Searching for Roots in Cuba

I’ve started dreaming in Spanish, which has never happened before. I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible. There’s a magic here working its way through my veins. There’s something about the vegetation, too, that I respond to instinctively - the stunning bougainvillea, the flamboyants and jacarandas, the orchids growing from the trunks of the mysterious ceiba trees. And I love Havana, its noise and decay and painted ladyness. I could happily sit on one of those wrought-iron balconies for days, or keep my grandmother company on her porch, with its ringside view of the sea. I’m afraid to lose all this...
— Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban

This excerpt from a book I read roughly ten years ago never really resonated with me until now. I overflow with emotion, so many emotions, as I reflect on my accounts in Cuba. There's been a storm within me quietly brewing for a long time. For me, this extraordinary island has been a mystery for too long. Enchanted yet forbidden, a place so much a part of me which I've dreamed of visiting for over 30 years now. My father's side of the family abruptly left some 57 years ago and never returned, not out of choice, but force. A year prior to this trip there were talks about Obama changing the laws around the embargo. For those who don't know the unfortunate history of Cuba the embargo was set in place in the early 1960's after the communist revolutionary party overthrew the Batista regime. I will not go into detail but if you are interested in learning more, which I encourage, primarily if you respond positively to the word "socialism," then please do look into the history. I wish I had an excellent source to refer you to but much of the information is biased, and I've yet to find a source I recommend.

Corner street view, Camagüey

Corner street view, Camagüey

Now back to late 2014 when the Obama administration mentioned they were interested in re-establishing relations with Cuba. When this was announced, I immediately phoned my sister Jackie to let her know I thought it was time we go, that I didn't want to wait any longer as things would change with boatloads of Americans heading over on "vacation." We all know how the Caribbean islands turn into cruise havens with little charm and dignity left. My sister and I had an agreement that our first visit to Cuba would be together, preferably with our entire family, so I was elated when she agreed it was time. In all my years any mention to the family, with the occasional exception of my father who dreamed of taking the boat and fishing the waters, of visiting Cuba would stir up emotions and cause a commotion that would have you regretting ever bringing it up. "There is no way we are going to visit Cuba to give the communist government, who took everything from us, our money!" I understood perfectly well what they meant, but I can't say I felt it, deeply with tremendous zeal, until now.

And now that I finally get the chance to breathe in the warm salty air that my skin so longs to soak up while my eyes take in the colorful hues and ears are tantalized by the distant sound of waves lapping and music sounding, I must say it's all with a heavy heart. Just as Cristina from the book, something has changed inside me. I can't easily put my finger on what it is, but I feel different nonetheless. I may never understand but know I must come to terms just as my family had to accept leaving everything behind to start a new life in an unfamiliar place. All they loved, the land they tended to and which provided back for them, the familiarity of their home and the places they would visit. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of my grandmother having to leave the beautiful farm she grew up on with three children under the age of 6 and another on the way. "Oh, it will only be a few months," my grandfather told her. Those few months have since turned into 57 years. 

On March 25th, the same day the Rolling Stones played a free concert in Havana and just a few days after Obama's visit, three half-Cuban family members, my cousin Warren, sister Jackie and myself, flew into the city of Camaguey where our grandmother is from with hopes of finding some answers to all the many questions and wonders we had. The plan was not to sit sipping rum drinks under a palm tree on the beach while puffing on cigars. No, we came for a specific purpose, in search of our roots, a treasure hunt of sorts. With Google Earth printouts, a few black and white photos and some vague directions we set out to the motherland. 

Camagüey, with its labyrinth of streets, was built in the 16th century. It was purposefully designed to protect against raids from the Indians and pirates who resisted Spanish domination. This is where my grandmother is from and where she and my grandfather got married. The afternoon was spent checking into Hotel Colon and walking around the city where we discovered people chatting from their doorways as they tried to catch the breeze winding down the twisting roads. Horse-drawn carriages and "bicitaxis" passing us buy in the streets, beautiful wooden doors and people playing dominos were the views from every corner. One thing that stood out in Camagüey was the use of small plants in pots strategically hung around the courtyards which contributed to the charm of this city. We turned in early so we could get a fresh start to search for La Habana, the farm that my grandmother grew up on a short distance from the city. 

