I finally took a trip I’d been planning for years. I knew it would be a different kind of trip, more serious and personal. In some countries more than others, maintaining contact with family is difficult. Historically, Cuba has been one of the more difficult countries, as home phones were a luxury shared between several neighbors and communications are still monitored and intercepted as seen fit. Through burgeoning access to the internet, my own family, now living in Miami, was able to make contact with family members still living in Cuba, after 30 years of silence.
Staying in the home of family members I had only known through my mother’s stories felt like watching figures of the past come alive. In the short week I spent on this tiny island with a massive world presence, I came to know myself through knowing the many women of my family who call this country mother.
I hope you enjoy this one, one of my most personal essays yet.
I wasn’t very conscious of my ancestry until around middle school and I wasn’t really interested until college. While some kids wanted the new Samsung Sidekick, I wanted blue eyes and a French-sounding name (and the Sidekick too, honestly). I can’t say it’s for lack of representation – no, there aren’t any Cuban Disney princesses – but I was raised in Miami where quinceñeras are a weekly event and that’s pretty damn close.
Every year I’d get the same question that only reinforced disinterest in my ancestry. Teachers asked “what makes you special?” and “where are you from?” In an age of misguided philosophies on confidence building, asking me to share my background was supposed to make me feel special; instead it felt like a popularity contest where I got front row seats to watch the interest fade from my classmates faces as I started to pronounce “Cuban.” My conflicted feelings over my ancestry created a blockade to self-acceptance. While these issues might seem trivial now, as a middle schooler, they were a memorable source of shame over identity (or lack thereof).
I never felt tied to my identity in any meaningful way. Cuban culture was an all-encompassing part of my daily life (if scientists ever want to study the effect of daily cafecitos and pan Cubano, I’m the first volunteer). Even now, as I sit writing in a city and state I’ve never seen, the most assumed parts of my identity are pulled out for display; there’s nothing like leaving home to make you realize how much of your home is twisted up, inseparable from the person you are. Cuba was the setting for family stories told and re-told. I could imagine the cubicle homes, barely able to contain their inhabitants as they lingered around door frames, as if waiting for news that never comes. The hot sun that you were told to hide from lest you grow too dark. The dust of a country put on hold for decades that settles on streets, feet, and sidewalks.
Through shared memories I spent part of my own childhood in my mother’s past; sharing her childhood home, joining her walks to school, briefly inhabiting a different life than my own. I had never visited her birth country, but it was simultaneously as real and imaginary as any other fairy tale. The bedtime stories I grew up on were not only of sleepy Germanic princesses but of kids growing up on an isolated isla communista.
There were people in my family stories that lived only in memories — family members that I knew existed but had never seen nor spoken to. I became curious about mis raíces. Reaching a level of security within myself gave me permission to dive into my own history. I wanted to know what my own personal link to my heritage was, something that couldn’t be measured and deemed too common to revel in. With my upcoming trip to Cuba, suddenly all the stories my family had told me became possibilities. Where were they now? Could I meet them?