It was Christmas 2001, and family members had gathered for a holiday celebration at a Miami restaurant. Following a great meal and gaiety, they left the restaurant. Nibaldo Capote never made it to his car. He had a massive heart attack and died in the parking lot.

“I was in Paris, France, and got the call to come home,” said Mr. Capote. “Dad’s wake went on for three days, with hundreds of people who he had helped during more than 40 years filtering through to pay their respects and express their gratitude.

“Dad was a true humanitarian, a great father and husband and an ethical and moral business person,” continued Mr. Capote. “He had an enormous heart and an undying determination to help people. His legacy lives in the hundreds of families who are now living free of fear and with hope for their future generations.”

J&C Tropicals has evolved into a leading grower, importer and distributor of Hispanic, tropical and specialty fruits and vegetables. Its products are distributed across the country.

The Capote legacy lives on in Nibaldo’s children and grandchildren. Today Carlos Capote serves as chief executive officer of J&C Tropicals. Jessie Capote left his law practice in 2007 to join the company. Adrian Capote is sales director. Pedro Capote is a practicing physician. Gladys lives with her husband and family in New Jersey. Her oldest child, Frank Aguirre, is a sales associate at J&C Tropicals.

Two of Pedro’s four children followed in his footsteps and are now doctors. Another is a teacher and a fourth is an attorney. Carlos’ kids are on their way to college. Jessie and Adrian’s children are still very young.

“Dad’s vision was to do business outside of the U.S.,” said Mr. Capote. “Our farming operations in Costa Rica were the fruition of that vision, and are what really put our company on the map.

“We know that hardships are an inevitable part of life,” Mr. Capote continued. “But through Dad’s example, we also know that as long as you’re alive, you are responsible for being the best person possible, and to help others along the way.”