Cuba: A journey into the past charts a course toward the future

Classic car on the Malecón in Havana, 2015.

Havana, Cuba 1948 -

Angel García Méndez, a skilled mason who emigrated to Cuba from Spain with his wife, Maria Josefa Cardoso Hernández, sets out to build a house for his daughter Anastasia, his sister-in-law Isabel, and her husband José. On a plot of land near an airstrip on the outskirts of Havana, he first constructs a small studio from which they’ll live over the course of the next four years while he builds the house. It was a collective labor of love — every family member contributed — Angel earned money from odd jobs and construction work, Maria from washing and ironing clothes, and Anastasia from teaching and seamstress work.

One by one, he assembles cement cinder blocks alongside limestone columns, each carefully cut in the style of his homeland. He designs a simple abode reminiscent of the homes of western Spain. A small and modest kitchen opens into a back patio, an area for family to gather together and celebrate. Two bedrooms are adjoined by a tiny bathroom, which will one day be shared by its future inhabitants.

In 1952, they move in, and a few years later, welcome into the world a son, whom they name Marcelino Luciano.

Angel García Méndez, and his wife, Maria Josefa Cardoso Hernández, circa 1925.

Havana, Cuba 2015 -

Last month, as part of an effort by the Aspen Institute’s Global Alliances program and the Richardson Center, Incúbate, the first ever incubator between Cuban entrepreneurs and American counterparts, was born. The purpose of our mission was to connect, collaborate, and share insights from entrepreneurs in the technology, hospitality, and sustainability sectors. The opportunity to participate in this inaugural mission was brought to life together with The Flow Collective, Contagious, and my company, Uncorked Studios. We established the foundation of a program that we’ll continue to build upon next year, one that revealed a universality of designers, of makers, and of entrepreneurs. Though those titles are nascent in a changing Cuba, the attributes and tendencies of those motivated by a purpose larger than themselves spans generations. I had dozens of personally and professionally enlightening moments on the trip, but I wanted to share one that rose far above the rest.

Incúbate participants checking in.

Havana, Cuba, December 31st 1958 -

The sound and energy of New Year’s Eve fireworks and festivities mask the underlying tension in the air. A group of revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara, has battled toward Havana, building momentum and supporters against a puppet government supported by mob bosses and American business interests. Tourists partying in the Havana Hilton will soon find themselves surrounded by bearded revolutionaries of the 26th of July Movement, who raid the casinos and the cabarets with celebratory fanfare. In a suburban home, Marcelino Luciano is told by his parents to huddle on the ground. Those aren’t fireworks overhead — they’re bullets sprayed from machine guns, fired after the fleeing dictator Fulgencio Batista, who barely escapes from an airfield in Camp Columbia, a fortified stronghold nestled against a residential neighborhood.

The highlighted Campo de Aviación is where Camp Columbia was located. Source

Portland, Oregon, October 20th 2015 -

My father sends me an introductory email to Manolo Cardoso Triana, my second cousin on my grandmother’s side. Manolo and my dad reconnected a few years prior when Manolo had visited the United States. Bearing a Spanish passport, he isn’t bound by the same travel restrictions as other Cubans. Manolo wrote back immediately and we agreed to coordinate a meeting once I landed in Havana.

I had always known that we had distant cousins in Cuba, and I remembered my grandmother talking about them when I was young. But in my move from South Florida to Portland, Oregon, I lost the connection to my past. When I got married, and experienced my family together, I was inspired to reconnect past with present (and one day my children’s future) and sat down with my grandma and mapped out her family tree as far as she could remember. Her mother, Maria Josefa Cardoso Hernández, was the oldest of seven siblings. Her father, Angel García Méndez, also had seven siblings. In a few weeks, I would be sitting down with two of my grandma’s maternal cousins. It felt like I was about to unlock a map in a videogame, one that intertwined personal family narratives with geopolitical history.

Havana, September 1960 -

Marcelino Alvarez Pire, now in his final year of studies at the University of Havana, realizes that the revolution had expanded beyond its initial purpose of ridding a country of its corrupt dictator and his mafia ties. Having been asked to put his family’s construction business at the employ of the newly established state without compensation, he takes to his college newspaper to voice his criticism. He labels the new government a socialist regime, long before those words had been used in an official capacity. Little did he know then that his essay would impact the narrative thread of his lineage for generations to come.

A few weeks later his father, Naval Lieutenant Marcelino Alvarez Herrera, receives a call from a colleague. His son and namesake has been placed on the blacklist, a euphemism for an assassination list. He needed to get him out of the country immediately.

