My Tía (aunt) Felita, 82, had two words when I told her I was going on my first trip to Cuba.
"Good luck," said my great-aunt, who left her homeland in 1968.
Tía Felita refuses to return. It's the place where she talks of surviving on food rationing, dwindling down to just 79 pounds. To her, it's where she lost her freedom.
Tía Felita's hopes for change are tattered with skepticism. “It’s still very bad over there,” she said.
“Did you hear about Castro’s funeral?” my great aunt chuckled. “The jeep that was taking the ashes broke down on the highway – can you imagine? If that doesn’t tell you something, no sé qué [I don’t know what will.]”
My abuelos, or grandparents, came to New York in 1946. They continued to visit their family in Cuba and their families came to visit them. But after 1960, traveling between the two nations came to a bitter halt.
My abuelos had warm stories about growing up in Cuba, but they rarely talked about losing their friends, family and everything they once knew.
But my mother, who was born here in the U.S., had wanted to go for years and visit her parents’ homeland. She said this was our time, the time to take this leap of faith on a direct flight to Havana and meet her mother’s family, hoping they’d want to meet us too. We planned our trip and invited my mother's sister, my tía Terri.
When the day came for our departure, I was overwhelmed with nerves and excitement and the suspense of not knowing what would be waiting. As we approached José Martí International Airport, I looked out the airplane window to see nothing but white puffy clouds and a tiny glimpse of the land below. I was in CUBA.
Stepping off the plane, the air in the jet bridge was heavy with humidity and the aroma of tobacco. The arrivals hall was filled with families embracing one another for what seemed like the very first time.
I glanced at the arrivals board: Paris. Madrid. Santo Domingo and Panama City. Cuba boasted an influx of 4 million tourists last year in 2016. With the additional flights and cruises out of Miami expanding to more ports in Cuba like Cienfuegos and Santiago, those numbers are expected to grow.
As we anxiously moved through the crowd, we heard a voice call to my mother “Jacqueline! Prima!” My mother, tears swelling in her eyes, clutched her heart as she tightly hugged her primos, Arsenio and Xiomara.
Meeting the family: strangers no more
We drove off in a black 1950 Chevrolet. I rolled down the cracked window that was held together by tape. I wanted to feel the wind on my face, I wanted to smell the sweet, warm air as I twirled my grandmother’s gold anniversary ring around my finger.
The rugged streets were lined with uniform, pale-colored houses. I noticed some locals waiting at a bus stop - no smartphone in sight – while others dashed into the street to snatch coconuts that had just fallen from a 20-foot tall palm tree.
When we finally arrived at our destination, Miramar Playa, Arsenio opened up the iron-gated entrance door to a living room filled with expectant faces. Everyone started talking all at once to steal our attention. The adrenaline of new relatives showering us with hugs and kisses and loud chatter about whom I resembled most in our family left me shaking my head in disbelief. This moment would define our trip.
Prima Xiomara gave me a glass of ponche, a Cuban drink made with milk, eggs, and rum that I often drank with my abuela on cold winter nights, and I felt right at home.
There was Isidro, who worked at a coffee plant and didn’t look a day older than 45, even though he was over 70 years old. Arsenio, his younger brother, couldn’t contain his excitement when I gave him a salvavida [lifesaver candy.] He hadn’t had one since his childhood when mi abuelo used to visit and bring batches of American sweets.
Xiomara, who talks muy rápido [very fast] recently swapped her home in Santiago with another family from Havana so she could live closer to her children. Irene was the opposite – shy and quiet, yet sincere. Her husband had passed away recently.
Piecing our family together
We spent hours huddled around the kitchen table rummaging through old photographs while prima Xiomara helped Tía Terri piece together the ever-expanding family tree on paper, which was now going off the page. We were doing this while sipping on cafecitos and nibbling on crema de coco (coconut cream) and queso made from the cows grazing in their yard.
All of the memories, images, and emotions swirled around the room like a rhythmic salsa dance. Arsenio told me my great grandmother’s wooden home in Soledad was falling apart so it had to be torn down. This was the home mi abuela grew up in with her eight other siblings, the home she told me so many stories about.
The more I talked to mis primos and watched them, the more I saw my abuela in them – her eyes, her voice, her mannerisms. They each had a different part of her.
Tears welled up in Arsenio’s eyes when he talked about how his mother and mi abuela were inseparable. Mi abuela, while dating my abuelo, introduced her sister to his best friend – the four of them instantly bonded and they all wed. Everyone began teasing Arsenio as more tears rolled down his face. “We’ve always been an emotional family,” my mother said. “Nosotros somos iguales [we are the same,]” Arsenio agreed while wiping his cheeks.
