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?
The day of my flight, I anxiously rushed into the airport, doing that belabored half jog, half crumble-under-the-weight-of-my-suitcase gait. All wasted energy as Havana Air left an hour and a half late. Nobody seemed to care though, we were on Cuban time now. I had taken many trips before to countries whose entire population is only a fraction of my city’s, countries that were 12-hours-in-the-same-chair away, yet the anxiety I felt about this trip wasn’t related to the traveling itself, but because I would be meeting family who until just a few weeks earlier, were cemented in my mind as historical figures of the past. I had only glimpsed a few pictures of the family members I’d be staying with; pixelated 300×300 Facebook photos, the type that makes you question the validity of a profile. This family and this country that existed only in my mother’s recollections of her youth were now real and they’d be picking me up when I landed.I walked out of the airport worried I wouldn’t recognize my relatives, but they were already in front of me. They’d picked me out of the crowd like they’d seen me every day for years.
Riding from the airport in one of the iconic vintage cars Cuba is known for, I noticed a little bump of emotion building up inside me. Every direction I looked in, Cuba looked back. Giant trees let a hot sun stream through their leaves and onto my face, buildings begged for my attention in blends of color that looked like ice cream, bright and summer-y. We headed for La Habana Vieja, where my family lived. A small 1 bedroom apartment shared between 3 people and sometimes 4 when abuela visited, now shared with 5 since the addition of myself. No A/C, just a rotating standing fan that became an alter I was more dedicated to worshipping than any religious deity prior.
Sitting in a humid living room while the heavy equatorial sun cooked the building, conversation floating in and out like the flies we mindlessly swatted at – just 5 strangers who were family. The idea of family evolved to me now, as I stood in the center of this radical experiment. I observed my new family, and tried to soak up years in the few days I had. My tía’s dark, gentle eyes brimmed with a power to calm through just her gaze. She resembled my mother, like the result of an alternate storyline where my she didn’t leave Cuba. A tired yet determined look marked her—the look of a woman playing the role of two parents. You could tell she depended on herself alone, and bore the weight of sustaining her entire family. Her daughter was melting candy; pure sugar and stuck to me at every chance. She had long, thick and wavy black hair, like Rapunzel da La Habana. All my family had much darker skin than me and my new abuela was the first to point it out, almost excited by our differentness. Her own skin was a rich reddish brown, a tone that almost radiated back the hot sun it had soaked up.
Though my mother was born in the city of Guantanamo and my abuela is from the rural town of Mayari, I am Cuban-American and my primo showed me the weight that hyphen carries. He had been sitting on the couch, with a level of tension boiling in him that could be felt from every part of the tiny room we were in. Four people sharing a one-bedroom apartment with no air conditioner and no running water in the summer is a challenge by any standard and I could feel their shame in knowing what was normal for them was rough for me (some countries lack A/C because they experience a mild climate, others are simply lacking; Cuba is the latter). I was about to take a shower and my tía asked if I wanted her to heat the water in the bucket I’d be using. I declined, partially out of politeness and partially out of being covered in sweat
My primo jumped up and went on a tirade. He angrily reminded the family that I was not like them. That I wasn’t used to this situation. I wanted to melt into the couch under the weight of this searing shame he must’ve been quietly carrying since I arrived. He continued, wondering aloud why the family wouldn’t get it through their heads, “where she’s from there’s air conditioning and the water comes out of the shower head.” He shouted a last time, “Somos animals aquí.” Compared to what she’s used to, we’re animals. The intense frustration and bitter resentment born out of a stagnant present and a stillborn future is sharp and current, like a wound in reverse. While my mother’s Cuba lacked TVs and even a magazine was a treasured luxury, Cuba today has TV, magazines and even WiFi access in certain places. Of course he felt this way. Cuba was an island, not a cell block, as some might have you believe.
On the living room TV, my primos were watching the same high materialism, low substance music videos that I try to forget exist in the US. No one flaunts wealth quite like someone who never had it so Cuban hip hop is an arms race of boasting. While I can brush the ugliness of consumerism off from the comfort of the US, it’s not so easy to identify the futility of materialism when your food is rationed and your mattress is sweat stained. Yet who is more vulnerable to the poisonous sense of emptiness that chasing happiness via consumerism infects you with than one who’s never even been allowed to participate?
