My son Lito and daughter Violet.
In July, after years of dreaming and months of planning, I went to Cuba, my Patria, for the first time. I was 29 years old and had a head filled with stories of machetes and fire in the sugar cane fields. I, my children, my boyfriend, and his mother hopped on a plane in Ft. Lauderdale and landed in José Martí International, the very airport my father and his family left behind, where guards took my abuela’s wedding ring as they left for Madrid.
It was a short trip, all of 3 full days and nights, bookended by travel days. It’s a trip I never thought I’d be able to take, a trip I’ll never forget. Below is a series of essays I wrote about my experiences after returning to my home in Florida.
On rolling a tabaco in Viñales with my family.
Me, my daughter, and my cousin, Celene, before our hike to the farm.
We entered the dark, thatched hut used for drying hojas. Our guide knew that I needed to practice my Spanish, so he asked me to translate The Farmer’s words. I understood nearly everything except for the terms specific to his work.
The Farmer stood proud in his olive green coveralls, straw hat tilted up so we could better see his expression.
His family played dominoes in the house nearby, like how my family played dominoes on a card table during cook outs and Sanksgibing.
He took us to a covered area with a wooden bench and passed out bunches of hojas. He then pulled out a tabaco from his front pocket and cut the tip with a browning French farming knife. He dipped the freshly cut tip into a capful of honey and lit and puffed and lit and puffed until the edge glowed the way the sun glows in clouds of smoke during a forest fire. He then passed the tabaco to my boyfriend Louie, the honey sweetening the taste.
Lito, our son, found his way to the vegetable garden, spying on the lazy gaticas lounging along the fence. Our daughter, Violet, scarfed down all the pieces of mango the farmer’s wife brought us, the juice staining her shirt a pale orange, her neck glistening in the evening light.
I ripped the vein from the first hoja, wrapping the leaf around my wrist as The Guide taught me. It came out in one clean swipe, him saying, “This is in your blood.”
Louie passed me the tabaco and I puffed and rolled and puffed and rolled, The Farmer helping me hold down the hoja to keep the structure tight.
My cousin (whom I had just met the day before) explained how we were coffee farmers before the revolution; how we were raised in nature.
I thought of my Taino ancestors, how they started this tradition of smoking cigars, how we were reunited through this movement and prayer.
The Road to Varadero Beach
Bleary eyed and swollen, we hopped in the taxi to the Viazul station.
We passed the national cemetery, and I asked our driver about the Chinese lettering over one of the gates.
He told me about the Chinese Cubans who were once so populous, who scattered from the island rather quickly after the revolution.
He asked me how I knew Spanish, and I continued with the song and dance of my father’s birth in Camagüey. He smiled and asked what took me so long to get back to the island.
We walked into the bus station and wandered through hallways until we found the ticket counter which wouldn’t be open for another 15 minutes despite the warning time on our tickets. We sat in the cafeteria and waited for our bus.
Soon we picked up our tickets, the sound of the dot matrix printer reminding me of the smoke monster from Lost. Louie had to chug his steaming café con leche before boarding the bus.
* * *
The bus was like any other charter bus I’d been on. The air was too dry and cold, the bathroom was locked up so smells wouldn’t choke us on the ride, the driver professionally impersonal.
Backpackers, families, young professionals, and all around bargain hunters lined the seats as we made our way towards the back.
I stared out the window facing North, watched as the Malecón turned into unharvested jungle. Men with machetes and oxcarts gathered grass. Campesinos stood in the shade, stepping out onto the shoulder of the road whenever a taxi would pass by, hand lined with pesos to encourage kindness from a stranger.
After 3 hours and a few stops along the way, we made it to Varadero Beach. We walked out of the bus station and through a few city blocks. We creeped under the vegetation and trees, careful not to disturb the sleeping locals who hid themselves under towels and t-shirts.
Then we saw it. The blue water my father described. The creamy white sand. When I told my father I was going on this trip, he said this was the most beautiful beach he had ever seen. The waves were calm and steady, like a river bank’s. The water was a perfect aquamarine. I dove into it and opened my eyes, still able to see the sand below and the bodies of my boyfriend and his mother. My daughter sat in her float for hours, lulled to sleep by the gentle rhythm of the tide. My son joined me in swimming, pretending to be a pirate finally finding shore.
I thought of my father in these moments, how the last time he was at this beach, it was probably a scene similar to this; his parents making camp with towels and gear, him and his brothers running along the sand and jumping into the water.
After eating a large lunch and wandering through an artisanal market filled with wooden and leather goods, we spent one last hour at the beach. Down the eastern portion of the shore, hotels blasted salsa and reggaeton for the moneyed guests, the sounds of drums softening in the wind. We packed our belongings and waited in the bus depot for the return ride home.
The thought of returning to this place with my father filled me with sense of sadness and joy only the blues and duende could express. We road in salted silence, the sunset guiding us back to Havana.
Sunset on the way to Havana.
Art Class in Havana
The rain came as quickly as our trip was ending, a down pour that pushed us down the flooded streets into an alley way where Carlos and Leo met us with umbrellas in hand, hurrying us up the way to the apartment on the top floor guarded by wrought iron painted a flaking, rusty white.
I thanked them for letting us in and stared around the room, a small living space with a caged atrium, rainlight and potted plants framed by the same flaking white filigree from earlier.
After changing Lito and Violet’s clothes into outfits not sopping wet, Carlos and Leo showed us how to make engravings using the options they selected.
I chose an underwater scene, painted a man in a scuba suit from the 40s tangled in purple seaweed.
Soon they taught us how to make our own out of chunks of rubber and PVC piping. Louie carved a cartoon hand while I struggled to make a coffee table scene. Soon the young men were entranced by Lito’s focus, the way he mixed colors and used his face and hands as brushes and canvases.
The artist is learning.
“He is a true artist,” Leo smiled.
Carlos and I puzzled together a conversation using broken Spanish and English, and I learned he was from the same city as my father. He asked a question I’d been asked countless times since we’d gotten to the island—what had taken me so long to come?
And I told him about my father and his fears and my grandmother and how she never brought me. And he nodded and said things were different now, not like back then when the revolution was still new, still had teeth.
I asked him if there was anything he wished he could do.
Leo explained that while they could live as artists, the living was still hard. Carlos longed for a chance to travel and see a world away from his island. Both described the challenge of being an artist in a place where even food could be scarce at times, of trying not to inhale fumes from spray paint while they covered their faces in rags, of giving students like me an authentic artistic experience while saving enough for themselves.
I nodded, wishing I’d thought to ask them if they needed any supplies before I’d come, thinking of the extra bag we could have checked.
Carlos called me a taxi after our time was nearly over, and I thanked him and I walked with Violet on the balcony while Louie and his mother cleaned up and helped Lito.
I thought of my abuela’s sister who lived in Hialeah decades ago, how she had a balcony similar to this— red, stone-like tile patched into mosaics with a plastered wall overlooking a courtyard. Violet ran her hand along the bumpy surface as she waddled towards the stairwell, her round, brown fingers slightly jumping at each pass.
In Havana there was so much of home, even if it was my first time there.