Regarding politics, I noticed that the pro and anti-Castro sentiment in my family was never discussed. My abuela’s legendary brother Santiago was killed in 1957 at age 34. When I asked my primos more about his death they all had different accounts of what happened that fateful night. Was he out later than the curfew and shot in the field running home? Or was he specifically targeted – shot when he got out of his car one night because he was on the anti-communist watch-list?
Regardless of whether Santiago was “innocent” or in fact had acted against the government, it didn’t matter in the end. He was killed. And my great grandmother was permanently branded as the “madre of an infidel.” I will never know the truth. No one wanted to talk Cuban politics, of course. No one wanted to talk about Fidel Castro or his death, how things have changed or haven’t changed. It’s unspoken. They’d rather discuss the United States' newly elected President Donald Trump or about the diplomatic strain with the U.S and whether U.S. relations will continue to move forward or revert back.
The last night: meeting my generation
Just when I thought I mastered everyone’s name, more relatives arrived at Xiomara’s house and I had to start remembering names again from the beginning.
The table was decorated beautifully with an abundance of all my favorite dishes: yucca con ajo, (yucca with garlic), ensalada de pimientos y remolachas, (red pepper and beet salad) flan and my abuela’s famously flavorful arroz con pollo, the rice and chicken dish I hadn’t tasted in nearly 10 years.
On this last night I met my third cousins, my generation, and that’s when everything I had been experiencing in Cuba made sense.
I finally felt like I was part of the family.
Ailin, Sergey, Daniel, and Raul are all in their mid-20s and 30s. Between their broken English and my imperfect Spanish we were able to communicate. What do you say to cousins you’ve never met before after living a pretty full life already? However, we clicked right away and talked about everything from our childhood to what we are doing now.
Daniel, 31, traveled 16 hours from rural Santiago in a cramped bus with his mother just to meet my mother, Tía Terri and me. He brought a full personal album of photos throughout the last 30 years, including his own baby photos and a picture of his mother’s sonogram – he was so excited to show me who he was and who he is now.
Ailin, who everyone said looked like me, recently married her boyfriend of eight years and is moving out to her own home. Sergey, her older brother, who has a respectable government job working in I.T. in the defense department, expressed doubt about supporting his family. He has a seven-year-old son. “I only make 25 dollars a month. I don’t know why. I don’t understand it,” he said as he fiddled with his flip phone.
I asked him if he ever wanted to come to the United States to live or simply to visit. “I always hoped to go, but I know it will never happen, prima.” Ailin just wanted to know what it was like to see snow.
Ailin said, “You know, my mother was looking forward to this day for so long. Para conocer a tu mamá" (to get to know your mother). Sergey said his mother Xiomara always wished we could have grown up together. “No importa,” it doesn't matter, he said, ”porque estamos juntos ahora." He was right; it didn't matter, since we were together now.
I sat in the wooden rocking chair on their front patio and thought about how we missed out on all those years. I was just so excited to know them.
But our lives are so different. We live a different grind. To think if it wasn’t for the pivotal break in relations between our countries so long ago, our families would have been visiting each other with no problems or restrictions, just as mis abuelos visited them in the 40s and 50s.
A brighter future and realizations
Toilet paper is scarce, napkins are considered luxuries and the tourism boom is causing a food shortage, which makes it difficult for Cubans to enjoy certain foods while abiding the strict monthly food allotments per family.
Cuban families make everything last – from their cars, to their furniture, to the clothes on their backs. Smartphones are rare and the Internet is extremely limited with Wi-Fi spots few and far between. Those who are lucky, like mi primo Sergey, might have access at work, but even then the connection is poor and sites are government censored.
Cubans get information by word of mouth, or through the nine television channels, newspaper clippings friends bring back from other countries or by way of “el programa” – a black market of flash drives containing wide-ranging information illegally downloaded from the internet.
Cuba has not been frozen in time as they say, but more like stunted – you can see it in their crumbling buildings and dated structures. Yet my primos and I, grew up doing the same things, having the same values and following the same Cuban customs like eating 12 grapes at New Years and celebrating Three Kings Day with day-long fiestas.
My family in Cuba lives a minimalist life. It's a life of sharing, eating together and simply being close to one another.
For years, mis primos had a yearning to talk to us and to know us. We were their missing piece. We were finally rebuilding our family that was once broken up, separated like the Berlin Wall – but not as intense – and rebuilding it 71 years after my abuelos first came to the United States.
Hopefully old wounds can heal and perhaps travel between both our countries will continue on.
I only met a small portion of my abuela’s family but on my next trip I hope to meet the rest. What’s the one word I came back with? It's the one my primo Sergey said to me: “Juntos.”
Juntos para siempre. Together forever.
Devyn Rafols-Nuñez is an associate producer at NBC Nightly News.