The young architect delivers the news to his wife. They make arrangements to leave, booking tickets on a flight to Miami. He tells each of his sons to pack a couple of items, that they were heading on a trip. Almost six years old, Marcelino Luciano Alvarez carefully weighs the decision of what to bring. He places a few objects in a family duffle bag, which is later smuggled out of the country by boat and brought to them in Miami. They say goodbye to the family dog, Golfo, and head to the Havana airport.

At the airport, the Marcelino Alvarez Pire leans to his wife and says, “We need to split up. If I don’t make it on the airplane, I’ll find a way to get to you. You must leave with the kids.” They head their separate ways, each navigating the tiny concourse full of armed revolutionary soldiers, passing each with incredible trepidation.

They board the Cubana flight bound for Miami. The cabin doors close. Everyone on the plane, mostly Cuban families, breathes a collective sigh of relief. Just as the plane is about to pull away from the jet bridge, the doors open once again. Two revolutionaries enter the plane, each carrying a semi-automatic rifle. They’re looking for someone, carefully eyeing each passenger as they make their way toward the back of the plane. They stop in front of the Alvarez family, seated across both sides of the aisle. After a brief moment, they grab the woman seated in front of Marcelino Alvarez Pire and drag her by her hair off the plane as she kicks and screams. The doors close. Everyone sits in silence. The plane leaves Cuba, and many, who had planned on only leaving for a short time, never return.

Wedding of Anastasia Garcia Cardoso and Marcelino Alvarez Pire. December 14, 1951.

Havana, October 28th, 2015 -

I call Manolo from my room at the Hotel Nacional. It’s worth briefly noting that the Hotel Nacional is the home of the famous scene in The Godfather Part II, where the mob met to lay down the plans for their empire. In real life, this meeting took place in 1946, led by Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Lansky had aligned himself with Batista, making sure that he received a take from the profits of their hotel casinos. In return, the two of them were granted nearly free reign on the development of new hotels, which hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, a young Jack Kennedy, and an array of Hollywood b-list celebrities.

This week, the hotel hosted the Italian president and an entourage of economic advisors, as well as the Hollywood actor Dylan McDermott. So we settled for the room right next door to Lucky and Meyer’s suite, across from where Old Blue Eyes once laid his head.

The connection was spotty, but Manolo picks up. We plan on meeting Thursday afternoon. All of a sudden, trip got way more real. Up to that point, I had kept my expectations low, not knowing if either of our schedules would allow for us to meet. Part of me had also been focused on the workshop we were leading, which at this point, had concluded. So this became my new focus, one that I hadn’t really prepared for emotionally.

Hotel Nacional at dawn.

Orlando, Florida, November 1st, 1983 -

Angel García Méndez has grown old. His health is failing, but he still enjoys smoking Cohibas and playing dominoes. Maria, his wife of nearly sixty years passed, and the dominoes and the stories keep him distracted. The house he built for his daughter is now his, the walls reminding him of his life’s work, his legacy, the grandkids he never knew.

His daughter has returned to bring him to the United States. It has been almost 25 years since she left, and almost five years since he’s seen her. For him this journey means leaving the house he built, the walls and details he labored over. He realizes he won’t get a chance to repair the leak in the foyer roof, or paint those exterior walls again. He’s saddened, though he recognizes it’s time. He leaves the house to his wife’s aunts and cousin Sara Mora Cardoso. His cousin’s son, Manolo Cardoso Triana, will also move in later and will carry on the work that he had begun. He will never see Cuba again.

In Orlando, Angel moves in with his daughter, who lives a couple houses away from his grandson and his young family. Marcelino Luciano Alvarez now has two sons, Marcelino Juan Alvarez and Arnaldo Luis Alvarez, who is born on the same day that he arrives in the United States.

On long walks through his new neighborhood, he sees cookie-cutter homes missing the craft he mastered long ago. Angel’s hands, worn from a lifetime of shaping stone, are now frail. Instead of buildings, he creates delicate origami butterflies to share with his great grandsons. He finishes those walks with a cigar, a Dominican knock-off, a compromise due to the long-standing embargo. He lives long enough to learn that the young family will soon welcome a daughter, but he never meets her. On March 25th, 1985, at the age of eighty-five, Angel passes.

Angel García Méndez with his grandson, his spouse, and great-grandsons. January 1984.

