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I thought I would cry when I landed at Jose Marti airport. The scent of cigar smoke reminded me of every old Cuban home I’d ever visited. See, I never thought I’d actually go to Cuba. My mom emigrated in 1969 as part of a sponsorship program that allowed Cuban families to legally seek refuge in America. Almost everyone had the intention of going back someday. But that day never came, so we all became Cuban Americans.
I’d bought the tickets in a flash deal from JetBlue. The weekend I left was the same weekend Americans protested the travel ban in major airports. There I was, at a time when refugees were being both insulted and defended, returning to the place where my refugee family came from.
When people fled Cuba in the late ’60s, Castro famously called them worms or “gusanos”. The worms were never to be welcomed back. They were considered less than human, and were to be treated as such. Forever. But, decades later, la hija de los gusanos was visiting for the first time. I felt the weight of that fact as I meandered around Havana. Tourist hotspots were interspersed with local shops and deteriorating apartments. Part of me felt like a regular tourist enamored by the colors and culture. The other part held a secret: I was the daughter of worms, and I was touching the soil.
In my haste to reconnect with family, I hadn’t planned the trip very well. I hadn’t realized how spread out everyone would be. I planned to visit my Tia Ada in Matanzas — whom I didn’t know existed before this trip — on my last day in Cuba. (As I soon learned, it can take as long to get from Havana to Matanzas as it takes to reach Milwaukee from Chicago.) She and I spoke on the phone several times before I came down, catching up on entire lives neither of us knew about.
In Havana, I stayed in a casa particular — essentially, Cuban Airbnb before Airbnb was really a thing (though it is available on Airbnb and definitely my recommendation for anyone traveling to Cuba). Tamara and Victor let me stay in their beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking the bustling Calle Obispo. They were sweet and patient with my first attempts at fully native Spanish. I’ve always fallen back on English when speaking Spanish in America. Now, I was in a Wild West of language. After a while, the three of us got along in decent Spanglish.
I was frustrated I wasn’t better. I was shy about making mistakes in my family’s native tongue, and I could see it saddened my grandparents. There I was, a girl who rarely spoke to them because she was afraid. Afraid of what? Judgement. I’d heard them “tell it like it is” about so many others, making fun of tourists’ bad Spanish, that I was scared they’d make fun of me, too. Mostly, I just listened.
I grew up in a Midwestern town whose motto is “The Home of Proud Americans.” You can probably guess how many minorities lived there when I was growing up, let alone Latinx people. The feeling of being an outsider was terrifying— imagine my horror when my mother attempted to speak Spanish to me in public! Because I didn’t want anyone to know I was different, I suppressed it, which had a hugely negative impact on my Spanish speaking ability.
Still, according to Cubans I met, my Spanish in Cuba was better than most Americans’. As the days passed, my Spanish got stronger and my confidence grew. Multiple people asked if I was Spanish as they tried to determine my accent.
“Cuban American,” I would tell them. “My mother is from here.”
“Oh…then why don’t you speak better?”
That’s the Cuban familiarity I grew up with. Blunt honesty that cuts you like a knife but always means well.
I stayed in Havana to explore the city where my mother lived before she came to America. She’d often point to certain buildings in pictures of Old Havana and say, “That, right there. That looks like the apartment we lived in. Is it the same one?”
I took in the decaying buildings, the colors, the people, the sun. It gave me a new perspective on my family’s refugee story. Mostly because Cuba is beautiful. It’s gorgeous, despite the chipping paint and crumbling brick. It’s all so beautiful there’s no way this was easy for my grandparents to leave. They made this enormous sacrifice that I always somewhat understood, but appreciated so much more as I walked up and down Paseo del Prado watching families and friends gather on gorgeous terrazzo sidewalks. I would think: That used to be them. These are the memories my grandparents have. This is why they get tears in their eyes when they think about la patria.
Despite my Cuban heritage, though, it still felt very foreign. In many ways, visiting Cuba made me feel more American. Internet is not widely available, people wait in hours for lines to do anything and everything (I’ve had many nice conversations with people I met in lines because there’s nothing to do but chat when you might be in a line for two hours) and there is no advertising (only propaganda). It all made me wonder how my mom felt when she came to America, a very foreign place, as a child with no English skills.
I’d promised to visit Tia Ada in Matanzas on my last day. The bus was cheap, but it was sold out when I got to the station. A taxi would be too expensive — after all, Cuba is cash-based and ATMs do not carry American money. I hadn’t budgeted correctly, and I couldn’t ask my extended family for money as no one had anything.
Then I remembered: The Hershey Train! It was supposed to leave from Casablanca (a ferry ride across the bay from Havana) and stop in Arcos de Canasi (which is where my abuela was from) on the way to Matanzas. The catch? It was built in the 1920s and has never been updated. Nearly 100 years old, it’s a relic of the time when Hershey Chocolate built a town and sugar mill in Cuba. Hershey abandoned Cuba after the revolution, but the dilapidated train lives on. It’s known to break down and take twice as long as promised.
When I got to the train station in Casablanca, I called Ada to update her on my plans. She did what all loving Cuban relatives do: Yell at you about how terrible your idea is.
“Es una machina muy mal! No! Toma un taxi a Matanzas — no tren!” It’s so terrible, she said, and it would break down. She made it sound like I would die.
I called my mom. We brainstormed ways to get there (Maybe mom could wire me money? No, only Cuban citizens can be sent American money). Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t make it in time without going broke. Even the ticket agent told me that the train was likely to break down. What kind of salesman has that much honesty?
“It always does,” she told me. “It will take you a long time to get there…but it’s fun.” Perhaps she added that last part after seeing the look on my face.
I called Ada, bracing myself for her heartbreak. I imagined she’d been looking forward to meeting me, to seeing her sister’s face in mine. I expected her to cry as she did when I first called to meet.
But that’s not what happened. She sounded very understanding, happy to hear from me, and calm.
“It’s okay,” she told me sweetly. We promised ourselves there would be a next time. Then she added, “That’s Cuba!”
That’s Cuba. I heard it so often from Cubans and tourists in Havana. “That’s Cuba.” Things don’t work. They don’t go according to plan. It’s often best not to have a plan. I suddenly understood why my grandparents could never held down to a time for family events. Anything can happen, don’t worry so much. That’s the Cuban way.
I spent my last day walking around Casablanca before returning to El Malecon and reading by the sea wall. At this point, I blended in (with the help of my abuela’s gold bangles, which are worn by every little Santerian girl in Cuba). No one catcalled me. A few tourists asked me for directions.
That’s what I loved about visiting Cuba as a Cuban American. It was so foreign, but so familiar. The rhythms felt so similar to those I’d grown up with, even in subtle ways I’d never realized. And the way everyone related to each other — friendly, affectionate, always ready to laugh — was exactly how my big Cuban family always was. I felt so connected to my family there, and to myself.
When I left the following morning, Tamara and Victor gave me a book of Cuban poems. They told me that whenever I return I’m welcome at their house for dinner.
“You are family now,” they wrote to me in a handwritten letter.
So, in a way, I did get to meet my family. They just happened to be new family.