Voices: In Cuba, a life-changing reunion

My mom’s Ecuadorian and my dad’s Cuban — well, kind of Spanish too…He was born there but, you know, fled to Spain. I guess you can just call me Hispanic.”

For the past 23 years of my life, that’s what a typical introduction to my culture sounded like. Because of multiple visits, I’d always felt connected to the Ecuadorian part of me. If you asked me about Cuba, all I could say is I didn’t know much other than the fact that my dad was born in 1959 — the year of La Revolución —  and packed his bags to move to Spain where he would meet the rest of his family.  All this changed after embarking on the inaugural CubaOne trip to the mysterious island; and for me, it was the first time I would be able to meet my paternal grandmother.

For half a century, many Cubans — my father included — refused to return to the island they once called home. For me, Cuba wasn’t just a place I hadn’t traveled to, yet, but a missing piece in my family’s history.

My mother’s side of her ‘American Dream’ story is easy to tell. As a single mom in the early ’90s, she applied for U.S. residency and packed her bags to move with my older sister. She went from being a teacher to being a decorator and worked endlessly to build a life for her household. My father’s side of the story was made up of the bits and pieces I could gather through family discussions or his one-off rants about why he left Cuba.

He was born in the cusp of the Cuban Revolution. His brother, Roberto Calveiro, was involved in the 1980 Canimar River Massacre in which a group of young Cubans attempted to hijack an excursion boat with intentions to escape to Miami. After the Cuban government captured the boat and incarcerated his 15-year-old brother, my father fled to Madrid. He ultimately made his way to Miami to seek political refuge; he worked there in the tourism industry.

Despite being on the side of Cuban Americans who didn’t want diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, I always was curious about what it would be like to visit. I didn’t want to go sit on a beach; I was seeking a path that would give me a 360° view of Cuba, while allowing me to build connections with my peers on the island. Scrolling through my social media networks, I found the answer: this program by millennials and for millennials with a mission to take Cuban Americans on the trip of a lifetime.

CubaOne Foundation offers a new generation of Cuban Americans the opportunity to give back to Cuba, build relationships with the Cuban people and explore their heritage through high-impact trips to the island.

Fast-forward two months and I’m walking off a charter plane into José Martí International Airport. The trip took us through picture-perfect foliage in Pinar del Rio, a convertible tour of La Habana landmarks, people-to-people connections in off-the-tourist-path neighborhoods like Regla. On the third day, I took a trip to the concrete suburb of Alamar to meet my grandmother for the first time.

We shared photos, conversations and, of course, a delicious Cuban meal together. Getting to know her was definitely like finding a missing puzzle piece in my dad’s story and finally being able to put it together to complete my story.

Before meeting her I had just finished a walking tour of La Habana Vieja, where we saw a sharp contrast between the tourist-facing zones and the residential alleys where things were in less than average condition. When I stepped out the vehicle in my grandmother’s neighborhood, I was devastated to see that her living conditions, too, were nowhere near perfect. Because of this, my first tough question to her was “why did you stay?” Her answer was similar to the other locals’ answers: this is my home, this is my community and, though things could always be better, it is mine and this is where I want to remain.

She talked to me a lot about food shortages, and less about issues with the Cuban government — my expectation of where her complaints would lie. It made me realize that I wasn’t coming to Cuba with an open mind; I was coming with an American mind. If I didn’t start looking at this trip with an open mind, I would never learn about Cuba today. If you ask me what I think about Cuba now, I’d say it’s a symbol of resilience. .

Since returning, an interesting shift has happened. I went from trying to stay out of the complicated Cuba conversation to being armed with a personal experience on the island that would help engage in dialogue between the two cultures.

Cubans may have lost their voice, jobs, homes and, for some people, their families, but they work hard to make up for it by transforming their communities into brotherhoods. I’ve never seen neighbors and strangers care and support each other more than the Cuban people.

Though I went with intentions to connect with my grandmother and father’s side of the story, my visit to Cuba was like being welcomed into one giant, 11 million people-size familia.

Calveiro is a New York-based publicist and writer. Originally published in USA Today.