by Natasha Riveron; illustration by Kelsey Skordal
When asked of my ethnicity, I always boldly fill in the bubble next to Hispanic. I’m Cuban. Half Cuban. I’m a first-generation half Cuban-American. I fiercely cling to that, railing against my exterior appearance of generic, white brunette girl with curly hair and glasses. I have been drinking coffee and moving my hips to Afro-Cuban beats ever since I can remember. I am proud of my culture, full of warm, gregarious people, famous for its music, cigars and alcoholic beverages. Like many Cubans, whether they have ever been on the island or not, Cuba has always been part of me, a landscape for my imagination and a cultural grounding for my identity.
My father was born just outside of Havana in 1956 and when he was five-years-old, he watched from his bedroom window as a fighter jet crashed to the ground during the Bay of Pigs invasion. The story of my family’s escape from the island is my favorite childhood story, and it was almost mythic for my cousins and me.
My grandfather forged his papers to say that he was a schoolteacher, because, as a doctor, he was not allowed to leave the island. While waiting in line at the airport, my grandmother and grandfather realized that there were discrepancies. He looked to my grandmother and said some words that have been echoed for decades on my family’s lips: “If they stop me, don’t look back. Take the children and don’t look back.”
He made it through, but that flight left an indelible mark on the Riveron family’s psyche.
There has always been a sense of yearning and sadness surrounding the forbidden paradise that lays just 90 miles from the southernmost point of the United States. In my imagination, I vividly constructed this colorful paradise, full of the warmest and most generous people. This was where my grandparents fell in love, where their hearts still yearned to be until the day they died. This was the wonderful Land of Oz. My family had been stuck in bleary Kansas, always telling stories about what lay beyond the rainbow.
I never saw the island until this past spring break. My father first visited in 2013 and, since then, he has returned at least twice a year. The first time he went he was overflowing with stories when he came home: the warmth, the good and terrible memories he continued to uncover from his childhood, the oppressive state, the crumbling city and the love he felt for the people who had to stay there. He wanted us to visit as a family since his first trip, and this spring break ended up being the opportune time. I was finally old enough, and the Obama administration’s pursuit of more open relations with Cuba spurred my father to quickly act in fear of the changes that could come with an influx of Americans. It was only a 45-minute flight from Miami International Airport, but I was leaping across a gap that had been cut into the hearts of my closest family members.
Once I saw that island through the misty clouds, I pressed my face to the window. Tears welled up in my eyes. I woke up my cousin and jammed my finger against the window. “There it is!” I thought about my grandmother, so frail and beautiful, how I was seeing her beloved homeland that she had not seen for over 50 years and refused to ever see again because she feared what it had become. I thought about all the mourning, all the loss and the people who had been forced to leave that beautiful patch of green in a sea of blue. I was completely overwhelmed, and I looked to my dad as I nervously chuckled through sniffles. He gazed back at me with a knowing gaze and a small, melancholy smile.
“I cannot wait to see it through your eyes,” he said.
I thought I was finally going to find sure footing in my family’s story. I thought that I would find a piece of something that would make me feel more wholly myself. I thought the curl of my hair and my passable textbook Spanish could connect me to the land and her people. It wasn’t that easy. The experience was just as sad as it was beautiful, as uncomfortable as it was exhilarating.
Cuba and her people were everything I had ever imagined and better, but there was a desolation and darkness that contrasted the generosity of the people and the abundance of the natural landscape. I was shocked by the beautiful yet poverty-stricken surroundings. Havana, the country’s capital, is famous for streets of colonial style buildings, a slew of ‘50s cars and a salty ocean breeze that permeates every corner. It had been the equivalent of Vegas before the revolution, a luxurious vacation destination with a booming economy. The newest cars were showing up on the island just as quickly as they did on American streets. On my second day, I was walking by a honeysuckle-yellow building with Corinthian columns when my uncle told me that my grandmother’s favorite store used to be inside. I looked through a shutter and saw blue sky above a pile of rubble.
