On August 1st, 1962…
Jose Isidoro and Miriam Urbay escaped Cuba on a chalana (flatboat). They sailed for four days until the Coast Guard rescued them and brought them to Florida. At that time, Miriam was 17 years old and four months pregnant. They both left everything behind to seek a life with opportunities in the United States. Those two brave people are my grandparents.
Cuba was a country that I heard endless stories and rants about. A nationality I had proudly represented but one I never truly understood. My family never let me forget where they came from. I was enchanted by Cuba, which seemed to be a forbidden island.
When I had the opportunity, not once but three times to visit the land of my grandparents last summer, I seized my moment.
I received mixed feedback about my trip. Some people were very excited for me; some seemed skeptical. After fleeing, my grandfather vowed never to return until Castro’s regime was no longer in power. I felt a sense of guilt from going back on his vow, I wanted to learn more about where we came from. I wanted to create my own opinions and beliefs. I wanted to become a Cubana instead of a gringa. And if I was lucky, to maybe even connect with long lost relatives.
My first trip to Cuba was this past March with my anthropology class. We flew to Havana from Miami under an educational visa. The trip was strictly guided through Havana’s main attractions. We visited Hemingway’s favorite spots, ate at delicious paladars (restaurants), and learn detail upon detail about the Cuban Revolution. Yet the trip barely scraped the surface of the real Cuba. It was impossible to get out from under the government’s thumb. The experience felt as if it was a Broadway show written by the regime stuck on a broken record machine replaying their achievements of 98% literacy rate and free medical care.
The broken roads are the true streets of Cuba. The beat-up residential five-floor buildings in the barrios (neighborhoods) are the true streets of Cuba. The falling pastel colored buildings of Old Habana are the true streets of Cuba. However, none of this hinders the attitudes of the people I met in Cuba.
Thanks to my intermediate Spanish, I was able to speak openly with many different Cubans who taught me so much about the struggles of living on the island. From teenagers I met on the beach to members of my own family, everyone I met was surprisingly open to talking about their experiences. Many seemed hopeful for the change that may come with the lift of the embargo. However, the reality is Cuba’s future relies on Raul Castro. The people I spoke with expressed their love for their country but they also understood the lack of freedom they are forced to live with. Some also spoke of their plans on escaping the island in hopes of finding a better life. Many of the locals were welcoming, but the caution they have had to adapt was palpable, a weight upon interactions as heavy as the 75% humidity. Still, they were all very open about their feelings on things such as the embargo, the lack of opportunities, and the conditions they live in.
I have been blessed with two Cuban abuelos (grandfathers). During my first time in Cuba, I was lucky enough to meet the family of my grandmother’s husband, one of my abuelos. They met me at the infamous hotel, the Habana Libre. We went to their home in Guanabacoa for a traditional Cuban dinner. When we arrived I met my abuelo’s sister, Silvia, who was 15 during the revolution. We sat on their porch and I listened to her stories, while she chained smoked cigarettes. I took selfies with her grandchildren, and they showed me their family photo albums. We ate arroz con frijoles and Silvia blessed us with a magnificent flan- to this day, its the best flan I have ever tried! The night was filled with laughter, they were open and honest with me in their conversations. They explained that life in Cuba was not easy and things are difficult to endure, but at the end of the day she could not complain because her grandchildren are receiving an education and they all have their health. What more could she ever ask for? I listened and learned as I stitched myself into their family – into my family.
Just like that, I was hooked.
I fell in love with Cuba and the people in it. I fell in love with the rich culture that filled the street. I wanted to know everything I possibly could about Cuban culture.
I returned home, and all I could think talk about was Cuba. My excitement rubbed off. That August my grandmother returned to Cuba, but this time with two generations (my father, mother, brother and I). It was a blessing to have my grandmother as our tour guide and regaling us with stories of the past.
Prior to leaving on our trip, my mother found a letter written in 1998 to my grandfather from his niece. Our goal for this trip was to locate her. To reconnect with family we did not even know still existed.
We took a van from Havana for a five-hour drive to Los Cayos de Santa Maria and stayed at the Las Dunas Resort near Caibarien, the town where my grandfather was born. We piled into a beautiful shiny red almondron (vintage Cuban cars), to the town of Remedios. We found the apartment.
We knocked. No answer.
In seconds, neighbors began peeking out of their homes, asking whom we were searching for. Determined, the neighbors began to search the barrio (neighborhood) for my grandfather’s niece. Two hours of searching later, we had found her. It was as if I saw a ghost. “That’s her”, I yelped. She stared at my grandmother confused, unsure who she was. My grandmother reminded her of the uncle , the one who used to bring her dolls from Habana, and just like that her eye popped open and she said my grandmother’s name : “Miriam!” After all these years, my grandmother was reunited with my grandfather’s niece. It had been over 53 years since they last saw each other. There was not a dry eye in sight.
We entered her home, and saw that she only had two chairs and a beat-up fridge. Seeing this pained me. It me think of what life would have been like if my grandparents had stayed in Caibarien.
I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was ecstatic over the reunion and finding another puzzle piece to my family’s history but those emotions were also accompanied with a melancholy haze. Reality of the difficulty that many Cubans faced over decades set in when I met my cousin. Families had been separated, people disappeared, and some forced to leave the only place they loved. A pain I will never truly understand.
Upon our return to Havana, I met my cousin’s son, who is a talented musician. We hit it off and partied throughout Havana together, catching up on lost time. Having only known each other for few days it seemed as if we knew each other for our whole lives. We clicked, and still try to talk once every week.
This trip with my family was an extremely gratifying experience. No words will ever express how grateful I am to have such courageous grandparents, who were willing to risk their lives to give their family a fighting chance. After this trip, I felt closer to my grandparents and my culture. I felt wiser about my Cuban heritage, and the reality of life in Cuba.