My Cuba Visit

I visited Cuba this past summer in July. The beginning of this trip began with a sort of impossibility- an Americana sailing off to the island that had been closed off to Americans for decades. Before Obama’s presidency ended, he lifted the embargo on Cuba and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime… until the new president would once again declare Cuba was off limits. Fortunately, my siblings and I had already made a boarding reservation and could technically still travel to the island so we boarded the plane to Havana and did not look back. We were having the opportunity of a lifetime!

I was excited to see the architecture and art, the classic American cars, the beaches, and dance salsa. As a Puerto Rican, I was sure Cuba would feel like another ‘home’ because of its’ relationship to Puerto Rico and geographical location in the Caribbean. When I visited the Dominican Republic four years ago for a college service-learning trip, I remembered thinking- wow this island looks so much like Puerto Rico. But, what I felt in Cuba was unlike the experience I had in the Dominican Republic.

Geopolitics and history informed my visit much more than I anticipated. I landed in Havana and awaited my taxi driver along with my siblings. We talked about how it felt like we traveled back in time opening a time capsule from the Cold War Era. Hopping into an old American car I was reminded of a past where U.S.-Cuba relations were better, to say the least. Very quickly, due to the lack of air conditioning in the taxi, I noticed that I didn’t have the amenities I was used to. My American privilege was not to blame for this exactly. I visited Puerto Rico countless times and, as I said earlier, I have visited the Dominican Republic and was no stranger to vacationing in simpler fashions, but taxis in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico did have air conditioning. It seems so mundane to think so much about a taxi ride without a.c. in ninety-degree weather, but it prepared me for the week ahead.

Once the drivers knew my siblings and I were Puerto Rican, they gave us a warm welcome- almost as if they were welcoming a Cuban home to their island. It’s a feeling remember having when I land in the San Juan airport and random staff or passengers welcome me ‘back home’. This concept of home is so strange to since its directly connected to my identity. I was born in the United States to Puerto Rican immigrants who raised me with Puerto Rican traditions and culture, so I felt more Puerto Rican than American. I didn’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving- we had lechón. I didn’t celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day- we celebrated the night before, on Noche Buena, and waited until midnight to open presents. My first language was Spanish and for most of my childhood we only spoke in Spanish at home. So, I strongly feel that Puerto Rico is home in my heart. Maybe, that has something to do with being a child of diaspora- constantly feeling like you’re not home or do not belong y que la isla te está llamando.

Puerto Rico is home for my parents because they were born there. The United States is undoubtedly my home based on my birthright, but when I’ve been welcomed ‘home’ in Puerto Rico I can’t help but question what it means to really return to Puerto Rico, or if it can be a second home for me. Could it be that I’m longing for my ancestral home? One of the drivers connected us by saying we are all hermanos. Boricuas y Cubanos are family, he said, because Puerto Ricans fought for Cuba’s liberation and Cuban armies were going to make their way to Puerto Rico. He said, “los boricuas y Cubanos son miembros de dos alas y un pajaro”. He was referring to Lola Rodriguez de Tio’s poem, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas,” which meant that our relationship, and the greater Puerto Rico-Cuba relationship, was not only historical but it was also familial. The relationships my ancestors created long ago made us welcomed visitors- even hermanos during our visit in 2017. Those words sang in my heart because I felt it, too. There was something really special about being in Cuba and I had only been there about an hour. We talked about the formation of our flags and that they are inversed because they are the flags of one bird. He assured me that one day Puerto Rico will have their shot at independence, even though that is not something you can promise.

By day two, I grew accustomed to perpetual sweating, frizzy hair, and the heat. I also learned many restaurants run out of food and supplies, so we usually didn’t go to the same place two days in a row. Finding a place to eat in Havana was mostly an adventure- we gave ourselves ample time to walk and find a place before we continued our itinerary for the day. When our local guide took us to a restaurant in the campo, we finally tasted delicious Cuban morro, bistec encebollado, and yuca. In the struggle to find food everyday, I thought about my privileged American way of life. Aside from the beautiful beaches and lovely walks throughout various parts of Havana, my favorite part of the trip was dancing salsa and watching Cubans dance salsa. They don’t dance “on 2” like Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers do, which is the style I’m trained in. Los jardines, a fun dance club by the coast of Havana, was a place where dance troupes performed and battled each other on the floor– a place that showed me that once again Puerto Ricans and Cubans were connected.

The phrase “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas” memorialized my trip to Cuba- various taxi drivers, waitresses, and people mentioned the phrase when they learned about my heritage and cultural background. You see, this relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico crystallized something beyond comradery for me in Cuba… it provided me with a sense of community that I could be a part of. Needless to say, I came back from Cuba five pounds lighter, with less desire to use social media due to my internet cleanse, and with a deeper appreciation for the simpler, beautiful things in life- my family, friends, and the beautiful earth around me.

