Memorias de mi Cuba

[learn_more caption=”What’s New”] The pictures on this page were taken by my parents during their trip to Cuba with my brother in 2002. The last time I visited Cuba was in 1995, twelve years after my departure in 1983. I lived with my parents in Costa Rica several months before being able to fly to Newark International in 1984 during a terrible blizzard. My grandparents on my mother’s side were able to join us shortly after our arrival in the US. They lived in Panama for a while and managed to smuggle themselves (illegally) in a truck past the border. At that point they were able to claim assylum. My grandmother on my father’s side continues to travel to Cuba on a yearly basis and her suitcases continue to conjure up an image of the US as the land of plenty. She was in Cuba last month and brought us home made desserts. That was a treat. My godfather and his family were able to leave Cuba and they are currently living in Ecuador. Aside from that, everyone else is still in Cuba, still struggling. [/learn_more]

Every so often I find myself going to Amazon.com and browsing through Cuban books. I end up clicking on every “Look Inside” book and enlarge every picture. Every so often I feel such a longing when I look at these pictures on my screen. It is strange that I feel such a connection to all things Cuban even after twenty years of having left my soil. Apparently I wasn’t young enough to forget entirely.

I was nine years old, a fourth grader when the government officials in olive green uniforms showed up at our house to inventory all of our belongings three months before our departure. I felt so afraid that day that I hid and cried. I remember so clearly. Guards walked the perimeter of our house writing down every single thing that we owned including the rusty tricycle in the tall grass, it’s aqua paint chipped in so many places; its wheels lopsided and old. In three month’s time the guards would return to inventory the same old things again. We were told that if anything was missing, anything at all, that we would not be allowed to leave the country. It was all about fear and intimidation, but for me, a nine year old, it was much simpler than that: I would be leaving everything familiar behind including the old tricycle.

Everything I knew was about to change. I was leaving my grandmother who had practically raised me. I was never going to be able to run in the fields, or ride the horse again, I wasn’t going to have that magical play place amongst the pines and orchards again, I wasn’t ever going to look up at the same stars again, or pick flowers at twilight for my mother again. I wasn’t ever going to see my school friends again. Nothing would ever be like it was ever again. Worse of all, I had no mental picture, no idea of what or where we would be going.

Every time my grandmother visited from the United Sates we would all gather round as she opened the suitcases. The year revolved around her arrival not Christmas or New Year’s or birthdays. And so, my only image of the United States was a loaded suitcase of perfumed clothes, chicklets, chocolate bars and Colgate toothpaste that we ate like candy. Other than these suitcases and her stories about this street called Bergenline and the fact that she was always very happy when she visited, I knew nothing else. She said that at night there were so many lights that it was like daylight.

“When the sun rises, it rises for everyone.”
(Cuban Proverb)

I didn’t want to go, to say that I did would be a lie, but I believed in my father. I believed that he would keep me safe. I trusted him to make things OK and I knew that I could always stick my head in his chest and hide in his shirt. That was the safest place I knew and as long as he was with me I would be OK. The day we left was so hard. The last few minutes in front of the house as the car waited for us was one of the most difficult moments of my life. The afternoon was glorious and bright sunshine and a cool breeze stirred every last leaf of the mamoncillo tree. I was wearing a bright pink polyester pant suit that my mom had sown, my hair was cut into a bowl cut like a boy and I was wearing white shoes. I remember distinctly the cracked and uneven cement as I looked down at my hands for an eternity.

My mother and my grandmother embraced. They didn’t want to let go; they didn’t know if they would ever see each other again. My father’s parents had left when he was eighteen along with his sister. He was scared but he didn’t cry. I did. I cried and cried and kept crying as we rode away. I will never forget the look on my grandmother’s face as we left–such pain to see us go. I have this picture in my mind of the side of the house, of the garden my father had planted, of the front yard and the avocado tree and the porch as we drove by slowly along the dirt road. This picture will forever remain my home, the one and only home of my childhood dreams. I was so happy there, so incredibly happy.

These pictures, taken by Americans, Italians and German journalists of Cuba speak to my soul. I don’t care if they are glamorized or setup. Every picture strikes a chord of longing that can only be quenched by going back. With all my heart and soul I want to go back, like every other Cuban in the world, but the consequences are too great. I am not American and yet I am not Cuban. I am something in between but I find that the odds are not even. I am much more Cuban than I am American. I am too keenly aware that my childhood memories of 1984 do not match the reality that is life from day to day in Cuba, but that does not stop me from feeling irreversibly Cuban.

Eventually, I say to myself, it will change. This is the hope that keeps us going. I have traveled quite a bit but I have never found a place that fulfills my soul like the sight of la Playa de Jibacoa. Some part of me lives on, separated, stranded on those cliffs that overlook the ocean where crystal clear waters caress the powdery white sand. I don’t know if someone other than a Cuban could truly feel these things and although a lot of the snapshots are compelling in these photo books, it certainly takes more than a couple of years and a lot of exposed film to feel what I feel when I look at them. I can live through the work of Andrew Moore and Hans Engels but the question is can they?

I think about my brother’s childhood growing up in a small apartment in West New York and I wish I could impart upon him a few of my memories growing up–the raspy voice of the rooster early in the morning when every blade of grass shines like diamonds from the dew drops, the gentle sway of the palma real, yagua rides down grassy knolls, drinking juice from sugar cane, taking the trains to Hershey and Casa Blanca, seeing the river flood and the thunder crackle at our doorstep, going to El Punto for a loaf of bread, chopping down a rasca barriga for a Christmas tree and decorating it with cotton balls and fifty year old ornaments, eating at El Potin, getting ice cream at Copelia, seeing the sun set and the sky ablaze in a million colors, counting stars, waiting eagerly for abuela to set the table and my father to come home from a hard day’s work, watching as my mother knitted socks for all of us as we tried in vain to position the old antenna so we could catch glimpses of the Incredible Hulk and American television.

I think we are doing the right thing as a people. We are working hard and striving towards an education. One million of us have left the island and with each passing year the questions deepen. One generation remembers the way things were while another has no memory. In my dreams I see my father going back, building a house on the beach and all of us having big dinners underneath the porch. I see myself going back too although I don’t know when.