Most of my time in Cuba was spent chasing and consuming every piece of familial history in any form it might take: stories, photos, standing in old buildings and plazas where my own mother and her mother had stood decades before me. I almost want to ask the buildings I saw if they remembered my mother. Did they remember my abuela, who walked on this cobbled path for decades? Silent pieces of concrete, soaking up bits of all the lives around them and selfishly locking these memories into themselves. It was never the buildings I wanted to see so much as the air I wanted to feel. What did it feel like 40 years ago at this exact moment as my mother walked through this plaza?
Traveling to a country when you’re part of its diaspora is more of a journey and less of a vacation. The souvenirs you bring back are in the form of emotional connections that weigh far heavier than any checked bag of keepsakes. Out of the stories of my tía Marta’s cigarette smoking and late night dancing, I found her best friend, who she was unable to contact for over 13 years. Out of the stories of my abuela taking two planes while smuggling a box stuffed with a live chicken meant to feed her hijas, I found her niece, who used to care for those daughters while my abuela struggled to support them. Out of the stories of my mother and her prima who entertained her as a child with an old guitar, I found my tia, who welcomed me into her (now guitar-less) home. I existed in the middle of this surreal web of family ties, aged and stretched almost slightly beyond recognition.
My trip to Cuba revealed a long line of women who were full of life, strong despite the harshest circumstances, deeply rooted trees sustaining all around them. My tía Marta (less formally known as Yaya), came from Cuba, with its slow pace and state of constant lacking, straight into New York City, as a political exile. She’s now one of the most independent women I know with a mouth of candela who maintains herself as a sought after tarot card reader. My grandmother left everything she owned, her friends and even her husband behind, to raise 3 successful daughters as a single mother who spoke no English in the US. My own mother, who had to leave behind her father and integrate herself in a foreign and often hostile country at the confusing age of 15, completed a master’s degree in her second language and now teaches that adopted language to kids born and raised in this country.
I’d uncovered a line of incredible women spanning across generations, recalling the matriarchal Taino societies buried under colonialism, but not quite buried deeply enough. These women and their relentless and determined personalities left me in awe. I’d found a new love for my Cuban heritage when I realized that the value in my identity was not in its uniqueness or in how other people viewed it. The love for my ancestry is born out of the incredible experiences of the family members who made me the person I am. They are my ancestry. My mother’s passion, my abuela’s independence, my tia’s boldness, my primo’s ambition; this is my heritage, something so much more personal and valuable than I could understand as a child. Something that flows from a much deeper place than any hollow nationalistic slogan could convey.
My trip ended like all my previous trips: a ride to the airport and lots of waiting. My new-found family stayed with me until the last minute. It turns out family is a kind of magic word – a word that can conjure a genuine love born of nothing more than shared genetic material. What I keep with me isn’t the effort my family made trying to provide the food and comfort they could barely secure for themselves, but rather what they expended no effort over at all. It was only when the time came to turn my back to them and walk away that I realized how final this moment was. As I lifted my arm to wave goodbye, the simple thought that I’d never experience this particular moment again wouldn’t leave my head. With the volatility of the American-Cuban political relationship, so much could change before I returned. Most goodbyes are not truly goodbye, but more of a see you later; it feels different. This was goodbye.
The difficult part about following the thread of your ancestry out of the diaspora and into the motherland are the ghosts you bring back, more detailed and louder than the sparse figments you had previously only dreamed up based on a patchwork of family stories. The weight of a history extended and imbued with real breathing life: something you would never wish to be without, but always carrying with it new complexities. 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. Through the acceptance and love my family showed me, I was finally able to pick up my ancestry and, like a missing button, sewed it back on my dress and felt whole after so many years.
These photos and this essay are so close to me, they mean so much for me to share. I know the feeling of being part of a diaspora and tracing your lineage isn’t exclusive to Cuba, so I’d love to hear how you personally relate. I’d also love to hear any and all feelings A Country Named Mother brought you, so share either in the comments or on social media here and here.
*If you enjoyed this essay about Latin American identity, you’ll probably want to know about this problem facing indigenous South Americans.