Finca La Habana

Rising before the sun, we set out for La Habana. One stop to fuel up with gas and cafe then into the fog for the country we drove. Once the sun burned away the remaining mist, I was surprised to see such large palms amongst the palmetto style trees. I'd never seen anything like it. The palms towered up and out, even visible on the mountain hillsides in the far distance. We passed people working the land and taking pride in tidying up their yards. 

We had high hopes of finding the land where my grandmother grew up. All we had to go by were a Google Map printout, a few black and white photos and my grandmother's directions which consisted of, "you'll know you've found it when you see the large tree that has fallen to the ground." Knowing the ranch was somewhere between Camagüey (shown at the bottom left of the map) and Minas (top right) we went down several small roads that looked promising but turned back with our heads a little lower each time. We stopped to ask some older folks if they knew where La Habana was and finally came across a gentleman who recalled it. He pointed towards Minas saying we were close. The next turn we made was the actual main entrance to the property. I was a bit skeptical, but Jackie swore: "this is it." However, she had made that statement several times before. We wouldn't stop searching though. We had all day, and this is why we came.

We parked the car on the side of the road and started exploring. I was immediately drawn to a tree that resembled the one in the photo of my grandmother on her horse. The three of us agreed it looked similar to the ceiba in the picture we had. Pulling the old photo out and holding it up to the tree in front of me I had a surge of energy run through me as I realized we had found it. I noticed Jackie and our driver Joel speaking to an older man in the cane fields, so I walked over. Jackie had tears in her eyes as the man informed her we were in the right spot and pointed to where the house used to stand and corral was located. I showed him the photos, and he raised his arm revealing the goosebumps forming on his skin. It was incredible! There we were standing on our family's farm 57 years later. We had found it!

The house my grandmother grew up in was no longer standing and the remnants, wood panels for the walls and iron on the windows, were used to build a small house in which lived a woman who seemed to be hiding from us, perhaps out of fear that we were coming to take back what was once ours. I certainly hope we didn't give her that impression. The other people we spoke to were very friendly even inviting us to bring the whole family next time so they could prepare a carriage and take us through the rest of the property. 

Still standing was the house that my great-grandfather built his son, Bebo. The family occupying the house welcomed us in to walk around the take photos. Most of the people who remembered the family had fond memories telling us how they would give each worker on the ranch a pig for roasting during the holidays. Something that has long been forgotten as the government now only grants them a quarter chicken per person per month.

It was sad to see the farm in the shape it was as the men recalled how it used to bare fruit trees and even pointed to my grandmother's "favorite" mango tree which later she recognized from the photos. At least the land was home to some friendly people instead of occupied by the military. This first mission was a success, so much so that I could've left then completely content to have found my grandmother's farm. But this was just one stop of several. 

la boca

We were off to the next location on our Google Earth treasure map. La Boca, in Nuevitas, is where my family used to go on vacation. Located on the coast just northeast of Camagüey is the entrance from the Atlantic which feeds into Cuba by way of saltwater canal and was home to many a boat hiding away in its protective waters. After leaving the Finca La Habana, we made our way to the beach house where the family used to fish and relax in the sun. My great grandmother was a painter, and many of her works were done here on the beach which was recognizable from years of looking at her paintings. At least the beach was, the houses were a different story as they stood beaten by over half a century of neglect as they were worn down by many a hurricane. 

We spent the afternoon swimming in the ocean and enjoyed a lovely lunch at a local paladare right on the beach. Paladares in Cuba are relatively new, being legalized in the 1990s, and give the people the opportunity to run small restaurants out of their homes. These businesses were very restricted with rules that included having no more than 12 seats, only state-bought food (no seafood or meat) and no less than two people living in the home working there. In 2011 these regulations were loosened, and now there are paladares everywhere. I recommend dining at these over hotel restaurants as to help give back to the Cuban people since the government establishments funnel most of the money to the government. 


