We found my mother’s childhood home, a duplex in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana, intact and in good shape, at least from the outside. I never expected to see it—and I don’t think my mami ever did, either. Our trip was 55 years in the making. I dreamed about visiting Cuba my entire childhood and mostly believed it would never happen. But this past Mother’s Day, I flew back to the motherland.
While we were standing there, my mother struck up a conversation with a man who exited through the gate. They talked about neighbors, and who used to live where, but the snippet from that conversation that stands out the most was when he told her: “The best thing your parents ever did was leave.”
For most Cuban-Americans in the U.S., especially those like my mami who left in the early 1960s, the relationship with Cuba has been a nostalgic and complicated one. Many Cuban-Americans embrace the identity, the culture, and the community of exiles in the U.S., but most reject any engagement with the place today. Choosing to visit the place where, just a generation ago, your family’s lives were buried or stolen is a heavy proposition.
When President Obama announced the reinstatement of diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, it was my first time grappling, in public, with the intense feelings that this veritable homeland brings. And while the trip we took was not facilitated by the changes set in motion by Obama’s speech, it was the first steps toward claiming my own relationship with Cuba, apart from the legacy of my parents. On Wednesday, those familiar feelings came flooding back as JetBlue became the first commercial American airline flight to land in Cuba in 50 years.
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Both sides of my family considered Cuba home, and both fled in the early ‘60s after the Castro government began nationalizing businesses and schools. My father’s side—wealthy, large-business owning people of Spanish descent—left very early, almost as soon as the revolution happened. They escaped to Miami via boat, taking more of their possessions than those who left later. But all of their property, business, home and money stayed behind. My mother’s parents—middle-class Jewish refugees who arrived in Cuba in the 1920s fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia—stayed longer, waiting out the changes before my grandfather finally resigned himself to the terrible fate of abandoning his adopted home and his beloved clothing store.
My mother left Cuba on September 5th, 1961. She and her older sister Betty were sent to stay in Miami with relatives. Their parents decided to send the girls ahead because of a rumor about children over 12 being recruited into the youth army and sent to cut sugar cane in the campo. For nine months, a time my mother has always described as some of the hardest of her life, they lived with relatives in Miami as their parents waited and tended their small clothing store. When my grandparents finally left, they could only bring three changes of clothing each. Her parents, along with their two other daughters, joined my mother in Miami, where they both died decades later.
My mother’s mother never saw the streets of Havana again, but now, here we were, hands clasped tightly as my first views of the island took shape. I was never as attached to my mother as she was to hers, but I knew that if I ever visited Cuba, my first trip needed to be with her.
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As soon as I arrived in Cuba, I disappeared into Spanish. I journaled incessantly and fell into only speaking Spanish with my mother. I wrote in the language I spoke first, but quickly rejected at my North Carolina elementary school, where I was one of just a few Latino kids. I wrote about what it felt like to visit a country I’d dreamed of my entire life: what the air smelled like, what the frogs and crickets sounded like at night. I wrote with surprise about feeling drawn to this place, about planning my return visit with Latina friends.
Of course, in the months since my visit, people constantly ask me about my trip. It’s hard to sum up such a monumental experience in cocktail party sound-bites. But what I can say is this: Cuba is not “frozen in time,” as a July New York Times op-ed headline posited. Cuba is not “waiting for the change.” Cuba is, and always has been, a place in flux, a place that is at once deteriorating and developing, advancing and standing still.
It’s a country of contradictions. Crumbling apartment buildings sit next to billion dollar hotel developments. Yes, old cars are still running from the ‘50s, but there are even more cars built in the decades since. Flags and Che Guevara portraits dot the city, but everyone I talked with disparaged the political situation, described the apathy of the young people and the challenges of getting by with so little. It’s a poor country, but I saw almost no destitute poverty—very few people begging, no one sleeping in the streets—things that are common occurrences in my life in Washington, D.C. and all across Latin America.
There’s a reason that so much of my experience in Cuba was a connection to the earth, the trees, the wind, the sun: It’s the only part of the island that isn’t mired in the murky, complicated political questions that I don’t feel equipped to weigh in on. It’s the only part of the island that might be somewhat like what the landscape was when my family lived there. It might be my only claim to home.
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It would be easy and poetic to say that visiting Cuba for the first time was a homecoming, that the questions that have shaped my entire life—Where do I belong? Where is my place? Am I Cuban? Am I American?—were finally answered with Old Havana as the backdrop.
But life, and especially diaspora, immigration and exile, are never easy. I felt an ease in Havana, but every moment of connection was tainted with my family’s loss. Instead, Havana just added more questions: Would my late grandparents be upset to know I went back before the Castro regime had fallen? Would they be angry that some of the money I spent during my week there went to the government, who owns almost all of the businesses? Do I belong here at all? There’s a betrayal in visiting. My father, who will likely never return, asked me not to tell him about the trip. My mother justified her internal quandaries by deciding to go when an academic conference about the Cuban-Jewish community gave her an excuse to return without simply being a tourist.
We spent one day of our trip driving around Havana with Agustín, a retired economics professor introduced to us by someone at the travel agency. He was closer to my mother’s age and remembered Havana pre-revolution. While everyone likes to fixate on the things that haven’t changed in Cuba in the last 50 years, certain things have been purposely remade, like the names of many of the streets. We were armed only with addresses from my paternal grandmother’s residency paperwork and my mother’s memories.
But my mother’s 55-year-old memories could only guide us so far. We spent the day traversing the city in Agustín’s meticulously maintained 1950s-era car, trying to find family homes and businesses. We couldn’t find my maternal great-grandmother’s home, or my father’s childhood home, because of the street name changes. But we found my mother’s father’s clothing store—or at least the corner in Central Havana where it had once been. In its place was a shell of a building, walls all but gone, with a turtle graffitied on the inside, the floor covered with trash. The only sign that anything had ever been there was the sight of what was probably the ceiling of the apartment above the store, with beautiful orange paint and a light fixture still hanging there.
My mother had always talked about the marble on the floor of the store, with the words “La Defensa” imprinted on it, and how that must remain after all these years. But nothing remains. As the decades continued, when Cubans had access to no building materials, abandoned shops were stripped of everything—even La Defensa.
Even though I’ve now been to Cuba, it hasn’t actually gotten easier to navigate the fact that so many more of my peers will be able to engage with this complicated place as tourism becomes commonplace. Part of me wants Cuba to remain frozen in time—at least in my world—so that I don’t have to grapple with the realities of my family’s loss, the mark that exile and diaspora has left on my generation of cousins, most of whom don’t speak Spanish, hesitate to identify as Latino, and have lost touch with so much of our history.
But there is no right answer in this situation. There is no relationship to Cuba that will rectify all that my family lost, but I know that not having a relationship with Cuba won’t rectify it either. I have no idea what it will look like, but this Cuba is mine, in the smallest and deepest of ways, and I’m grateful to begin building this new relationship.
Miriam Zoila Pérez is a Cuban-American writer and activist with a low-key bachata obsession. She's the Gender Columnist at Colorlines, the founder of Radical Doula and the co-host of Radio Menea, a Latinx music podcast.