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Kevin Cullen

The lion who loves the GOP

Liuva del Toro was sitting at the table full of phones that don’t work yet. Martha Vives sat across from him.

The office, a sparsely furnished storefront with a huge plate glass window looking out on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, wasn’t exactly hopping. So we sat around, shooting the breeze, waiting for somebody to drop into the Republican Party’s new office on Centre Street in JP.

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You read that right. The Republicans have opened an office on Centre Street in JP. Sort of like Nixon goes to China, updated.

“It means ‘Lion Who Loves,’ ’’ Liuva del Toro said, explaining his unusual first name.

And his last name means The Bull.

So his full name means The Lion Who Loves The Bull?

“Something like that,” Liuva del Toro said, shrugging.

If you want to know why Liuva del Toro was sitting in a Republican redoubt in the middle of the most liberal Democratic slice of Massachusetts you have to understand his story. When he was 22 years old, he was the leader of the student anticommunist movement in Cuba and so Fidel Castro threw him in jail.

Castro tried to make him a criminal, but del Toro wouldn’t wear the prison uniform. He went naked instead. They beat him but they couldn’t break him. He went on hunger strike for 37 days and it nearly killed him. When he was released from prison after 16 years, del Toro was too weak to walk. In 1980, when he got off the plane that took him from Miami to Boston, he was in a wheelchair.

Liuva del Toro is 70 years old now, his head shaved, his blue eyes piercing, his mind keen. He left the wheelchair a long time ago and got his strength back. He ran a furniture store for years. His revenge against Castro is that he is still breathing, still sharp.

“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink,” he said. “My only problem?”

He turned and pointed at Martha Vives across the table.

“Not me,” she protested.

“Not her,” del Toro agreed. “Just women.”

Outside, a couple of young men stopped on the sidewalk and regarded the storefront as one might a spaceship. They were wide-eyed. Their mouths hung open. One of them had several piercings and the other one shook his head, pointing at the huge blue Scott Brown signs that line the back wall of the office. They walked off, armed with a story that, in JP, is the equivalent of spotting Bigfoot.

As far as demarcartion, the office in Hyde Square lies more on the bodega side of Centre Street than the Birkenstock side. It is surrounded by mostly Hispanic-owned businesses. Aida Lopez’s Cuban gift shop is right next door, and the Revolution bike shop across the street hints at how unusual the new GOP presence is in this part of Boston. There’s a tattoo parlor a couple of doors down. There are lots of students and recent college grads living nearby.

The office will have its official opening soon, probably sometime this week. There’s word that Scott Brown might drop by for the opening. For now, it’s more curiosity than campaign hot spot. So far, the Dominicans in the neighborhood haven’t been exactly breaking down the doors to get in, but local Cubans have already embraced it and some neighboring storeowners have even put Scott Brown and, less often, Mitt Romney signs in their windows. Aida Lopez has signs touting both Republican candidates, along with a poster showing Cuban political prisoners.

The enthusiasm has not reached down the block to the Lucy Parsons Center, where a woman perusing books at the radical store rolled her eyes when informed of the new neighbors. To be fair, the woman said she isn’t so hot on Democrats, either. That said, most of the Latino activists in the neighborhood are diehard Democrats.

Back inside the new GOP office, Liuva del Toro was explaining why he felt an affinity for Republicans.

“The Kennedys betrayed Cuba. I don’t believe in traitors,” he said. “The Democrats are traitors. Even to their own country. They want to give everything to people who do nothing.”

If the Republicans need a new speechwriter, The Lion Who Loves The Bull is their only man.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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