After the success of finding one family property, we headed out in search of another in Vertientes where my grandfather's cattle ranch was. We heard the two-story house was still standing yet the aerial view on GoogleMaps had an inconvenient cloud hovering just above the property with no way to see for ourselves. We drove through the town of Vertientes, with its horse-drawn carts and clear signs of the revolution, toward Jaguey. Just one turn remained at a 5-way intersection that would put us on the dirt road to the entrance of the property when we came upon a military blockade. We approached a bit startled and nervous not knowing what to say. Our driver handed over his id and answered a couple of questions not sure if we'd be allowed through. After a few words, we asked the officer if he knew where "la casa de Tomeu" was in which he replied, "de Enrique Tomeu?" It was incredible. This man knew my great grandfather's name and that he owned the house before the government seizing it some 57 years ago. He informed us it was still standing and opened the gate without any additional questions.    

As we drove onto the property, the house came into view, and it was indeed identical to the black and white photo my family provided. A man was tending to some cows and pigs when we pulled up. We introduced ourselves, letting him know our family used to live there and he invited us inside to take a look around. From one side of the house, it didn't seem like much had changed aside from the apparent neglect. A view from the gate had me peering through to the other side where some horses grazed. I walked along the porch past a dominos set and turned the corner. My heart sank as I came face-to-face with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro's chief executioner, one of the most violent men in the Western Hemisphere who is now a symbol of counterculture worldwide. I cringed as I do every time I see his face on t-shirts and posters of those ignorant fools who look up to him. Moving past the wall, I walked into the house.

The man who showed us in lived in a small addition in the back made of wood. The rest of the house was very cold and most definitely not lived in. I didn't see a kitchen or bathroom, and when I walked into the first room, there was a pile of feed on the ground. Many saddles were hanging about, and when we went upstairs, he told us we could not enter the rooms as they were locked and filled with government documents. 

It was a bittersweet experience. The fact that we found the property, the house was still standing, and we were able to go inside was incredible, yet it breaks my heart to see it so run down. All and all the trip was a success. We succeeded in what we had gone there to do. This post encompasses only two days of the 14 I spent in Cuba, but I would've been satisfied had I left after Camaguey and Vertientes.

Upon returning to the US, and after Obama's visit to Cuba where it was clear he was not greeted with open arms, I can't help but wonder if this would be my first and last time visiting the country. Indeed I would like nothing more than to go back and spend time on the island where my family is from, maybe even for vacation, but it pains me to see the people suppressed while my money goes to the communist regime. There are surely ways to travel that benefit the people more than the government, but it's not enough. I'm torn. Part of me wants to raise awareness about what's going wrong, like the passionate Cuban-Americans who go on rants about it, and how oppressed the people are.  The other part of me doesn't want the attention as I know how they can choose to treat you if you do. The below quote is from the US Embassy's website in Havana. 

The Government of Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born or are the children of Cuban parents. These individuals will be treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations, including military service. The Cuban government may require U.S. citizens, whom the Government of Cuba considers to be Cuban, to enter and depart Cuba using a Cuban passport.” “There have been cases of Cuban-American dual nationals being forced by the Cuban government to surrender their U.S. passports.” “Cuban-American dual nationals should be especially wary of any attempts by Cuban authorities to compel them to sign “repatriation” documents. The Government of Cuba views a declaration of repatriation as a legal statement on the part of the dual national that she/he intends to resettle permanently in Cuba. In several instances, the Government of Cuba has seized the U.S. passport of dual nationals signing declarations of repatriation and has denied these individuals permission to return to the United States.
— US Embassy in Havana, Cuba

On my last morning before heading to the airport, my friend's family came from Pinar del Rio to see her off. It was her aunt's first time in Havana, and she was flooded with emotion as she saw the malecon for the first time. We wanted to bring the three of them up to the roof for a minute to get a photo and show them the view of the city but as we approached the elevator hotel security wouldn't let them in since they were Cuban. Basically not allowed to enjoy anything in the country where they lived. It was an emotional moment as my friend grew upset with the guard and her aunt began to cry. We all had tears in our eyes as it was absurd. How could they deny her? She just wanted to take in the sights of the capital city she is from! I've heard of this happening in the past but didn't think it was still the case. So unfortunate.

I did my best to hold back on photos of anything pertaining to the revolution yet it's impossible with signs literally everywhere. Here are some taken around the country which most tourists won't see when on vacation in Cuba. Keep in mind there are no advertisements for anything; there aren't even products to advertise because the people are not allowed to enjoy anything. They hardly have access to toilet paper and soap for goodness sake. All the billboards and murals are pure brainwash. The propaganda is real! You draw your own conclusion.