Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hearts Buried in Cuba

This is the beginning of the book that I will finish writing. I sent this into a writing competition. I lost. Well, let's say I didn't win. But it's ok. It got me started on one of the most important journeys of my life, a journey I always wanted to travel but never even got around to packing my bags for...until now.

Sitting at a Cuban restaurant, celebrating my anniversary with Mike, I could not have realized that my own Mecca of self-discovery and family was unfolding. As we waited for our meal ofvaca frita and platanos maduros, the restaurant was alive with sounds of a duo band playing near the table. Then, it grew silent. An old lady, “corto” like un espresso that looked like my “abuelita,” was escorted to a seat with the band. We were told that she was the owner’s mother and that she would be performing a Cuban classic. As the band began to play, the song sounded like a familiar lullaby that I’d heard many times. And then she sang:

Nunca podré morirme, ((Never will I be able to die)
mi corazón no lo tengo aquí… (I do not have my heart here…)
Cuando salí de Cuba, (When I left Cuba)
dejé mi vida, (I left my life)
dejé mi amor (I left my love)
Cuando salí de Cuba (When I left Cuba)
dejé enterrado mi corazón (I left buried my heart)

My eyes wet with tears, my throat dry, I watched this fragile abuela singing to a country that escaped her. She missed it. You could see it in her eyes that sang a song to a place long lost to her; a place she would never get back even if she physically returned. Her song reminded me of so many sadnesses sung by my relatives through stories and memories. My mind wandered, as it often does, to thoughts of how many Cubans hold these same feelings of los.

It took me back to my own mother’s story of when she left Cuba. “Family in Cuba wasn’t just the nuclear family, ees all the grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, y ‘fulano.’ Primos aren’t couseens that joo saw on holeedays – they were who joo were raised weet – joor best friends. Tia isn’t just joor aunt, she’s joor role model and caregiver.”

So when my mother had to leave Cuba, she wasn’t just leaving her country, she was leaving her heart.

“At that time, when you left Cuba, joo where leafing forever. There was no ‘goin back.’ I felt like we where enterando la familia entera – burying the whole family.”

Maybe it’s because of these stories that so many children of Cuban exiles feel a type of nostalgia for a place they’ve never set foot, a homeland completely foreign to them. Maybe this nostalgia is why for so long I have felt as though I was Cuban by name but not by rite. I have always been proud to grow up a Cuban American, but there has always been a disconnect, with a pull so strong to this country that I have often felt like maybe, in a previous life, I also grew up aCuban in America. How undeniable is the bond between heart and country that the nostalgia in the exiles is so strong that their kids feel the connection decades later?

There was only one way to find out. I had to go – not just to discover my roots but to dig them up.

As the wheels of the small plane land on the runway of this mysterious island, I am in a dream-like fog thinking only one word… “finally.” Generations of stories ran through my veins at that moment resurfacing like an old floor and tiling themselves in my mind like a new mosaic, piecing together a past - dating generations back - with my present. It’s quite an uncanny feeling to land somewhere completely foreign but already feel home.

Looking out of the airplane window at my first view of Cuba, I was saddened at all the people I couldn’t share this with. My parents weren’t with me to share the experience. It was something I had dreamed of for so long but, because of complications, my choice was either coming without them or not coming at all. I had thought about giving up on the idea and doing it “another time” but after the sudden death of my primo/hermano (cousin/brother), I thought about advice my mom had given often, “Mija, en life there are no guarantees.”My abuelita, on my father’s side, was no longer with us and though she had many times yelled about the Castro regime and her non-existent interest in going back, I know she would have been proud of me.

Minutes away from touching Cuban soil for the first time, I was proud to be able to physically put a face with a name. Cuba would no longer be an elusive idea, but rather a place with streets and corners and history that I don’t have to read about or be told about. I was, however, also very afraid that I might not live up to being “Cuban.”

I had so many questions that needed answers:

Would I be the runt of the litter that grew up with all the same values and culture but just didn’t fit in?

Would who I was be clearer because of this place?

Would my Spanish be Cuban enough?

Would I stick out like an all-American hotdog at a pig roast?

