Inspire Cuba: Shoes that Grow

On July 19th, 2018, Inspire Cuba flew to Havana with 34 pairs of “shoes that grow” to donate to children in three different communities in and near Havana.  Founded by young Cubans and Cuban Americans, Inspire Cuba aims to better the lives of the Cuban people while inspiring a new dynamic between our two peoples and our two countries, one based on honest dialogue and meaningful collaboration.  One way we do this is by providing humanitarian aid to the Cuban people, in this case shoes that grow. A “shoe that grows” is essentially a very durable chaco-style shoe made out of tire rubber. The shoes get their name from straps that adjust in five different places, allowing them to “grow” with a child for up to five years. Our journey to get these shoes to needy children in Cuba began six months prior when Dana Fernandez, a second generation Cuban American from New Jersey, and the newest member of Inspire Cuba, first proposed the project at the monthly board meeting. Dana learned about The Shoe That Grows and their mission through social media. She witnessed the impact the shoes had on children in other countries throughout Africa and Latin America and she thought, “why not Cuba?”

The board got behind the proposal almost immediately. We were attracted to the low-cost and easily implementable nature of the project. The shoes cost only $16 per pair and could be brought to Cuba in luggage, which makes the entire process easier, given that we could forego having to obtain import/export visas, which are costly and difficult to procure for Cuba. Initially, we set out to raise enough money to send 50 pairs of shoes to one community in Havana. We carried out all of our fundraising efforts through social media, and after we hit our goal fairly quickly, we decided to up the ante to 100 pairs of shoes and 3 Cuban communities. This would be a significant project for our young organization, and we were hungry and excited for the challenge. By May, we hit our new fundraising goal of $1600 thanks entirely to public donations from amazing individuals who are passionate about helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people, in this case the children. The 100 pairs arrived a few weeks later, and Dana and I split them up between the two of us.

Chris Vázquez, Dana Fernandez and Sophia Heinke of Inspire Cuba with two of the recipients of Shoes that Grow

To distribute the shoes in Cuba, we partnered with La Iglesia Evangelica de Cuba (the Evangelical Church of Cuba). Although our work is not religious in nature, we have found that implementing projects in Cuba is much easier by means of religious organizations, which are still very autonomous on the island and are capable of things that many other independent organizations aren’t yet. In the past, Inspire Cuba has collaborated with La Iglesia Evangelica to send provisions to Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew caused extensive damage to the area and its residents. We were now working together again, this time to help the children of Havana. The plan was to divide the 100 pairs of shoes into three sets to be donated to children in three locations: Guanabacoa, Alamar, and Centro Habana. We would go door to door in Guanabacoa and Alamar, and we would convene with the children at a central location in Centro Habana, where the need was greatest. Dana was the first of the Inspire Cuba delegation to arrive at Jose Marti International Airport. She arrived with 50 pairs of shoes, and everything was going according to plan until she was only able to locate one bag of 25 pairs. After searching for a while, she finally found the second bag in the hands of a Cuban customs agent, who brought her in for questioning.  Afraid to implicate the Church or Inspire Cuba, Dana told the agents of la aduana that the shoes were donations for the children of Havana. The customs officials, either because they assumed the shoes were for resale, or just to make a point, did not permit Dana to take the second bag with her from the airport, though they did allow her to send them back to the states because we had documentation that verified the non-profit status of Inspire Cuba and Because International.

