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.