Jose Marti International Airport in Havana appears much as it did in the early 1960s. Large Casablanca fans, peeling paint, vinyl tiles, and faded plastic poster boards direct the flow of visitors to customs. The only sign of modernity to greet arrivals in the international terminal is a large billboard promoting medical tourism. It pictures an attractive middle-aged blonde on a gleaming Cuban beach, her arms outstretched, basking in tropical serenity — it looks like an ad for a feminine hygiene product.
“Cuba, un destino de salud para todos,” it reads. “The health destination for everyone.”
When I arrived in Havana this past June, the first Cubans I encountered were relaxed but neither smiling nor overly polite. As I passed through customs, I was nervous about handing them my American passport. But the young customs agent didn’t react. He merely asked that I look up at the small camera over his head for a photo. Then he handed me my passport, unstamped.
As I made my way to the main escalator, I heard the uniformed airport staff speaking in the Cuban accent I’d grown up with; many of them had distinctly Caribbean mulatto features. They walked on their heels. They sank into their hips. I recognized these people.
I made my way past the gate and into a general receiving area. That’s where I saw a familiar face. I had never really bothered to look at the pictures of my second cousin Lara, my maternal grandmother’s niece. But I didn’t have to. I knew those eyes, the way she tilted her head to the side, the composure obvious in her lips. She looked just like my abuela Coralia. I didn’t even look down at the sign she had made with my name on it.
“Hola, prima!” I hollered. We hugged.
It’s a hell of a thing to meet your family for the first time as an adult and to see your eyes in theirs. I felt a connection to this island instantaneously, and I hadn’t even walked out of the terminal into that hot, humid, so-heavy-it-hugs-you air. She was accompanied by her husband Juan, who was tall, tan, and wearing a button-up shirt tucked into his pants despite the searing heat. A cigarette pack protruded from his breast pocket.
We got into their car, a mid-’90s Eastern European make, similar to a Toyota Tercel, with a stick shift. Juan said he was proud and lucky to have it as I nestled into the back seat and we left the airport for the city. All I could think was, Holy shit! I’m in Cuba.
I was born and raised in la saguesera — Southwest Miami-Dade, where Cubans congregate in a very visible (and loud) majority. I’m a second-generation Cuban-American who seldom felt like an outsider as Latinos in many other parts of this country do because, well, it’s Miami.
His captors brutally beat him in the midsection with the butts of their rifles — literally busting his guts.
Let’s get something straight. Los Angeles, New York, and several other large American cities have vibrant, influential Latino populations. But Miami represents the most significant example of a major U.S. metropolis undoubtedly and unapologetically run by Latinos, with Cubans being the force at the helm. We remind ourselves of that fact every day between shots of Cuban coffee and pastelitos de guayaba. And we will tell this to anyone who comes within earshot.
Today, Cuba is undergoing change. It’s not the overnight political transformation my Cuban-American exile community craves, but a slow-moving economic and cultural metamorphosis that rides the wave of the rest of the world.
In the past couple of years, I developed a feeling that the time had come to stop hearing and reading about those changes and go see them for myself. That feeling was spurred by years of questions from many of my non-Cuban friends about whether I’d been to the island. I grew tired of explaining the politics of why I was depriving myself of the experience despite the island’s proximity. I grew jealous of Mexican, European, and Canadian friends returning from the trips of their lives, sliding through smartphone photos of my family’s homeland — a place I had never seen in person. Half the time, it felt as if they were rubbing it in my face. I began to think I was ignoring my heritage. I was staying home because of other people’s feelings.
The world my family left behind has been a theme in my life, as it has been in the lives of many other second-generation Cuban-Americans. Events that led to my very existence are rooted on an island just over the horizon from where I was raised. Until I landed that day in Havana, those events lived only in my imagination. That steamy, pulsating, fabled place has haunted me since I was old enough to understand my family was from somewhere else.
Now I would become the first of my clan to return to Cuba. “Return” is, of course, a relative term because I had never been to the 780-mile-long island. But it would feel like a return to me.
My great-grandfather on my dad’s side went to sleep one night the owner and operator of a dairy farm in Manzanillo. He woke up the next morning, headed to the farm, and found the gates locked. His employees, who were waiting outside, were perplexed. Authorities had left behind a letter indicating which regional office he’d have to visit to complete the government’s appropriation of his life and his dreams.