Afraid that the same misunderstanding would occur when I flew to Havana, I decided to take just 9 pairs, just under the legal limit of items of the same kind that can be entered through customs without needing further permissions or licenses (this was something we learned on the go). Thankfully, I had no issues at the airport and we were set to go with 34 pairs. The next day, Dana and I met Sophia, another Inspire Cuba member who had already been living in Cuba for the summer, in front of the Museo de la Revolución, where we hopped in a taxi to Guanabacoa with ten pairs of shoes. We were greeted in Guanabacoa by Yeny Perez, our friend from the Church, and so commenced the donations. We met incredible families and children that day, as we went door to door donating shoes. At one house, they played music while we put the shoes on the children. For many, it was the first new pair of shoes they ever received and, for some, it was the only pair of shoes without holes that they owned. I feel that I personally witnessed a miracle at one house we visited where a mentally disabled little girl was screaming uncontrollably. Yeny noticed that the child’s screams had sort of a rhythmic tone to them, and she knelt down and began to sing to the girl. Almost instantly, the child stopped screaming and began to hum lowly to Yeny’s voice. She became soothed and allowed us to put the shoes on her as Yeny comforted her. It was truly a beautiful and moving experience for us. My favorite family that received shoes were these adorable fraternal twins. They were so happy running around with their new pair of shoes until it came time for a picture and they became instantly very serious. Their gaze had such a unique depth to it; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the eyes of a child that young. Their father was so happy and moved by our act of kindness that he expressed a desire to completely reform his life and to come to God. He confessed that he had made poor choices throughout his life and he desperately wanted to make a change for the good of his children. Although our work is not religious in nature, I admired his desire to better himself for his family.

The next day, we again went door to door in Alamar, and it was equally as rewarding to see the children’s faces light up when they received their “shoes that grow.”  After the Alamar donations, we took a colectivo over to Centro Habana where Yeny’s friend, pastor Lester Ly, was waiting for us at a house he had borrowed from a friend, where the donations would be made. Aside from being a pastor, Lester works with needy children from dysfunctional families where the problems range from violence in the home to drug and alcohol abuse. His programs are both developmental and educational in nature, and he helps the children build character and community in a religious setting. Lester was a very gracious and welcoming host to our group, and he explained to us how he wished he could have a central location to conduct his programs in more of a classroom setting. This would help build community among the children, which is an integral element of the programs. Oftentimes, the children don’t really have a place where they feel at home, or can really call home.  We were very moved by this, and Inspire Cuba hopes to help Lester achieve his goal of a central location in the future. At the location he borrowed for the day, Lester had managed to gather approximately 20 children who were all eager to welcome us and receive a pair of shoes. This experience was overwhelmingly the highlight of the trip. We kicked off the donations by playing games with the children. Their favorite was Simon Says, or “Simón Dice,” and I even got to be Simón. Each one of the kids introduced themselves to us, saying their names, their age, and where they were from. Spoiler alert, they were all from Havana! We talked to the children about our organization and our mission, and we sang and danced to music as we put the shoes on their feet. Everyone got shoes; even a little boy who was walking by with a carton of eggs and heard the music got a pair! They were so happy and excited, and the experience was beyond fulfilling for us.  We ended the day with the children forming a circle around us to thank us and say a prayer for us to wish us continued health and success. Many hugs were exchanged, and we said our goodbyes.

In addition to helping Lester purchase a central location from where he can host his enrichment programs, Inspire Cuba plans to deliver the remaining 66 pairs of shoes to Cuba before the end of the year.

Not your stereotypical Cuba

I arrived in the middle of Centro Habana on a hot Monday afternoon its April 23rd at 1 pm. I am greeted by one of our tour guides Moriama , and Maylena the landlord of the casa particular (a Cuban style rental home / Airbnb). They let me know that the others from the trip are in transit from Viñales.

I knew I only had 6 days in Cuba I wanted to go explore and take it all in.

So I dropped off my bags and i began to walk around Havana. I went down Calle Escobar to hit up the Malecón, as I walked up and down the picturesque streets and I was mesmerized by Cuba’s beauty but shocked by the ruin. I sat by the Malecón and contemplated and thanked the universe for this moment. I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, I knew I was about to embark on something totally new and that I have never done before.

I guess when CubaOne, reached out to me a few months back about going on a heritage trip to Cuba with 8 other Cuban Americans, I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting myself into. When I met Rebecca, Victoria, Ceci, Andrew, Danny, Andrei, Joe, and Reuben, I thought it was interesting to meet other Cuban Americans like myself. Very Cuban, but not your stereotypical Cuban. These cats had the Cuban spirit and identified with the culture, but they’re redefining what that means to them.

