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Latin America Report

Personal Essay: A Cuban's First Time in Cuba

My mother says I’m American.

I was born in Miami, Florida, so she is technically correct. But like many other Latin Americans who grew in up the United States, I carry with me the values and traditions of my ancestors.

So I’m Latin-American --I’m a mixture of my mother’s Cuban heritage and my father's  Peruvian heritage.

Thanks to them, my American upbringing had a pinch of Latin spice to it --like literal aji amarillo, or yellow pepper, with some sweets too like my favorite red guava jelly.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
In Centro Habana, I walk across a door used to connect to the sidewalk during construction.

But as I grew older, I noticed a separation from my mother’s culture. My household seemed closer to its American-Peruvian traditions than  its Cuban roots.

Around my house we have Peruvian paintings and relics, like our Inca plate-set solely used for decoration. But no Cuban equivalent is on display.

I applied to CubaOne, a Miami-based nonprofit that sends first-generation Cuban Americans to the island for the first time, to even the scale. And, to my surprise, I was chosen to be one of the nine people on their inaugural trip.

In my application, I stated that I knew very little about my mother’s life in Cuba. When I would ask her about it as a  kid, she would tell me "there’s nothing there."

I really hoped this trip could prove her wrong. 

So on a warm June night, before my 6 a.m. flight, I asked my mother to open up about her life in Cuba. 

She told me about her life growing up in my grandparents' farm in Buey Arriba, Oriente, Cuba. There, she said, they grew coffee beans.

No wonder my grandmother’s coffee was so good.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
When I reunited with my cousins in Cuba, Heidy and Katy Prieto.

We talked for over an hour and it’s the most I ever heard my mother open up about her life before our family. She mentioned how her childhood home was torn down, and she talked about her life after she first migrated to U.S. in the 1980s, as part of the Mariel Boatlift.

“I wasn’t dancing Spanish, I wasn’t listening to anything Spanish. I hated Spanish. I hated Cuban. I hated anything that was like that. I wanted to, you know, I was all into everything that was here,” my mother said.

Despite all this, she was accepting of me going to Cuba.

On my Uber ride to the airport the next morning, I remembered feeling a little closer to this mystery island because now I carried with me more of my mother’s story.

Landing in Cuba was a treat. It felt like getting a Christmas present that I had wanted to receive for a long time.

Most of the passengers on the plane clapped once we arrived, including some CubaOne participants. 

Customs went smoothly and the money exchange was quick, but I remember waiting two hours to find my suitcase.

It felt like a piece of my soul died every time a suitcase that came out of the conveyor belt proved not to be mine. I thought my suitcase was lost or stolen. If I thought Miami International Airport was bad, the José Martí International Airport experience in Cuba was worse.

Our first stop was a tobacco farm, where we learned how the tobacco leaf is planted, cared for and eventually transformed into a classic Cuban cigar.

The smell of the tobacco reminded me of my grandfather. I remember him sitting on the front porch and being perfectly happy while sipping some rum and slowly smoking a cigar.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
Posing with my partner in dominó, “Juanito Mojito” and his wife.

That night, while everyone headed to bed, I decided to stay up and play a game of dominos with our host in Viñales, Cuba, who told us to call him “Juanito Mojito.”

I teamed up with Juanito, and we ended up winning against two women from Denmark who were vacationing in Cuba. We played on a typical square table, and Juanito kept a points system: first team that reaches 100 points wins.

Juanito said that was pretty Cuban of me  -- just sitting down and winning a game of dominoes.

By the way, he made a mean mojito. It was strong and sweet, just like how I like my Cuban coffee. He later showed us how much sugar he adds, and it's more than I'd like to admit.

Viñales was by far the prettiest place I visited in Cuba. The mountains were covered in palm trees and the dirt was a beautiful contrast of red-brown.

It was hot, rural and lush green. Chickens and pigs spilled onto it’s dirt roads. The houses were bright and colorful, and there were electronic fans in our rooms --Thank God.

The next day we left for Havana, Cuba.

It’s where I saw the most similarities to Miami: People speak Spanish with a very familiar accent, there’s an abundance of mango juice, Latin inspired music and a tons of Lechon Asado.

But, there were also clear distinctions, like the war emblems.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
A true culture shock moment in La Regla.

At a market in Havana, I saw many revolutionary symbols and relics, tanks and war monuments and murals of Fidel. My friend Steven wanted to buy a hat, and they all had that Soviet red star on them.

It made me think about my family’s immigration story.

My mother and grandparents were called “traitors” by their neighbors after their first attempt to leave their country failed. I have a cousin who was a political prisoner in Cuba for 18 months.

Obvious reminders of the revolution, and the poor living conditions gave me the most culture shock.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
I interview Claudia Balmaseda at the Ludwig Foundation in Cuba, one of few foundations that operate in Cuba. It focuses on helping young emerging artists. Claudia Balmaseda is a film editor.

Like when I met Claudia Balmaseda, a film editor around my age, who grew up in my mother’s province of Oriente.

She painted a picture of “ordinary life in Cuba.” 

She said, "It’s a hard living, and you could not know what it’s like to live there, until you do."

And she has a point. 

I may not be able to relate to what most Cubans live day-to-day, but seeing the island first hand gave me a glimpse into a country I could be proud of, especially, after years of hearing my family members criticize it.

Like at the Studios of Mal Paso, a dance company in Havana, where we saw a private performance of contemporary Cuban ballet.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
This woman shouted “Vamos a salir on Facebook!” after we asked to take a photo. Photo taken at Regla, Cuba.

The choreography clearly defined moments of struggle and pain, and joyfulness.

It made me think and reflect on the tough times that I’ve seen, and it made me think about the tough times my mother faced, too.

Our experiences are completely different, but this performance was linking them. The beauty of it all moved me to tears.

Seeing this -- made me want to say I’m Cuban, not just Peruvian, because when I was younger, being Cuban wasn’t an important part of my identity.

I was sad to leave.

While some of the CubaOne participants were enjoying their last Cuban mojitos and rum-and-cokes at the airport's cafe, I drank water because returning home was a sobering thought. I did buy some Santiago de Cuba rum in the Duty Free area to bring back a piece of the island with me. I hoped my cousins back in Miami would help me drink it, and they did.

Credit Amanda Rabines / WLRN
Maggie Sivit, a Cuban American from Chicago, buys a fresh guava pastry in Havana.

Now, I’m happy to say the trip helped me embrace the parts of me that are Cuban, like my loudness, my work ethic and how important family is to me.

CubaOne introduced me to so many people who warmed my heart on the island.

Like the guy I played dominoes with and the dancers … and people who are starting private businesses, when for so long that was almost impossible.

Maybe it’s a glimpse of a Cuba my Mother might want to return to.

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