My first trip to Cuba was in 2010, after Obama eased Cuban travel restrictions back to their pre-Bush era status. Having grown up in a Cuban community in Miami, I was determined to finally see the forbidden place just 110 miles away that I’d heard so much about. My dad, however, was less than enthusiastic. “You don’t understand. It’s dangerous,” he told me. “If tomorrow Castro decides that pink shirts are illegal, and you’re caught in a pink shirt, that’s it, you’re in jail. And there is no getting you out of there.” As is the case for many Cuban-Americans, his home country had become veiled in threat and nostalgia.
It took months of convincing and finally an ultimatum that I would go without him, alone, to get my dad to travel back to Cuba for the first time in 42 years. His cousin Tito—the only one who never left—greets us at the airport. A great-grandfather with a full head of hair, Tito spends his days riding his bike around Sagua, bartering things like avocados and coffee. Before this visit, my only memory of Tito had been watching him suck down packet after packet of American ketchup in my aunt’s kitchen during a visit to Miami many years before. Now, he claps my dad on the back. “You finally came,” he says.
My dad was born four years before the revolution to a middle-class family in Sagua la Grande. His father was a traveling cream cheese and butter salesman who also served as the town treasurer. All my life I’d heard the story of how on December 31, 1958—the night before Fidel Castro and his allies overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship—my grandfather arrived home breathless, carrying a bag of money taken from the town hall, saying they should head out on a boat before Castro took over. He was dissuaded, so the story goes, by the women in the family. The next day he left again and returned home late, his clothes torn and charred. He’d tried to leave with a group of others on said boat (he planned to send for my grandmother and dad once he reached Miami) but they were discovered before they could take off. My grandfather hid overnight in some sugar cane fields nearby until the police set fire to the fields to smoke them out. He managed to escape, and he never attempted to leave illegally again.
Heads turn when we drive through town in the little, white ’87 Peugeot
By 1968, my grandparents were feeling the pressure of consumer shortages and an increasingly totalitarian regime. They feared for my dad’s future. He was about to turn fourteen and would be forced to serve in the military until he was 28. His parents petitioned the Archdiocese in Madrid, which ran an asylum program similar to Operation Pedro Pan, the famous exodus that, between 1960 and 1962, airlifted 14,000 Cuban children under the age of 16 (including some of my dad’s cousins) to the U.S. under an agreement between the Miami diocese and the U.S. State Department. My grandparents saved up to buy my dad’s flight, and once his visa was approved, sent him to live with cousins who’d already fled to Madrid; he eventually moved to New Jersey and, later, Miami. It would be a decade before he saw his parents again, and almost half a century before he returned to his birthplace.
Cars are hard to come by in Sagua; heads turn when we drive through town in the little, white ’87 Peugeot that my cousin’s husband rented for our trip. When we get to the house, an anonymous neighbor calls to ask if los americanos have arrived, claiming to be our cousin. Tito’s granddaughter slams down the receiver with a skeptical shift of her hips. “Envy’s a bitch,” she says.
Guards stop us to check our trunk for smuggled crustaceans
We eat black-market lobster for dinner. It is delicious, expensive, and—Tito reminds us twice—illegal, a delicacy reserved for tourists at the all-inclusive resorts and Havana hotels. (On the way back from the beach a few days later, guards stop us to check our trunk for smuggled crustaceans.) After dinner, Tito wraps the shells in the bag the lobster came in and hides it in the garbage with the rest of the food waste that gets thrown into the backyard for the animals. Organized trash removal is infrequent here. Everything is recycled: the disposable diapers we brought for my cousin’s baby are washed and reused, safety-pinned back onto him until they sag down his waddling bottom. The blue shrink-wrap on our luggage is carefully removed and wound around homemade toffee or a birthday gift. I watch the women do this and recall my grandmother, newly arrived from Cuba, hanging used paper towels to dry in her kitchen.
We wander the streets of Sagua. My grandfather’s office in the old town hall is a crumbled pile of rocks and pillars. The wooden houses tilt to one side, held upright by long, leaning sticks dug into the dirt road. Many sit empty, abandoned. People say there’s a wave of migration from places like Sagua to La Habana, with the hope of finally landing in Miami.