“La timba no es como ayer”

As I walked around Havana I immediately began my search to find the folklore. I knew that a rumba or a tambor had to be happening close by. I walked around for a few hours never a dull moment. Something’s always happening in Havana either someone dropping a rope with a basket or a plastic bag to save them a trip upstairs or seeing a mechanic fix a car in the middle of the street. Seeing a handyman with his hands full of grease buy a loaf of bread and carry it home, , Or the people shouting from their balconies to the kids playing ball, or the long lines of people waiting for their bus ride home or to take out money from a beat up ATM machine. The sounds are loud and vibrant.

After exploring for a few hours, I hear it from the distance — I can hear the deep bass frequencies of the Iya drum blocks away — I let my intuition guide me to the “Tambor” as I am walking I hear it getting closer and closer and I found the building where these bataleros were playing masterfully. I stood there for a while and listened and tried to soak it all in, but I guess my curiosity rubbed them the wrong way. They stopped playing and closed the blinds of their house and the whole block began to stare at me. The irony, they thought I was a cop? As I hear one them say “La Timba No Es Como Ayer. Tumba”. (Things ain’t like they used to be, so get lost) I began to explore back to my street Concordia. lucky for me, every block in Centro Habana looks the same block, so I totally got lost. I tried to blend in, but I stood out like I had a sign that said Make America Great Again.

I wish somebody gave me a memo that we we’re going to be in the “hood”.

It was an intense awkward feeling being around a bunch of people staring at you. Some have no intentions, some wish you well, some laugh at you, some are plotting to see how they can wrap you into something. But luckily I speak fluent street Cuban, or at least I thought I did!

“No es Facil”

I had to learn how to be still and present,I had to forget about my first world luxuries or desires or demands I had. I had to feel everything that was happening around me, as the days passed I couldn’t shake this conflicting gut-wrenching feeling.

I didn’t know if I should feel happy, sad or both. I couldn’t shake the paranoia.

The conflict within me was I couldn’t ignore how people looked at me. Their daggering sharp looks deeply pierced my soul.

I could feel the deep resentment, sorrow, angst, and frustration. The resentment wasn’t that I am American or a tourist. The resentment was that at the end of the day I would go back to America and they would still be here in Havana struggling.

When you have two heritages that are similar but totally different. You begin to see and understand things about both cultures that most people can’t comprehend. I felt conflicted.

I heard people say “No es facil” or “Es complicado“.

“Si no sabes no te metas”

Ironically The safest I felt was at “El Diablo tun tun” . A rumba club that’s infamously known for being a “hood ass spot”. I went there by myself to see osain del monte. I’m a big Osain del monte fan. I have been listening to them for years so I was particularly excited to see them in action. I was blown away by these cats.

Baddass-ery at its finest. I’ve never heard a rumba like this before. Poly rhythms and syncopation galore.
After the show, I had the opportunity to meet the leader Adonis Panter and the drummers from Osain del Monte, we talked for a while and we all hit it off. They invited me to a beach house for a late night hang. Arriving to the house I could hear the drums roaring from the distance. I was impressed that they played a gig for hours and they’re right back at it. It felt like the Jazz scene of New York, these guys are really about this life,They are messengers of this music and culture. The preservation and the tradition mattered more to them than anything else. I could see the years of study and experience each one them had. All masters of the music.

As the hours passed they ask me If I wanna play. Much like in NYC. If your going to sit in and play you better bring your best or don’t bother because you will be embarrassed. “Si no saves no te metas”.

They say “show me what you got Mister New York”. they gave me a drum and started a fast guarapachangueo. We started jamming. They definitely threw me into the blender and tested my street cred.

Luckily I held my own. We played and sang and fellowshipped together until the sun came out. I felt so free, I felt like I had finally completed my mission and my search. I finally was exposed to what I have been searching for years. I was humbled by their grace and how they preserved and honored these deep traditions. These guys are the real deal.

There is no uber or Lyft in Havana but there definitely is surging. Everybody Is Hustlin’

I say there’s a 50 cent to $5 dollar markup for every street transaction for foreigners. I was overcharged on almost every purchase until I understood the hustle (leave your wallet at home and only have small bills in your pockets).

