Hector Aguilar arrived from Cuba with just two pairs of underwear, only to eventually become a radio personality and the voice of Café Bustelo.
hector aguilar radio newscaster
Hector Aguilar on the radio. Photo: Margarita Aguilar

Hector Aguilar left Havana with two changes of underwear and several notebooks filled with  pristine drawings from his civil engineering courses at the University of Havana. It was 1962 and Hector was leaving Cuba to meet his wife and children in New York. Fidel Castro’s revolution was not the change that the Aguilars wanted to see in Cuba and like so many other Cubans, they fled in waves in opposition to the communist regime. 

The Aguilars first settled in a cramped apartment in Washington Heights. In Cuba, Hector had been a well-known radio and tv “locutor”, with a distinctive voice that he discovered as a lector who read to the cigar rollers in the tobacco factories. He had no such voice in the United States for he barely spoke English and his sister advised him upon his arrival that he needed to “forget the little microphone” because he was going to have to do a lot of things in this country to make a living. Hector mopped floors at the Pfizer building, he unloaded banana boats in Hoboken. He did not do this for long however for by 1966, he had returned as a media personality. 

Whenever his wife went to the grocery store, Hector warned her not to get him the “other coffee” for Cafe Bustelo was the only coffee he wanted to drink. 

His first job was as a newscaster at WHOM radio station, which no longer broadcasts in Spanish. He loved conducting interviews and learning about people and spent time and energy developing his newscaster persona. His children quickly realized that their father was recognized by people on the streets and in grocery stores and when he became the spokesperson for Cafe Bustelo, his face was suddenly on buses and the NJ Transit. 

What Do You Want to See in Our Cuban Food Film?

The Aguilars loved Cafe Bustelo, and served it aside Cuban bread at all of their Saturday morning breakfast gatherings with friends. Whenever his wife went to the grocery store, Hector warned her not to get him the “other coffee” for Cafe Bustelo was the only coffee he wanted to drink. Though Cafe Bustelo was already well-established, Hector also believed in supporting small start-up businesses, specifically Cuban businesses. His daughter Margarita called him a “genius” at figuring out how to promote these infant enterprises with advertisements and other promotions. Not only was Hector the famous face of Cafe Bustelo for a time, but he also worked with the Cuban-owned business Albertini, helping them rocket themselves into the United States free market. 

He was a pioneer in Spanish-language news casting for when Hector arrived in New York, bilingual broadcasting barely existed. 

Hector’s legacy lives in his contributions to the Spanish speakers of the United States. He was a pioneer in Spanish-language news casting for when Hector arrived in New York, bilingual broadcasting barely existed. He had learned how to “hustle” in Cuba, for those small yet important jobs and when he got to the United States, he utilized those uniquely Cuban skills to launch himself into the U.S. media market. He informed and educated those who spoke his native tongue in a public way, and engaged the world with his bright smile, his suits, his mustache. He reported about local news, celebrities and entertainment and became a familiar face and friend to Spanish speakers, old and new to the United States.

hector aguilar radio unica
Radio Unica Hector Aguilar. Photo: Margarita Aguilar

Hector Aguilar died one month before Fidel Castro in 2016 having never returned to Cuba. He considered Fidel a jackal who robbed him and exported his revolution and while those sentiments ran strongly in his blood, he never allowed them to sink him in his new life in the United States. He gave his heart to his new country as passionately as he would have had he stayed in Cuba and for the benefit of generations to come, Hector Aguilar helped to create a media world accessible to non-English speakers. 

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Kate Oberdorfer is a writer from Tampa, Florida. She studied English and music at Mount Holyoke College, and spent a semester in Havana in 2007. She has returned to the island almost every year since then. Kate wrote her master’s thesis on the Cubans of Union City, New Jersey at the Columbia Journalism School. She is currently finishing her first book in Bethany Beach, DE. Kate loves to cook, sing, and dance and is a diehard Washington Capitals fan.

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