When I was a child, I would ask my parents and grandparents questions about Cuba, or as they called it, “La Isla Bonita.” They talked about how this island was by far the most gorgeous place to live, with its rich culture and pristine beaches.
In 1959, Fidel Castro came into power and established Cuba as a communist state. In 1961, both sets of my grandparents feared economic changes and loss of their political freedoms, so they defected to the United States and left all they had behind. Decisions were made fast. My mother was just 7 years old when her parents sent her, alone, on a plane to live in America with her aunt and uncle. Six months later, they were reunited in Newark, New Jersey, where they started their lives over. A few years later, they moved to south Florida, where I was born. For my entire life, I’ve heard the stories of the hardships they endured in order for our family to live freely.
Due to temporarily lifted sanctions, last August my family had the chance — 56 years after they fled Cuba — to return. I joined my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — 21 of us in total — on a once-in-a-lifetime journey back to our heritage.
Havana is like entering a time machine where everything is stuck in the 1950s. Antique cars, vivid walls, and eclectic architecture meet beaches with sand like fine, white sugar. Steeped in poverty, Cuban homes look like they’re ready to crumble. There are no supermarkets and few places to connect to Wi-Fi. Cubans receive only six eggs per person per month. Yet they are the happiest people I’ve ever met.
One of the places we were scheduled to visit was my grandfather’s childhood home in a tiny village called La Sierrita. I asked my brother, “Do you really think it is worth the three-hour bus drive for us to go out there, and is it possible that our 87-year-old grandfather will not remember where it is?” He responded, “It’s a must.”
We drove out to the mountains in anticipation. Along the way, my grandfather told stories of his life there, while searching for a double-peak mountain that he claimed would direct him to his home. His memories came back to him in a flash. “I remember falling off my donkey here at 7 years old and breaking my head,” he said, pointing to his scalp. We get closer. “OK, here, I remember this, see this building?” he said, pointing to a structure that had mostly collapsed. “I had my first beer here.”
We all thought it would take forever to find his home, and we braced ourselves to be very patient. We also knew we were taking our chances, and he may not be able to locate the actual house. But we were mistaken. “OK,” he said to our bus driver. “Make a left here and a right, and my house should be right here somewhere. Please pull over, I need to get out.”
All 20 of us walked out behind him, and as he chatted with the locals, his memory led him to the exact house. A sweet old man opened the door with a cheerful smile, and my grandfather immediately recognized the original tile floors, with their pattern of starburst flowers in shades of burgundy and green. My grandfather pointed to a spot where his chickens used to be, and to our surprise, there were chickens there now, as if they’d never left. As we stood outside to take a family photo, a cowboy rode by on his horse, straight out of an old film.
For 32 years of my life, I tried to picture what this village looked like. My grandfather refused to go back to Cuba while Castro was still in power. The older my grandparents got, the less realistic it seemed that I would get to experience this journey with them.
Standing in a part of Cuba that most tourists will never visit, breathing in the air of the countryside, seeing children walk around shirtless made me reflect on my life. The simplicity combined with their beaming smiles put a new perspective on how I view our lives in America. To this day, I can’t get the thought out of my head: What if my family had never left Cuba?
I feel blessed to have visited Cuba with my family — especially before the brief window of opportunity closed again. But this trip was not about individuals, or governments, or even the places we saw. It was a love story and a history lesson about sacrifice; it was about the fight for freedom and the powers of a united family.