The deprivation is so real, I lost track of the number of times I was solicited for money, food and prostitution. Even the worker at the deli tried to take me to a brothel. Maylema the landlord charged me for some drinks that I didn’t drink, sold me a box of bootleg Cohibas and stole 3 pairs of my socks.
her family totally exploited that I was and somewhat clueless about intricacies of the day to day In Havana. Much like any one else in Centro Habana would.

How could I blame them? People are desperately trying to survive. Making a mile out of an inch.

Everybody is hustlin’

Double standards

I had a double standard in Cuba.

Sometimes I had to be as Cuban as possible and try to convince people I was a local. Sometimes I would have to be as American as I could.

After days of being hustled, I went into ‘Hotel Parque Central’ but it was alarming. They have the strongest, buffest, scariest looking security guards I’ve ever seen. So I left and went across the street to Hotel Inglaterra so I could finally chill and have a drink and attempt to connect to the bootleg WiFi. After sitting there for a while I couldn’t help but notice the hotel staff lurking and watching to see if there were any locals to kick out.

There’s this weird ranking system in Cuba. There is no delegating, or any democracy whatsoever. So whatever the “MAN” says Goes. Foreigners can pretty much do whatever they please as long as they bring the money. And, the locals generally get treated like trash. It was disheartening to to see the shameless disregard most Americans and foreigners people have for the local Cubans, blinded by the the beauty and the attractions. It was atrociously disappointing.

For every 5 dudes hustling there are 15 living a honest life.

The entrepreneurial spirit boiling in Havana, Being submerged to the innovative nature of the Cuban people was humbling and inspiring.

They are masters of efficiency and innovation,the great Cuban DJ Bjoyce introduced me to a sound engineer at FAC that made a stereo 8th inch cable by cutting up a few cables wiring it together and putting back in its black casing in 15 minutes.

I got to meet the very talented DJ Jigue. His place felt like a basement in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. The walls were covered with hip hop memorabilia, Vinyls everywhere, Congas, Batas, percussion instruments, midi controllers and the delightful smell of nag champa incense.

He hipped me to the complexities of living in Havana. He exposed me to the underground internet system that has hacked into the government network and sells bootlegged credits out of homes in Havana. We walked for blocks trying to find WiFi but most places have sold out of credits.

We hung out almost everyday and listened to music and shared information. One day I asked him would you ever think of leaving and coming to the states ? He said “No. Look I know im poor, I am lucky to travel and see other places a few times a year and i am blessed for that but I am happy here. I don’t have the luxuries that you do I would love WiFi and organic foods but at least here my kids can go to school and I don’t have to worry if some one is come in with a assault rifle and kill everyone, I don’t have to worry about rent, mortgages or bills, and I’m lucky that I can make a living with my art. In my opinion that is success”.

Cuba is a country full of contradictions. There is no black or white as to how it is . Although the disparity is too wide.

This is no la la land, This is la Habana, a city where there is deep pain and suffering but you must suffer in private because “no es facil” and it’s quite complicated.

With Power Succession Underway, CubaOne Urges the U.S. and Cuba to Resume Engagement

MIAMI, FL (April 19, 2018) – CubaOne Foundation, the Miami-based nonprofit with over 7,000 members that connects young Cuban Americans with their families, peers, and heritage in Cuba, issued the following statement today:

We hope today’s succession creates an opportunity for Cuba to move beyond the ideologies of the past and chart a new course. The Cuban people, especially the youth, are hungry for change. They want to be able to start and grow their own businesses; work at jobs that allow them to provide for their families; enjoy a full spectrum of political and economic freedoms; and not have to leave their country to pursue their aspirations. There is no U.S. policy preventing Cuba from helping its people live with dignity and achieve their dreams in Cuba.

Cuba is responsible for deciding its fate, but we believe the United States can play a positive role through engagement. In the 10 months since President Trump announced his Cuba policy in Miami, we have yet to see any progress on the island. Rhetoric, without engagement, is no recipe for change; it is a failed formula for the status-quo that invites bad actors to expand their influence just 90 miles off our shores.