As I stepped off the plane and entered the first section of the airport, which reminded me more of a holding room, I noticed the workers with masks on their faces as if avoiding an epidemic. It wasn’t until after I filled out the arrival card that I realized they were all on high alert from catching any outside disease being brought in, in this case, the swine flu. I could hear my mom’s voice now, “What good is free healthcare when you have no medicine?”My mom loved her old country, but like many that left because of la revolucion, she is disheartened with what has become of it.

When I was allowed through the holding area and into the main section of the airport, I gathered my suitcase and myself. The suitcase was enormous for my 4-day stay and to the untrained eye, many might think I was a high maintenance girl, but to the trained Cuban eye, they know that 98% of what I’m bringing to Cuba is staying in Cuba. Calzoncillos (underwear) for Barbarita, perfume for Yulisa, zapaticos (little shoes) for Ernestico. I wheeled my 50-pound bag to the bathroom where my stories of Cuba would come in handy. Stories of what to expect in Cuba for an American girl used to American amenities were abundant (and offensive at times), but having heard them prepared me to handle life here without such amenities. So I was not really surprised to find that the bathroom attendant was rationing out toilet paper and even less surprised to see that the toilets had no toilet seat.

Having had no real communication with my relatives, there was no set time or place where my family would be or if they would even be there on the right day, so I exchanged my American dollars into Cuban pesos and walked outside preparing to wait for a while. “In Cuba, you had to wait for hours just to get a bag of rice,” my mom has often said during bouts of my teenage impatience.

As the opaque sliding doors opened and the famous Royal Palms came into sight, I felt like I was being cordially introduced to Cuba herself, “Hola. mucho gusto, Americanita,” the breeze whispered.

And instantly after my introduction, I saw the army, walking towards me with a mission – here came the family. I felt silly for even thinking they might not have been there. I should have known that they probably had relatives on every entrance with walky-talkies and binoculars similar to that of a stealth recon mission team picking up the package. I was valuable stuff.

Nana, la comandante - the commander - a tall and athletically built woman, paved the way. She was like a bull with only red in sight… and I was the red. Being the only one I had met before, she recognized me right away. The rest of the cavalry, right on her heels, said they recognized my mother in me immediately. I’d been compared to my mother before, but there was something uniquely special about being told that now. Like I was taking over where my mother had left off so many years back. They looked at me with the same look I had seen in my mother’s eyes when she told her stories. Bittersweet. Even as life slowly allowed my mother the sweetness to be reunited with her family through the years, the sadness in her face so many decades later was still evident. Always grateful for the life she had, my mother knew what the United States had given her, but there would always be a feeling of sorrow, too many moments had been missed; too much time had been taken.

Make no mistake; these relatives had already answered one question… I might have been the runt of the litter, but I was a part of them. That was already clear.

We piled five people and two enormous suitcases into a small 1960’s Peugeot that was meant for three comfortably and made our way to Pablito’s house, passing cars from the 1950’s in top-notch shape and billboards boasting the faces of la revolucion: Jose Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel Castro. Although I doubt Marti would have welcomed the association. Pablito, a brilliant man and doctor, had cerveza Cristal and a delicious spread of food, that no doubt required bargaining and trading, waiting for us. Because of his luck in having a car, he and his friend Leo were able to use this luxury as a way to make extra money. As most ingenious Cubans, they find ways to make more out of the little they have.

Our next stop today was to Nana’s house. We knocked on the door and heard hustling, whispering from the inside. Alejandro, my 6-year-old cousin, excitedly opened the door ajar, peering out of the slit with his Caribbean Sea colored eyes to make sure who it was. When he was certain it was us, he jerked open the door to a room full of cousins and decorations. Apparently, he had spent all day after school preparing for our arrival with balloons and streamers. Twice in this day, I was honored to see the giving nature of people that I knew didn’t have much to give.

After dinner, I took my first Cuban stroll around the streets of Havana. It was rundown and the houses were in need of paint but you could see the architectural beauty that once reigned in this city. My stories, again, did not fail me. Just as I had been told, people were outside socializing and taking in life rather than sitting alone watching television in their homes. Like many Cubans, I was a social mariposa (butterfly), a name my grandfather has called me. Did I get that trait from my ancestors, I wondered?

