Growing up in NYC, I used to hear all my friends talk about upcoming trips to “their country” during school breaks. I never had that luxury.
We could never go back.
My mother was born in Havana Cuba in the 1960’s. Our family, a rather large one, originated from Camagüey on the eastern side of the island. As we all (should) know by now, 1959 was the year of the Cuban revolution when Castro came into power. He changed a lot of things which forced my family and many others to leave Cuba in a haste.
My family was able to take refuge in Madrid, Spain for a few years before they were approved to come to the United States. (Still to this day I️ wonder why New York and not sunny Miami with all my Cuban peeps!). Even 1,343 miles away the island was always present at home, albeit omnipresent.
All my life I have had a connection and loyalty to a land I never knew. Yet, that didn’t make me less of what I am. My childhood was filled with Ropa Vieja and Rumba, Croquetas and Celia Cruz, por supuesto. I carry the pride of my ancestors and the land which gave my mother life. Cuba had been within me without ever having step foot on the island.
With my family feigning indifference in ever returning, I️ made it my life’s mission to return for the sake of my mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins who had spend the last 30+ years away from their homeland. As I️ planned my route through Mexico or the Dominican Republic, good Ol’ Prez Obama decided to make my dreams a reality by opening up relations with the Castros. I️ bought my ticket and cried my eyes out.
The moment I️ saw land, I️ broke down in tears. I️ realized I️ was looking through my mothers eyes as a child, taking her last look at her island. The plane touched down and I️ lost it, I️ was finally home.
Traveling around the island was an eye-opening and honestly shocking experience I️ had been blessed to have traveled to quite a few countries in Cuba, including third world and less fortunate areas of the world. For some reason, Cuba is different.
First off, it was not as “poor” as U.S. media often portrays the island. Yes, the majority of Cuban people are poor from our standards. They do not have much, everyday items are still rationed in stores, and the government really does control a lot. However I️ was not prepared to see Mercedes Benz, Audi, or even Hyundai. I️ also was not prepared to unwillingly give up french fries. Probably one of the toughest parts of the trip! Kidding, but I️ did see a guy on the side of the rod selling a sack of potatoes for $50 CUC. Tempting.
The lack of freedom is evident in Cuba. That’s something that hit me hard, especially when I️ saw how difficult obtaining toilet paper was for residents of the island. Seriously, something as necessary in the States like toilet paper is rationed and difficult to find at times. But Cubans are resilient, and truly make the best of any situation because no matter what, life goes on. Como dice la Reina:
“Ay, no hay que llorar
Que la vida es un carnaval
Y es más bello vivir cantando”
The BEST part? Meeting my family of course. I️ was able to connect with cousins from Havana who invited me to share with them in their Cuban-Chinese restaurant. I️ also traveled to Camagüey to meet my grandmother’s family, which was very emotional. I️ met family who were raised with my grandmother, and who hadn’t been able to locate her in years. It was amazing connecting and learning from their experiences on the island.
I️ feel extremely blessed to not only have been able to make that first trip, but that I️ have been able to return to the island since then. I️t’s an incredible feeling to be so comfortable in a place one barely knows, but Cuba will always be home. Even though my family may not be able to travel there, and the family left on the island can’t visit the States, I️ feel proud to be able to be the piece that connects both.