We echo the calls of Cuba’s civil society leaders, the Cuban people, and our community by urging the Trump Administration to begin re-staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Its vacancy is compounding hardship for Cuban and American families, isolates the United States, and limits our country’s ability to promote its values during this critical moment.

Our policies must be forward-looking because the future of Cuba ultimately belongs to millions of people, not any one politician. As the Castro era comes to an end, a new generation–on both shores–is faced with the task of addressing the island’s multitude of challenges and writing a new chapter in our shared history. We should make this journey together.

An Open Letter to Steve King on Emma Gonzalez and the Cuban Flag

Dear Rep. King:

In recent days, you took to social media to describe the Cuban flag as “a communist flag.” The CubaOne Foundation is proud to be a non-partisan and diverse non-profit group with over 7,000 members across the United States. While the ongoing debate over guns falls outside our purview, as one of the largest Cuban American organizations in the country, we feel obligated to respond to your comments.

The Cuban flag has nothing to do with communism. On the contrary, it represents freedom. Poet Jose Marti waved it in his struggle for independence, and it inspired abolitionists, like Carlos Manuel De Cespedes, who liberated thousands from the shackles of slavery. It is the same flag that our parents, grandparents, and many in our community display alongside the stars and stripes as a reminder of their heritage, the land they left behind, and a profound love for the adopted country that protects our God-given rights. It is revered by two million patriotic Americans of Cuban descent who serve our country in the military, corporate board rooms, labor unions, small businesses, police and fire stations, courts of law, science labs, churches, emergency rooms, MLB fields, the halls of Congress, and the West Wing of the White House.

When the Cuban flag was envisioned by Narciso López and then sewn by Emilia Teurbe Toulon in 1849 in New York, they instilled white into it to represent the purity of our ideals, red to symbolize blood and courage, and a triangle to mark our belief in liberty, equality, and fraternity—universal values that we continue to uphold 170 years later. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why three popes, more than a dozen American presidents, and Cubans throughout the world—including young entrepreneurs and pro-democracy activists in Havana, conservative exiles in Miami, and millennials like Emma Gonzalez—have stood to admire her. She was created and raised as a symbol of freedom and noble virtuesher heirs will continue defending her.

We hope that you reconsider this most unfortunate remark.


CubaOne Foundation

Una carta a Steve King sobre la bandera cubana

Estimado Representante King:

Ln días recientes, usted acudió a las redes sociales para referirse a la bandera cubana como “una bandera comunista”. La Fundacion CubaOne se enorgullece en ser una organización no partidista y sin fines de lucro dedicada a conectar a jóvenes norteamericanos con sus familiares, raíces culturales y homólogos en Cuba. Aunque el debate sobre el control de las armas de fuego va más allá de nuestro ámbito, como uno de los mayores grupos cubanoamericanos del país, con mas de 7,000 miembros, nos sentimos obligados a responderle.

La bandera cubana no tiene nada que ver con el comunismo. Al contrario, representa el deseo de vivir libremente. José Martí la alzó en su lucha por la independencia, y fue una fuente de inspiración para abolicionistas como Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, que liberaron a miles de los grilletes de la esclavitud. Es la misma bandera que nuestros padres y abuelos muestran junto a las estrellas y franjas americanas como un recordatorio de su herencia y el profundo amor que sienten por el país que protege nuestros derechos otorgados por Dios. Es venerada por los dos millones de estadounidenses de ascendencia cubana que laboran diariamente en el Ejército, salas de juntas corporativas, sindicatos, pequeñas empresas, tribunales, laboratorios de ciencias, iglesias, salas de emergencia, campos de pelota, los pasillos del Congreso y hasta en la Casa Blanca.