Havana Cuba, October 29th, 2015 -

I take a cab from the Hotel Nacional and ask the driver to take me to the address I screenshotted from an email Manolo sent me. A few days prior, I sat in a cafe in Miami with my grandmother and my father, with Google Maps loaded up on my phone. We tried to make out the details from the blurry satellite image. In my mind, I tried to construct the image of the house. I knew it was next to an airfield, and across the street from a cold storage building.

Marcelino Luciano Alvarez with his mom, Anastasia García Cardoso. Miami 2015.

Fifteen minutes later, we pull up to the house, just a few homes away from a large green field. I can’t see the actual airfield, but I’m certain that this is it. The house is in remarkably good shape, recently painted bright yellow. The homes on either side are crumbling. The cold storage facility is now adorned with military markings and soldiers pace outside the loading area. The airfield is now a training facility for the Cuban army. I try not to draw any attention, thinking of the backpack full of camera equipment that I have on me.

Manolo greets me at the front of the house. I give him a hug, feeling connected to a past I’d never known. He’s 64, only a few years older than my father. He leads me inside, where I meet Sara, my grandma’s other cousin. She’s 87, and though frail with Parkinson’s, her eyes are fiery. She cracks a joke about my beard. I say that it’s in style in Portland, and she says, “It was once in style here too.”

The house that Angel built.

They offer me a seat next in the living room area, where after a bit of small talk about why I’m in Cuba, I share a video I’d recorded of my grandmother in Miami. In it, she tearfully asks that they welcome me into their home, and lets them know that she is well and hopes they are too. Sara has a hard time hearing; Manolo helps fill in the gaps. Next, I share photos from my wedding. They remark that Tata (nickname for my grandma) looks good, and the my grandfather also looks great.

Manolo then offers to show me the house. As we walk into the bedroom, he points out that this is the room my father was born in. Though my dad would later contradict this account of his birth (he was born in a hospital), this was the room that he grew up in. This was the room where he and his family hid on New Year’s Eve in 1958, trying to avoid stray bullets as Batista retreated to Camp Columbia and fled to the Dominican Republic.

Bedroom that Marcelino Luciano Alvarez grew up in.

Manolo shows me the kitchen and the back patio, and points out where he connected the original apartment my great-grandfather Angel built to live in while he worked on the house. He had to connect it to the main house to avoid having it confiscated by the government. They would have put another family in there otherwise.

Upstairs, the studio where my grandmother sewed and my grandfather drew his architectural renderings has been turned into a small apartment. This room had recently served as Manolo’s son’s home until 2012, when he moved to the United States with his girlfriend. Now, it holds several clothing racks full of T-shirts and baby outfits, a side business that helps Manolo make ends meet.

We head back to the dining room, where Sara has opened up a box of photos. She prepared a few photos for me in anticipation of my visit. “I’m going to show you your grandmother like you’ve never seen her before,” she says. I set up a GoPro to record her taking me through the photos, inspired in part by the realization that I would likely forget aspects of the conversation otherwise. With the camera set up, she proceeds to show me photos from my parent’s wedding, which my grandmother had brought in 1983. She asks about various family members, and in a few instances I’m ashamed that I didn’t know whether they were still alive. She keeps confusing me with my father, saying “I keep wanting to call you Marcelino Luciano, because I never saw your dad as an adult. But I know you’re not him.” I feel the tears begin to form. Manolo brings me a cafe Cubano and some water. I try not to spill either of them on the photos.

Sara Mora Cardoso and Marcelino Juan Alvarez look at his parent’s wedding photo. Havana, 2015.

She pulls out a photo of my grandmother in a flamenco dress. She proudly states that this was the dress that landed my grandfather at the Havana Yacht Club. My grandmother had sewn it herself. I see photos of her first communion, in festive dresses, and of her wedding. She then shows me a photo of my dad’s dog, Golfo. “Tell your father that this dog lived a very good life, and that he missed him until the end.” Tears flow.

Anastasia García Cardoso in her flamenco dress.

She keeps confusing me with my dad, and she keeps catching herself and starts getting frustrated. We make it through all the photos, at this point, I’m impressed I haven’t ruined them all with our tears. It’s a tale of a family ripped apart by history, and a reconnection nearly six decades from the original fissure. I see photos of my grandparents smiling, of my great-great-grandmother at Manolo’s birthday. My father and my uncle stand at the edge of a table as he blows out a candle.