That’s what all of Cuba was: this thin glamorous crust that could be chipped away to reveal a rotting interior. When I climbed to the top of the old Bacardi office building, the second-tallest building in the city, I could see everything that was concealed by those exteriors. It was destroyed. It was rubble. This intense contrast was everywhere, unabashedly left for anyone to see if they were willing to look beyond their hotel or charming taxi. If they were willing to look at what lay behind what they wanted to see. Next to the five-star Saratoga hotel, there were collapsing apartment complexes housing more than a dozen families. Even the country’s capitol building was surrounded by abandoned construction projects and buildings that were barely standing. If you asked the cab drivers about their education, you may find out that they are doctors or engineers who earn more driving you to your destination than when they work in their learned profession. Everything seemed upside down.
Police stopped us three times during our first night in Havana when we were with our Cuban friend, Juniel. Beyond the fact that my family is white and he is black, Juniel has this distinctive demeanor that only a native Cuban has. He moves like the ocean, a constant, relaxed pace with sloping shoulders and wide steps that show his air of confidence in the bustle of the big city. He is constantly smoking cigarettes, lighting them from the burning cigarettes of other Cubans he meets on the street after they greet each other like brothers. He once said, “You can light all of Havana with one cigarette.”
It became fairly routine for the policemen, who were posted on every block, to stop him, ask him for his identification and hassle him about what he was doing. Even after my father and uncle joined the conversation, making it very clear that we were family friends, it still took another 15 minutes for the officer to back off. As we walked away my dad shook his head and said, “Tasha, this is normal. They don’t want Cubans mingling with the tourists. Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? You would think they would try to protect their own people.”
When we were following Juniel in our own car, a policeman pulled him over and we pulled directly behind him. Rolling down the window, my uncle asked what was going on. The policeman tried to wave us on.
“No, we’re with him.”
The officer glanced over at his partner, surprised that the tourists could speak such good Spanish.
My uncle asked “What is wrong here?” We already knew the answer.
“This doesn’t look like nothing. What did he do?”
“Then why did you stop him?”
With a shrug, the officer moved toward Juniel’s car, mumbling. A few minutes later we were able to move on.
We told this story to another Cuban who seemed unsurprised. “Policemen have to eat too.” Bribes. They were all looking for bribes.
My extended family and friends welcomed me with kisses that were incomprehensible. I knew how much that generosity could dip into their meager incomes. I could not shake this deep sense of guilt because they were stuck here, and I had a passport that gave me freedom.
Cuba is a totalitarian state, with a single newspaper and slew of propaganda-filled billboards echoing a 50 year-old song praising the triumphant revolution. The smiling faces on those billboards look over crumbling homes and fields of wild, fertile land that was cultivated 50 years ago.
The Cuban people are prisoners, struggling to survive under the oppressive weight of the communist state. I am not. I am not even tied to the island by any close blood relations. I am lucky enough to be part of a family that had enough money and knowledge to get out when they realized Fidel Castro was not just taking political power, but taking everything for the communist revolution. They could not have imagined what I saw 50 years later. It would have broken their hearts.
In the United States, even the most terrifying, radical politician could not create destruction that matches what the Cuban people have experienced. When I set eyes on the land of my family’s stories, I saw that it was marred by the weight of 50 years of tyranny. It turned out not to be the home I dreamt of, nor the place that my grandparents had known and loved. When I saw the Cuban people, I saw my uncles, aunts and cousins. But I could not connect to or understand their lives completely. I couldn’t shake the guilt of knowing I will never have to endure the suffering that they have.
It was the best gift my dad could have given me. It was a trip I always dreamed of and it ended up shattering what I used to think was a stable place for me to stand. He had told me about everything I ended up seeing in Cuba, but no truth is as poignant as it is when you come face-to-face with it. My mind still throbs with confusion.
All I know is this: My sincerest hope is to see a free Cuba, where the people, who are even more beautiful than the land, can make their home. That will be the place I want it to be. For now, I will continue to call those people my own, treasuring the culture we share. That is home. No physical place, no matter how lovely, could capture the soul that I feel in a Cuban home, with the kisses of greeting, the smell of cigars, the lilt of jokes in Spanish and the swing of hips to music.
I feel guilty, perhaps a form of survivor’s guilt, if that’s possible. That’s how my uncle described it, too: this tremendous weight of guilt that smacks you as your plane takes off for Miami, as you leave all of your people behind.