“¡Viva la revolución!” an official yelled as he drove off in a topless military jeep. Fucker.
Following Fidel Castro’s 1959 victory, my mother’s family quickly packed as much of their lives as they could fit into a suitcase. They gathered what little cash they were allowed to withdraw from the bank by begging lifelong friends who worked there to help. Then they grabbed the last few seats on one of the last few planes departing the country. They left behind everything and everyone they knew.
My maternal grandfather, Eduardo Dieppa, returned in April 1961 as part of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. He hoped to spark a counterrevolution. At age 39, he was one of the oldest members of the Brigade 2506 and a radio operator for his unit. He was captured and spent a year and a half as a political prisoner in Castro’s jails. His captors brutally beat him in the midsection with the butts of their rifles — literally busting his guts.
Abuelo Eduardo survived until his release was negotiated by the U.S. State Department. He rejoined his wife and kids in Miami. My maternal grandmother, Coralia, a devout Catholic, strait-laced and traditional, had been taking care of five kids on her own in a country where she did not speak the language. She was happy to see him despite how skinny and frail he had become. And though injuries from the beatings had forced a surgeon to remove a quarter of my grandfather’s intestines, he joined the other brigadistas to walk in a parade that finished inside the Orange Bowl, where John F. Kennedy welcomed the unsuccessful counterrevolutionaries as “patriots and heroes.” (The Democratic president had reneged on previously promised air support just before the invasion, which eventually pushed Cuban-Americans to the Republican Party.)
In those years, many around the world admired Fidel, his brother Raúl, and their proto-hipster Argentine buddy, Che Guevara. It seemed these iconic leaders had overthrown the deeply corrupt regime of right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista and replaced it with a democratic government.
But then Castro declared publicly that he was a devout Marxist and that the revolution was Communist. Cuba became a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship. For many on the island, it took a few more years to realize the “oops” factor of these events. Not until their homes and businesses were forcefully nationalized and redistributed did many know they’d been duped.
My father’s relatives were initially sympathizers, but they left in the late ’60s after the street-side assassination of my paternal grandfather’s best friend, the revolution’s chief physician, Manuel “Piti” Fajardo. He had refused to participate in the witch hunts and firing-squad executions of political dissidents.
My paternal grandmother, Maria Dolores, who was sassy, loud, and tough, remembers her last conversation with Fajardo. It took place in the living room of their upscale apartment in a Havana suburb. He told her: “Maria, this revolution is turning red,” referring to the impending Communist takeover. The insinuation was that they should look into leaving Cuba. So she secured exit visas for her and her kids to Mexico City. My grandfather Humberto, whose name I bear, and two of his friends were doctors, thus prohibited from leaving the country. So they spent 36 hours swimming to the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, their faces smeared with camouflaging black shoe polish. They were dehydrated and half-dead when they saw an American military boat with the Stars and Stripes on the bow.
On my trip, if there was any indication of how Cubans of my parents’ generation who stayed feel about the revolution today, it didn’t come from any spoken words. It was a look in older Cubans’ eyes that cut through their big egos. It expressed what their mouths would not say: “We fucked up.”
This is most evident in Havana Vieja (Old Havana), a five-century-old city where the ghosts of a glorious past pace among the old buildings, some of them restored and picturesque, others crumbling and decaying, but all equally haunting. And there are always reminders of the revolution. Cubans shout about everything, but they whisper when talking about the government. There are no ads on billboards, only government propaganda and motivational messages on the public walls.
For those who don’t understand the specific lament of Cuban exiles, keep this in mind: Cubans pre-Castro didn’t live in a Third-World situation. Sure, the island was corrupt, but there was an ample and proud middle class. There was opportunity and economic progress. For much of the ’40s and ’50s, the island’s gross domestic product ranked third in the Western Hemisphere, trailing only the United States and Canada.
So these older exiles saw their small but respectable and comparatively prosperous country go to shit in one fell revolutionary swoop. Cuban exiles are a deeply traumatized group. An overwhelming feeling of loss abounds. And it’s that trauma that prompts the vast majority of them to refuse to go back to Cuba as long as the Castro dictatorship is still in power.
I went back for them.