I was born in the small town of Guantanamo, Cuba. Long before the town became known for the notorious prison, my mom's family settled from Spain. My dad hails from the other tip of the island, from a teeny tiny town called Keebayracha. Their lives intersected in Havana and things happened very quickly -- they fell in love, my mom got pregnant, and my dad received an exit Visa for America...within a week, our futures were sealed and forever entwined...they married and my dad was off to the land of freedom and opportunity. My mom returned to Guantanamo to await my birth and plan their reunion.
It wasn't until shortly before my 2nd birthday, days before Christmas of '68, that my mom and I entered the States on political asylum -- it was then I finally met my father. In the years following, like most children of Cuban exiles, my parents taught me to love my homeland from a distance -- its beauty, splendor, and the wonder of a time gone by.
In the summer of 2001, I returned to the motherland to experience the country and people for myself, and to see what all the commotion was about...it was equally magical, eyeopening, inspiring, and heartbreaking. I met my father's siblings, their children, and their children's children. They were warm and welcoming; talking quickly, loudly over each other in our unique oh-so-Cuban style; they shared their lives and their stories in an attempt to compress 30+ years of life into a mere 7 days.
I saw my beloved country through their eyes, their struggles, their pain. I realized I could be one of them -- my parents chose a different path for an attempt at a better life. Who's to say whose life is better? What I know for sure is that I am "such" an American...and I am grateful to this country for taking me in. My ideals, my view of the world, even the way I carry myself and speak...nearly everything about me has been shaped by my experiences as an American. And yet, the Cuban in me is alive and kicking, and utterly undeniable. Marrying these two cultures is one of the best things to ever happen to me.
When I returned chock full of my own stories and with newfound perspective, I begged and pleaded with my parents to visit for themselves...by now, it had been 35 years since my dad's exodus. After my mom's passing in February '06, my dad couldn't use her illness as an excuse anymore and I was at it again. It was a constant point of contention between us -- I was convinced dad would first be diagnosed with some horrific form of cancer or have a stroke in the middle of the night before this life-changing homecoming came to pass.
Because of the significant hardships of living under a communist dictatorship, my dad was adamant about returning to visit his family as a pseudo Mr. Moneybags to dole out everything from medicine, to undergarments, to food, to cold hard cash -- he would return only if he could be a hero in their eyes, and not just some ex-patriot. I was incredulous dad wouldn't go when things had finally eased up enough to allow some travel to visit family -- it had been more than 40 years since he'd seen his 2 brothers and one sister...a lifetime, really.
But my persistence was to pay off. This past year, my dad was awarded a very modest settlement as part of a class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry for my mom's death from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. When his check arrived, I urged and pleaded with him to use the funds to go to Cuba. Much to my surprise, my 75 year old father who lives off social security started the long arduous process of getting a Visa, a passport, and other nonsense to travel to what seems like the end of the universe, but is quite literally, little more than 100 miles away.
All of a sudden, he had his passport in hand and was raring to go...he purchased the first ticket available which had him leaving in a little more than a week. He was a nervous wreck -- we talked to family, we exchanged emails with information about their needs, their clothing sizes, etc., we shopped and shopped and shopped...we packed and weighed his bag until the wee hours of the night the day before his flight -- all of us incredulous that this was finally, truly happening!
On April 23, my father set foot in Havana for the first time in nearly 43 years. He was welcomed by my favorite uncle, Jose Antonio, a spunky little 80 year old man, and my dear, beloved cousin, Jose Alberto (who got me drunk off Cuba libres and danced with me at Hemingway's "El Papa" nightclub in Havana). The rest is history. Dad was reunited with his three siblings and a huge extended family. Dad has been recalling the experience in pieces, and shys away anytime he gets teary eyed which is often. My guess is the experience was nearly more than he could handle. But, he is better because of it...and now both he and I can die a happy death with one huge dream fulfilled. By the way, he's already making plans for his next visit.
Below are just a few pics of his trip. The first is Havana Harbour, the next is dad with Jose Antonio and his son, Alberto. Next, dad is pictured with his brothers, Jose Antonio on his left and Cervando on his right. The last is of dad with Jose Antonio's family.