“My mom’s Ecuadorian and my dad’s Cuban – well, kind of Spanish too...He was born there but, you know, fled to Spain. I guess you can just call me Hispanic.”
For more than two decades, that’s what a typical introduction to my culture sounded like. Because of multiple visits, I’d always felt connected to the Ecuadorian third of me. If you asked me about Cuba, all I could say is I didn’t know much other than the fact that my dad was born in 1959 – the year of La Revolución - and packed his bags to move to Spain where he would meet the rest of his family. All this changed after embarking on the inaugural CubaOne trip to the mysterious island; and for me, it was the first time I would be able to meet my paternal grandmother.
For half a century, many Cubans – my father included – refused to return to the island they once called home. In La Habana, tensions were high, standard of living was low, and families were broken up throughout the process of the Cuban Revolution. When I thought about Cuba, I didn’t think of it as a place that was only 90 miles away. Cuba was enigmatic. La Habana wasn’t just a place on a map I hadn’t traveled to, yet, but a missing piece in my family’s history.
My mother’s side of her ‘American Dream’ story is easy to tell. As a single mom in the early 90s, she applied for U.S. residency and packed her bags to move to the states. She went from being a teacher, to being a decorator and worked endlessly to build a life for her household. My father’s side of the story was made up of the bits and pieces I could gather through family discussions or his one-off rants about why he left Cuba.
He was born in the cusp of the Cuban Revolution and lived in Playa, La Habana until the early 80s. His brother, Roberto Calveiro, was involved in the 1980 Canimar River Massacre where a group of young Cubans attempted to hijack an excursion boat with intentions to escape to Miami. After the Cuban government captured the boat and incarcerated his 15-year-old brother, my father then became a target for Cuban government officials. His life would never be the same, and so he fled to Madrid, Spain with a residency. His eyes were set on reaching U.S. soil so he trekked through Europe until he illegally hopped on a flight from London to Miami to seek political refuge. He succeeded, and then settled in Miami to work in the tourism industry. With tears in his eyes, he tells a story of running off the plane to wrap himself around an American flag screaming, “freedom!”
Despite being on the side of Cuban Americans who didn’t want diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, I always had a curiosity for what it would be like to visit. I didn’t want to go on a trip to sit on the beach in Varaderos or take selfies in El Prado, I hoped that I could find a way to visit with the most authentic experience. I was seeking a path that would give me a 360-degree view of Cuba, while allowing me to build connections with my peers on the island. Scrolling through my social media networks, I found the answer: this program by millennials and for millennials with a mission to take Cuban Americans on the trip of a lifetime.
CubaOne Foundation offers a new generation of Cuban Americans the opportunity to give back to Cuba, build relationships with the Cuban people, and explore their heritage through high-impact trips to the island. The “Tu Cuba” program wants Cuban Americans to visit Cuba, experience it, talk about it, and think about what a new relationship with Cuba means for them and their communities in the U.S.
“We believe that taking young Cuban Americans to Cuba to engage with the Cuban people will allow for a deeper understanding of identity and family heritage,” says their founding team. “We hope that our participants in these trips will form a committed alumni network that translates their experience into ongoing conversation within their communities and spark a discourse that will foster informed advocates for the Cuban people in the years to come.”
After countless of stories from friends and family about both the oppression and beauty of the island, I wanted to be able to go and make a story for myself. I wanted to see the sights and sounds of La Habana, but I wanted to do it from a conscious and meaningful standpoint. And most importantly, I wanted to turn black and white photos of my grandmother into colorful memories I could pass on to my children and theirs.
Fast-forward two months later, and I’m walking off a charter plane into José Martí International Airport. The trip took us through picture-perfect foliage in Pinar del Rio, a convertible tour of La Habana landmarks, people-to-people connections in off-the-tourist-path neighborhoods like Regla, vibrant alleys of El Callejón de Hamel, eating cajitas in el Malecon, networking events with young entrepreneurs at the Ludwig Foundation, and visits to a myriad of local businesses and paladares owned by Cubans with a self-employment license. We built networks that would stretch beyond 90 miles and curated lifelong bonds within the cohort and the Cuban people we interacted with. The itinerary was built to offer us a vibrant experience of the island, while letting us freely explore “the other side” so many of our parents talk to us about.
On the third day, I took a trip to the concrete suburb of Alamar to meet my grandmother for the first time. I was at a loss for emotions before arriving to meet her. What does she look like? Will she like me? What if we have nothing to talk about? My mind was running at a million miles an hour and I didn’t know when it would stop. And it did. Every question I had fleeted the moment I saw my grandmother’s smiling face from her balcony. I ran upstairs and hugged her like I knew her my whole life. She looked and me and jokingly said “you’re too skinny,” and that’s when I knew I finally found my Cuban Abuela.
Growing up in Miami, I’d been surrounded by Cuban grandmothers my whole life. But I never connected with the fact that my very own was a 30-minute plane ride away and, for a while, I couldn’t actually get to her. We shared photos, conversations and, of course, a delicious Cuban meal together. Getting to know her was definitely like finding a missing puzzle piece in my dad’s story and finally being able to put it together to complete mystory.
Before meeting her I had just finished a walking tour of La Habana Vieja, where we saw a sharp contrast between the tourist-facing zones and the residential alleys where things were in less than average condition. When I stepped out the vehicle in my grandmother’s neighborhood, I was devastated to see that her living conditions, too, were nowhere near perfect. Because of this, my first tough question to her was “why did you stay?” Her answer was similar to the other locals’ answers: this is my home, this is my community and, though things could always be better, it is mine .
She talked to me a lot about food shortages, and less about issues with the Cuban government – my expectation of where her complaints would lie. It made me realize that I wasn’t coming to Cuba with an open mind; I was coming with an American mind. It was easy to get lost in this “we are better off because #democracy” mentality and thought I knew the problems they were facing and solutions to better their situation.
Example? I was expecting Cubans to be very behind in business, agriculture and technology because they physically didn’t have the advanced tools or resources that other countries do. I was surprised to see that though they didn’t have fancy machines or widespread public internet, they definitely had the ideas and “Cuban Way” of getting similar things done. The Conoce Cuba app is basically our version of Yelp!
There are things that can be vastly improved, like any other country including our own, but if I didn’t start looking at this trip with an open mind I would then never learn about Cuba today. This knowledge of the island could only be gained through relationships and genuine interactions on the island. This realization completely changed my mind about what I thought about Cuban-American diplomatic relations.
If you ask me what I think about Cuba now, I’d say it’s a symbol of resilience. Everything that I saw, felt and realized about my trip went back to this idea of “bouncing back” and “staying strong” regardless of the situation. Those who fled, had to begin again in a new country and those who stayed had to adjust to a new way of life.
“Things function interestingly around here, but they function,” said a local business owner.
When I first came back, I thought, “nothing’s changed I’m still Hispanic.” But over time an interesting shift has happened. I went from trying to stay out of the complicated Cuba conversation to being armed with a personal experience on the island that would help engage in dialogue between the two cultures.
I went on this trip looking for answers, but I came back with more questions. While Cuba now is definitely far from perfect, it was incredible to see the feeling of resilience and community that overpowered the island. It reminded me of what happens when a person loses one of their five senses; the other ones become stronger. I’ve never seen neighbors and strangers care and support each other more than the Cuban people.
Though I went with intentions to connect with my grandmother and father’s side of the story, my visit to Cuba was like being welcomed into one giant, 11 million people sized, familia.