 

 

Survival

A plate filled with rice and beans

satiated my hunger

almost every day without fail.

I depended on those rice and beans.

Thick gravy drowns the rice, spoonfuls by the minute.

Even on our brokest years,

we could always rely on a pot of arroz y habichuelas.

Sometimes accompanied with a fried egg or

plantains during the weeks where we didn’t have enough for meat.

I didn’t appreciate plates of rice and beans

until I realized white people paid thirteen dollars for a plate.

My food was valuable.

My culture wasn’t savage.

My people didn’t need your help.

They pay for our food and ask questions about our delicacies.

I come home eagerly waiting to

quench my hunger after a long day.

I eat these rice and beans alone

because the table is no longer as full as this plate.

I think of the rice and beans that propagated my survival

and I think of my family.

Scattered around the states and the island

each pursuing different aspects of the American dream.

But, I sit at this empty table envisioning the past,

and I smile because I know these rice and beans will always taste the same.

La madre

She lied awake at night waiting for her eldest daughter to come home from her late shift. She hated that job. She felt her daughter was capable of so much more. She didn’t want to push her too much because she was afraid she’d cause her to become depressed- her disenrollment last semester at the Nursing School and her divorce were enough for her to handle. She thought it was unfair that her other children would ask the eldest daughter to contribute more with chores and such. 

She walked down the hallway using her hands to guide her and went to the bathroom, then found her way to her grandson’s room. She loved babysitting him because she knew she was helping her eldest daughter. Her younger daughter thought it was unfair and that her mother wasn’t supposed to raise him. His relaxed body and open mouth were indicators that he was fine, so she walked past the other rooms and checked to see if her children were asleep. Her son, who was always busy with his school work, sat at his desk finishing his math homework.

“Isn’t it too late for you to be up?” she whispered.

“Ma, its my homework and I have to finish.”

“Me preocupas that you’re always up so late. Have a good night and go to bed soon,” she kissed him good night.

“I promise I’ll go to bed soon. You shouldn’t be awake anyways. Buenas noches mami,” he hugged her.

“Make sure you don’t wake up your sister. You know she gets cranky when she doesn’t get enough sleep.” 

Mami, I’m doing my homework. Good night,” he said as he buried his head back into his books.

She glanced over to her youngest daughter and breathed easy knowing she was asleep. Knowing she was home. Like her brother, she went to bed by dawn writing papers. She delicately walked back to her room and lied in bed. She checked the time. It was 2:34 and her daughter still wasn’t home. She prayed to God to let her get home safe and closed her eyes. 

She realized her attempt to fall asleep was failing. She could not fall asleep without knowing her children were safe and sound. To help put her mind at ease, she thought about her old house. She hated this apartment. It made her feel so big, whereas the house made her feel so small. The three story house provided her privacy and a room for everyone. Now, it saddens her to see her youngest daughter and son sharing a room, her eldest daughter and child in another, while she kept one to herself. The thought of everyone sharing a room made her think about how she doesn’t have anyone to share the room with. Her big bed seemed to swallow her without someone to share it with. She hated the lack of driveways, the lack of privacy, and how she always had to make three trips to get all the groceries out the car. She missed sitting on the porch. It was something she always did in Puerto Rico with her parents. They’d talk about life- how rough it was and how the United States had to be better and let the sun bronze their faces. It was something she brought with her when she came to New Jersey.

        She thought more about her former house. It wasn’t the nicest house. It had some dings and needed new paint and fixtures. But, it came a long way. It was a project she shared with her ex-husband. They found the house a dump, a fixer-upper. They pulled weeds and cut trees down from the yard, while removing the piles of garbage. The house was a dark brown when they first found it, but she thought she should paint it a color that reminded her of home. Yellow. Caribbean Yellow. She planted bloodroots and irises along the pathway that led to the front door with her youngest daughter. She remembered her youngest daughter loved abuela’s garden in Puerto Rico. She remembered how she danced in the living room with her kids to the bachatasmerengues, and salsas. The sounds that seemed to tell the entire neighborhood ‘Hi, we’re Latino’. She remembered seeing her kids mature from pre-teens into adults and how her grandchild’s first home was there. 

She remembered California was three hours delayed so she tried to call her son. She missed him the most. After three rings and no answer, she left him a voicemail.

         “Hola papi, just calling because I can’t sleep again. Estoy aqui pensando. I’m thinking about everything that has happened in the last couple of months. I wish you were still here, but I’m so happy for your accomplishments and your new life. Call me soon, your mami misses you. Te quiero,” she pressed the end button. It was 3:15 now. She made one more round of walking down the hallway and opened the doors of each room enough to peep her head in and make sure her kids were asleep. She checked her grandchild and fixed his blanket when she noticed his toes were peeping out. She walked back to her bed, drank a half spoon of NyQuil and went to bed again. This time when she closed her eyes, she was asleep in twenty minutes.