Cuando la bandera cubana fue imaginada por Narciso López y luego cosida por Emilia Teurbe Tolón en 1849 en Nueva York, sembraron en ella el color blanco para representar la pureza de sus ideales, el rojo para simbolizar la sangre y el coraje, y un triángulo que marca la creencia en valores universales como la libertad, la igualdad y la fraternidad. Sabiendo esto, es fácil entender la razón por la cual tres papas, más de una docena de presidentes estadounidenses y todos los cubanos del mundo —desde cuentapropistas y activistas democráticos en La Habana, a exiliados conservadores y jóvenes como Emma González en Miami— se han parado a admirarla. La insignia jamás ha representado a un gobierno. Fue creada y alzada como un símbolo de libertad y las mejores virtudes de un pueblo. Sus herederos continuaremos defendiéndola.

Esperamos que reconsidere su comentario tan desafortunado.


La Fundacion CubaOne


Update: The letter above is solely an explanation of the history and significance of the Cuban flag. We issued the statement as a response to an assertion by Rep. King (or his social media staff) that the Cuban flag is “a communist flag,” which is obviously inaccurate and offensive to many people in our community. In no way does this letter represent an opinion by the CubaOne Foundation on the matter of gun laws, as this topic falls outside the purview of our organization.

Actualización: La carta anterior es únicamente una explicación de la historia y el significado de la bandera cubana. Emitimos la declaración como respuesta a una afirmación del Representante King (o su personal de redes sociales) de que la bandera cubana es “una bandera comunista”, lo que obviamente no es cierto y es ofensivo para muchas personas en nuestra comunidad. De ninguna manera esta carta representa una opinión de la Fundación CubaOne sobre el tema de las leyes de armas, ya que este tema queda fuera del enfoque de nuestra organizacion. 

“I Kind of Want to Go, but My Parents Will Kill Me”

When President Obama opened relations with Cuba, I was angry. I remember exactly where I was as I read the news. Tears streamed down my face as I called my dad. I was confused. I needed to know his opinion before I could formulate my own. This was routine when it came to Cuba. I never knew how to feel about Cuba because I had never been. Cuba was a remote idea—a place where my dad was chauffeured and cared for by nannies. A place he was forced to leave when he was eleven years old. On the flipside, my mom left Cuba when she was two years old. The stories my maternal side of the family has to tell are not as glamorous as those of my father. Her family was poor, and I grew up hearing of my grandfather being jailed several times for his inability to shut his mouth. I heard about the fateful day he wrapped my grandmother’s passport in shiny red paper so that it would stand out in the pile of passports waiting to be seen by the attendant at the embassy. My grandfather begged for my grandmother’s to be pulled because as the pile grew, Miami seemed further and further away.

Despite the disparity in my parents’ socioeconomic statuses in Cuba, the sentiment toward Cuba remained the same on both sides. Growing up, I knew I would never see Cuba. I would never see my father’s childhood home, or his grandfather’s finca. I would never see where my mother was born, or where my grandfather took my grandmother on their first date (chaperoned by my great-grandmother, of course). None of this hurt me, it was just fact. My family would never contribute money to the Cuban government, even if that meant never seeing “home” again. I use the term home loosely, as now both sides of my family affectionately refer to Miami as home. They consider themselves American, not Cuban, and their allegiance is to the United States. My family was disappointed by the newly opened relations with Cuba. I adopted my father’s resentment, hurt, and anger, and decided I would never go to Cuba. That is, until I was invited to go to Havana with my best friend and her brother.

When the news broke that I was going to Cuba, everyone had an opinion. I was nervous. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I had been struggling with an identity crisis for quite some time. As a Cuban American in Miami, you grow up deeply embedded in Cuban culture; but, every time you hear “eso no pasaba en Cuba,” it’s difficult to picture what that Cuba was. I met the opinions I received with understanding and compassion then proceeded to pack my bags and prepare for the trip.

Arriving in Cuba was the first time I experienced people applauding after a landing. It seemed symbolic and tears welled in my eyes as I peered out toward the green fields surrounding the airport. Cue in the surrealism that lasted all five days that I was there. I immediately felt like I was home, but could feel the nerves and fear creeping in. I rushed through customs and out of the airport doors, dying to breathe in Cuba (I was hit with a cloud of 95ºF humidity). I quickly found a taxi and headed toward the hotel.

