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Cuban family's Plant City business turns 50


Published:   |   Updated: July 23, 2013 at 10:27 AM

PLANT CITY - The Azorín family has had to leave everything and reinvent itself - twice.

The first time was back in 1917 when Pedro Azorín, fleeing the Spanish Civil War and the brutal post-war economy, packed everything and moved to Cuba. The second time was in 1960 when Pedro's descendants fled from Cuba to the United States with only one suitcase each.

The family may have been uprooted, but it has never forgotten their roots.

"My grandfather had heard that there were great opportunities and a better quality of life in Cuba, so he abandoned his business and travelled to Cuba with his wife, María Josefa Carbonell de Azorín, and their three small children: Rogelio, Manolo and Antonio," wrote Antonio Azorín, the current president of Florida Brick & Clay Co., a brick and paver manufacturing plant that his father and uncles founded 50 years ago in Plant City.

The plant continues to be a family business to this day, with annual yearly sales of $2.5 million and employing 20 workers, Antonio said.

For the second generation of the Azorín clan, all of them owners of equal parts of Florida Brick & Clay, it's not just about the hard work the whole family put into the business, it's also about the fact that they realized the American dream.

Maruchi Azorín, one of the company's owners, has vivid memories of when her father, Rogelio, and her uncles, Manolo and Antonio, worked in Camagüey, Cuba, with adobe and clay, two of the island's natural resources.

"We had properties in Camagüey. They made bricks, pavers and pipes. We used to make basically all the products they were using to build the island's infrastructure. The company was named Alfarera Azorín de Camagüey," Maruchi remembered.

Aside from the main business, they also had another brick factory called La Conchita.

"When Fidel (Castro) took over power, they came and took everything. I had just celebrated my eighth birthday and my father called my mother and told her: 'Mona, they're on their way there. Don't get scared, they're going to take over the house," Maruchi said.

That childhood memory is stamped in her psyche as she remembered that the Azorín clan lived in a compound of several houses because it was such a large family.

"Two soldiers, maybe 19 years old, very skinny, dressed in fatigues and armed, knocked at the door and I remember that one of them said: 'Mrs. Azorín, we're here because we're taking over your properties. When you leave, don't take anything because nothing is yours," Maruchi said.

The whole Azorín clan, all of them with small children, left the island at once.

When they left Cuba in 1960, they were hopeful that Castro wouldn't be in power for long and that they could return to reclaim their properties. But as time proved, that didn't happen.

Once all of them reached the United States, the Azorín brothers decided to get in touch with the J.C. Steele & Son Co., a brick manufacturing plant in North Carolina which had sold them equipment for their plant in Cuba. Initially, they were there just looking for work.

The owners of the company put them in contact with another brick plant in Harlem, Ga. which was encountering production problems.

Maruchi remembered that the owners told her father that the plant in Georgia had exactly the same equipment they had in Cuba, but that the owners of that plant didn't know how to operate the equipment.

"Eight of us packed ourselves into a 1955 Chevy and headed to Georgia. It was just like a movie," she remembered.

Maruchi said that back then, they had no idea what catfish and grits were and they hadn't even been exposed to peanut butter. So, her first meal in Georgia was a ham sandwich.

"So we all went to Georgia, and we always lived together. Even though we were cousins, we grew up like brothers and sisters, so that probably made it easier for us to make the move. We were probably the only Hispanics in a town of about 2,000. I don't think anybody there even knew where Cuba was," Antonio said.

Martiza, another member of second generation Azoríns, remembered that they were well received in that town and how the kids used to save money so that they could go to the pool in the summer.

"We would pick up nuts and we would take them to a factory to have them weighed and they would pay us in pennies," said Maritza, who actually finished her high school while in Georgia.

After almost three years in Georgia, the Azoríns had managed to put together some savings and decided to head back to Florida. Now with a little capital, some connections and a couple of investors, they decided to get back in touch with the North Carolina company which had sold them the equipment for their Cuba plant. Except this time, they didn't call to ask for work, they called to ask for a loan and that's how they began their own business, a brick and pavers plant in Plant City.

Manuel, another member of the second generation Azoríns and one of the current owners of Florida Brick & Clay, remembered that when school let out, they would go to work on the land off Turkey Creek Road where their parents would later build the factory.

"When we were kids, they would pay us with Coca-Colas," said Manuel, who added that in 1971 they built a big tunnel so that they could bake bricks and start doing mass production.

The investment was well-timed as it helped them land contracts with companies such as McDonald's, Walt Disney, Burger King, among others, who were just at the time building and expanding in Central Florida.

The success of the plant has kept the family busy. Currently, another Azorín cousin, who was the Florida Strawberry Festival queen in 1968, is the director of client services, along with her husband, Bill Dodson, who also happens to be a member of the Plant City City Commission.

COPYBLOCK with photos: The Azorins left Cub in 1960 and travelled to the United States, where, from scratch, they rebuilt the brick and tile company they once had on the islands. MYRIAM SILVA-WARREN

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