Perhaps many Cuban-Americans will be able to tell you what they were doing the day President Barack Obama announced the intention to normalize relations with our embargoed island neighbor. It was December 2014. I was home when the news broke. Immediately, I began to call and text relatives. Pacing in my living room, I was overcome by an emotional cocktail of excitement and sadness. I called my abuela, who told me she heard the news over the radio in Miami. Already, there were the Cold War stalwarts gathering in Little Havana to protest the announcement. But in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, she said she was hopeful. The news meant she would be able to visit her brothers and sisters more.
To be Cuban-American is to be politicized. Many of our families have become collateral damage (if not casualties) in an ideological stand-off. Now with President Obama's trip to the island, we're called upon to say what we think about it, while we grit our teeth through clueless media reports and articles advertising the patria as the next vacation wonderland. But this is something we've dealt with for half a century. That is the story not being heard right now.
The person asking where to get the best mojito in Havana will not understand this.
There is no one way to feel about the trip; there's no way to tie up the narrative into a neat, one-sentence blurb. Just as this news may hit closer for some than others, there should be the range of reflections on our varying experiences. Whether you came in from the first flight at the dawn of Castro’s government, the boat lifts of the '80s, the Special Period in the early '90s, showed up last week, or are a generation or two removed, there is no one Cuban-American story.
I wouldn’t be surprised if my abuela told me the folks in Little Havana were still protesting. They see President Obama shaking hands with the brother of el diablo who made them flee their homes as a betrayal. Likewise, I haven’t seen many outlets invoke Cuba’s human rights issues when discussing political dissidents. We talk about the momentous photo-op and ignore the reasons why it took 88 years for a sitting U.S. president to take the flight from Florida to its largest Caribbean neighbor.
On the flip side, there’s an eternal hope we’ll see our friends and loved ones again, politics be damned. No amount of moral grandstanding will get us back those years we’ve missed or those we lost while waiting for the right time to travel. There’s no divorcing the personal from the politics of the situation for us because our families will always come first to mind. Can we finally plan on that reunion 50 years in the making?
The person asking me which hotel they should stay at when they visit will not understand this.
A year after the U.S.-Cuba announcement, I went to the island for the first time. When the plane touched Cuban soil a mere hour after leaving Tampa, Florida, the cabin was filled with applause and tears. One woman behind me sobbed, “Ay, I never thought I’d see it again.” The emotions didn’t let up from there.
I stayed with relatives I had never met before, and we excitedly exchanged information about what it was like to live on either side. What do you do with limited Internet? What’s it like to travel so much? What’s it like to deal with ration books? What’s it like to have to pay for education? I wanted to stay and ask them so many more questions. What was it like when my mom was growing up here? What was it like after she left? There are dozens of relatives I have yet to meet.
The Cuba I visited is perhaps not what most reporters have been talking about. I doubt they’re experiencing rolling blackouts (there were two when I visited for 10 days) or lack of hot water in Havana. They’re not eating the substitute milk, butter, and cheese sold in Spartan grocery stores that offer more booze and cigarettes than cookies. They’re probably finding Cubans excited to talk to Americans, not the ones who still live in fear of the government and who scolded me in a store for talking about the high price of meat. I doubt they’ve mistaken a restaurant’s long line to enter as a sign the place was good when instead it was a government-run spot affordable for most Cubans. If the press is getting access to Internet from their hotel rooms, then they’re missing the throngs of young Cubans spread alongside Calle 23 trying desperately to cling onto sporadic Wi-Fi at exorbitant prices.
The person asking me where to buy cigars on the island will not understand this.
You want to see Cuba before it changes. I want to go back to see my family before they pass or are imprisoned again.
The person flipping through their vacation album of dilapidated American muscle cars will not understand this.