Back row, left to right: Sara Mora Cardoso, Manolo Cardoso, Bela Cardoso, Angel García Méndez. Front row: Golfo the dog, Isabel Cardoso, Augustina Cardoso.

Manolo then offers to show me some photos of his son Manolito and his girlfriend. A few years ago, Manolito decided to move to Georgia. He abandoned his studies in engineering, and after living illegally in the US for some time, was now working for a lawyer in a suburb of Atlanta. He loads up the digital photos on his TV, and takes me through a few scenes he captured on his visit. One in particular stood out. He had taken photos at a Costco, including a video of Manolito holding a package of two-dozen hamburger buns against a wall of hamburger buns. Manolo tells me that he had to record this, that no one would have believed him otherwise.

Manolo’s Sixth Birthday. From left to right: Miguel Angel Alvarez, Isabel Cardoso Hernández, Marcelino Luciano Alvarez, Maria Isabel Cardoso Triana, Augustina Cardoso Hernández, Anastasia Hernandez (my great-great grandmother), Manolo Cardoso Triana. Havana 1957.

I take a look at my watch and notice my time with them is running out. I really don’t want to leave. I want to stay and learn more. In reflecting upon our afternoon together, I am glad to be there but saddened that my family has fallen out of touch over the last few years. I realize that I need to come back. Sara asks if she can show me the neighbor’s house. We walk out and she points out the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor is Carmen, daughter of Ida, and she is now ill. Ida always asked about my grandma, she says. “Take a photo of me looking at Ida’s garden, tell Tata that she always asked about her.”

Sara points out the neighbor’s yard.

We take a photo together. I pray that this isn’t the last time I see her. I wipe away the tears, take a few photos of the front of the house (hoping the military personnel across the street don’t see anything). Before I leave, I ask Sara to record a message back to my grandmother. She expresses her gratitude and joy in having met me, and begs her to call her sometime, “at least once a year” she implores. I fight back the tears and try to keep the phone steady.

Sara Mora Cardoso and Marcelino Juan Alvarez. Havana, 2015.

Manolo offers me a ride back. He’s converted the master bedroom into a garage, something he had to do to keep his car from getting stolen. “It doesn’t look like much, but it’s done well for me,” he says. We head out, and he drives me through back roads that haven’t been a part of my tour thus far. Along the way, he takes me via a different route than how I came to their house. I see more poverty, stray dogs, and people huddling around wifi zones. I imagine a Cuba that was, and a Cuba that might have been.

Manolo Cardoso Triana. Havana, 2015.

He wants me to see more of Cuba. He asks me to come back, to spend more than a few hours with them. He’ll show me Cuba, show me the countryside. I happily oblige. Next April or May I say. We pull up to the Hotel Nacional and begin saying our goodbyes. I give him some decals from my workshop. No idea why, I think the meaning is lost on both of us. He hands me a business card in his wife’s name of the rental property she has. We make some small talk for a bit. I’m pretty sure I got picked up and tailed by an informant here, but that’s a story for another blog post.

I wonder to myself what would have happened if my grandfather hadn’t made it out, if I’d been born there, who would I have been?

I’m torn about the conflict and the opportunity. On one end, I feel like I’m betraying the trust of those who left (either by their own will or against it). On the other hand, I strongly believe that engaging in a dialogue is better than sitting out from a conversation. And in between, I see family members torn apart by the two poles.

Back in Miami, I share the photos with my dad and my grandmother. I relay the messages from Sara and Manolo. Through tears we talk about Cuba, about politics, and about family. A few days later, my grandmother calls Sara and speaks with her for the first time in several years.

Sara Mora Cardoso. Havana, 2015.

My grandmother won’t go back to Cuba. The last time she was there, when she brought her father back to Orlando, Cuban guards at the airport made her strip naked to search her. She vowed to never return. I see conflict in my father’s eyes. He’s promised my grandmother that he won’t return either, and though I try to relay the angst of our family in Cuba, I’m fairly certain he won’t break that promise while she’s still alive.

One thing that is certain — the drive to connect and to build, whether it’s personal histories or products, family photos or mobile apps, hugs or handshakes — is universal.

For me, this was an unanticipated connection to a past I had rarely thought about. I will return, and when I do, I’ll continue to forge connections and share stories of past and present with my family. I hope that through the efforts of organizations like the Aspen Institute, that the discourse between Cuba and the US will change to a point where my father chooses to return without hesitation. Only time will tell.

José Martí International Airport. Havana, 2015.

Interested in learning more about Incúbate? Click here to learn more about our recent adventure.