I was born in 1978 in Miami, FL, exactly 18 years and 11 months after Fidel Castro’s revolución in Cuba. My father, a political prisoner and member of the contra-revolucionario movement (the MRR), evaded his trial (most probably a firing squad) because Costa Rica granted him a visa. He was 17 and that was 1961. My grandfather, who was a sergeant during Batista’s regime and had retired by the time Fidel assumed power, also joined the movement after Castro took all of our family’s possessions. That was the revolution, and that is my family’s history.
My father met my mother during a business trip in Colombia and shortly after they wed and had me. I grew up between Barranquilla and Miami, “la otra provincia de Cuba.” Papi and Abuelo Juan were very proud Cubans who made sure to keep their culture, traditions and history very much alive within me. Papi would teach me Jose Martí poems, Cuba’s most famous poet, philosopher, and teacher, and proudly prompt me to recite them in front of my abuelo. They taught me Cuba’s history and politics, how to smoke puros (they were tabaco farmers in Pinar del Río), play dominó and burro, and of course made food, traditions, and music an integral part of my life (I actually know the Cuban national anthem).
For over three decades, Cuba was this forbidden, magical, yet tragic place I deeply longed to see but wouldn’t dare to visit. I was morally shackled to my family’s honor and couldn’t disrespect them by leaving our hard earned dollars in the hands of the Castros. Years passed, my grandfather passed, my father’s health deteriorated and the situation in Cuba remained the same. And so the day came when my father accepted the reality that he would never return and finally, finally gave me his blessing, “Loren, yo entiendo que quieres ver a tú ‘patría’…ves baby, porque yo me voy a morir sin poder regresar.” And that, was all I needed to hear!
December 31, 2015 would mark my 40th country and most memorable trip. I flew direct from Miami to La Habana and in 30 minutes was transported to another world frozen in time! Before booking my trip, I vouched to stay only in casas particulares in order to be closer to the people and help them financially. If I was going to Cuba I was going to live, eat and struggle like they do, a lo Cubano. I wanted to experience their reality no matter how difficult it would be.
4 days in La Habana, 2 in Pinar del Río, 2 in Varadero and 2 in Cienfuegos. Every moment in Cuba felt like home. I was living in this sort of vicarious nostalgia. La Habana was incredible and insanely gorgeous, the most run down of neighborhoods were picturesque; so much beauty in those very traces of beauty. However, life in La Habana is a hustle; resources are scarce and everyone is trying to make do with what they have. One morning it took me over an hour to find breakfast and it was here where I learned a valuable lesson of resolver y conseguir. Pinar del Río was hands down my favorite! The guajiros welcomed me like one of their own. The highlight of my trip was my visit to Consolación del Sur, the city where my paternal family is from. I was able to find our family friends, Las Jimaguas Cabrera, who burst into tears when they realized who I was. One of them, Teresa, lived in my family’s house for 43 years after they left. She took me to “our” house and I was cathartic! I cried in disbelief, my two feet were actually planted on my family’s soil…right there right then. Before leaving, el viejito Juan said, “esperar es tiempo…nosotros no esperamos, tenemos esperanza” and then he cried. I sobbed uninterrupted the 45 km from Consolación to Viñales.
Varadero was beautiful but unfortunately had torrential rains and mostly cloudy. Cienfuegos and the famous El Nicho, pristine waterfalls in the middle of the mountains, were amazing! I partied with some locals there, the WiFi card dealer, who had made two attempts to leave in a balsa, his wife and the vianda vendor who had done 8 years of hard time for robbing a tourist. He said he did it out of la necesidad. The WiFi dealer’s wife, said my father’s mother had brought me here and that she loved white flowers. I cried. Indeed, Abuela Clota loved gardenias and my Abuelo had even planted a tree for her in their house in Miami. Although, Abuela Clota died when I was 2, they say the night she died I woke up screaming her name. Abuela Clota, gracias por acompañarme en Cuba…dos gardenias para tí!