I got my first glimpses of Cuba while in this taxi. I saw posters featuring Fidel Castro, Fidel entre nosotros. I saw open green fields, decrepit fences, and old buildings. As we got closer to El Vedado, the neighborhood where my hotel was located, the scenery drastically changed. I was surrounded by beautiful mansions, hanging trees, and the University of Havana. The buildings were in poor condition, but the idea of what this neighborhood once was loomed over me. I arrived at el Hotel Nacional and was completely in awe. The hotel opened in 1930, and when you walk in, you can’t help but feel that you’re living in that year. Of course, the first thing I did was walk to the outside bar overlooking el Malecon to get a mojito. I stood there for a while, taking it all in. I couldn’t believe I was actually in Cuba.

The architecture in Havana is incredible. Old Havana resembles Madrid, so much so that I felt like I was in Europe while walking through el Paseo del Prado. Even though the buildings are impressive, the best thing about Cuba is its people. Cubans are among the most hospitable people in the world. It is no secret that they do not have much, and yet they are willing to give you the clothes off their backs. There are friendly faces everywhere you go, and someone is always willing to point you in the right direction. We found ourselves asking strangers for directions all the time. If one person didn’t know, they’d ask another until they figured it out for you. Internet is sparse, so Cubans have their own version of google maps- it works in the form of approaching strangers and asking where places are. People are so genial with each other that it almost seems like all Cubans are friends. Along with being hospitable, Cubans are talented. The music in every single bar is absolutely phenomenal.

My favorite part of visiting Cuba was getting to meet my family. This part of my family hadn’t seen those who emigrated since 1965. I was the first American to come back to Cuba. When Daysi, my grandmother’s cousin, greeted me at the door, we both burst into tears. It was an odd feeling of loving someone you’d never met, knowing that they’ve loved you your whole life even though they had never met you. She quickly guided me through her home, the home that my father lived in as a child. She told me it was my house, to do as I pleased in it, and to make myself comfortable. She wanted to show me everything—including all of my grandmother’s belongings that she had preserved through the years. My paternal grandparents had both passed away by the time I was sixteen, so hearing stories about them and seeing where they lived was particularly meaningful for me. It brought an odd sense of nostalgia, finally being able to see where all of their stories took place. Daysi and her sister, Yola, are the most welcoming people I have ever met. We sat on the balcony of their home, in rocking chairs that once belonged to my grandmother. They told me the neighborhood chisme and stories about their children over some cafecito. There are few times in my life where I’ve felt happier than in that moment. I felt like I was sitting with my grandmother again (except a much cooler version, because Daysi rides a motorcycle!).

The Cuban culture is so strong that I felt like growing up Cuban in Miami prepared me for fitting in just fine in Cuba. I quickly realized that I no longer agreed with the “hardline” attitude of never returning to the island. A taxi driver said, “nos estan ahorcando con las leyes nuevas,” referring to the pending regulations. He explained that Cubans rely on tourism to make money. Without tourism, the Cuban people suffer more. I also realized, after speaking with Daysi, that our families are suffering more with every year that goes by without a visit. Refusing to visit is much deeper than refusing to give money to a communist government.

I explained this to family when I arrived back in Miami, and after my father saw my photographs (specifically our family and his old home), I believe he understood the importance of my trip. The day after I returned, he bought a calling card and spoke with Daysi. Tears welled in his eyes as childhood memories flooded into his mind, and I knew he now had a different understanding of why I wanted to explore my roots, see his childhood home, and meet people who would teach me about my heritage. He was fascinated by my videos of el cañonazo, noting back to times he was able to watch it for himself. My mother and uncle were also fascinated by the tales of my trip, and quickly started planning a trip for themselves.

My first trip to Cuba (I say first because I am confident there will be more) made me fall in love. I fell in love with Cuba- its people, its landscape, its architecture. I felt like I saw so much, yet did not see enough. I can’t wait to go back, hopefully with my family, and share with them the Cuba I now know and love.