As with Pablito’s car, another friend made extra money with a spare bedroom that was rented to tourists. For a cheap price, Mike and I had an air-conditioned room on el malecon – Cuba’s most recognized trademark, where people go to romance their dates or hang out with friends to the sound of crashing waves. That night we fell asleep with the window open, overlooking Havana, listening to el maelcon and an improvised one-man band playing his guitar for friends and passersby.

We awoke early the next morning and walked along el malecon to breakfast at Nana’s house. It was 8:00 a.m. but the Cuban sun was already a scolding cup of café con leche. Yulisa, the youngest of Nana’s daughters, was already there waiting since she had taken the week off of work to spend with us.

It was a city of great beauty and history that had been sandpapered away after decades of neglect, made to look rough. But it was still a city of great hope and laughter. And in that thought, my second question was answered. Who I was was becoming clearer because of this place. I was like Havana. Although time might have worn me down and roughed me up, I was full of hope, great hope... and always laughter. And although things were rough at times, I, like Cuba, could usually find strength in pain. “Joo haf to trust that God knows what hees doing,” my mom has said more times than I could count.

In the days that remained, I discovered parts of the island, but even more indispensable were the new stories that gave me more insight about why I came. Nana, the family historian, knows our family tree and history better than anyone. She told us of Isabel Rubio, a fiery woman who had clandestine meetings with Jose Marti and fought for an independent Cuba. A fighter, like me, I thought.

Nana continued, “Jennyni (her nickname for me), todavia sigues con el periodico?” (“Do you continue with the newspaper?”)

“Todavia,” I responded (“Still”)

She went on to tell me about the many people in my family that were writers and newspaper people, some who not only worked, but also started some of Cuba’s newspapers.

There was something magical about walking around La Habana Vieja listening to these stories. Eating at La Bodeguita Del Medio where Hemingway would stop for lunch and drinks, finding a layman’s version of Buena Vista Social Club playing on a street corner, watching the teenagers dive off el malecon to escape the heat or the fisherman waiting patiently for his catch was certainly tiling the mosaic in my mind. Up until now, there was always something missing. I couldn’t figure out where I belonged. I wasn’t Cuban. I wasn’t American. But this trip was laying out the groundwork to connect the Cuban to American.

On our way back to our room that night, a young guy asked us for a light for his cigarette. Mike, who speaks a little Spanish, said we didn’t. Immediately, the boy knew he wasn’t a local.

He stopped in his tracks and walked backwards alongside Mike, “Hey men, you no fron here?” he asked in broken English now turning directions and walking with us for the moment.

Although I didn’t feel like we were in danger, I also didn’t want to call attention to two tourists walking around at night. Being anywhere this could spell trouble.

“Pero yo si soy de aqui,” I quickly jumped in (“But I am from here.”)

As if instantly he knew to back off, he pointed at me and said, “Tu si eres,” and walked away.(“You definitely are.”) You might outsmart a tourist, but not a Cuban woman.

My last questions at that moment were answered. My Spanish was Cuban enough and although I hadn’t been born in Cuba or grown up there, I was Cuban enough. I wasn’t a hot dog in a pig roast. It seems silly to think that my little trick made me feel accepted to a culture that had always been a part of me, but it did. I felt like I did my mom, dad, grandparents - everyone who had a hand in raising me – proud.

When we arrived at the airport on the last day, everyone had come to see us off. Family who accepted and loved us as though they had known me from birth surrounded us. They had known me through pictures and home videos for 28 years up until that point, but that didn’t matter because we were family. Walking through the opaque sliding doors again I turned around one last time to see the whole army standing together waving goodbye before the doors closed. I had come full circle.

I now understand what it means to leave your heart buried in Cuba.

The Family seeing us off...

Nana and Pablito have a drink of his bootleg rum.

My uncle in one of the cars he's working on

My Cousins Yulisa and Adela Tania


In "La Bodeguita del Medio" (Made famous by Hemingway)

Cars of Cuba Present

View of Habana Vieja

A Normal Day at the Beach

"De estos hombres hace un pueblo"

The Old Man and the Sea

Teenagers Swimming off el Malecon

My Cuba

Some of the people of Cuba

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