My American husband and I are aisle-seat people, sitting across from each other when we fly. At takeoffs and landings, I always reach across the narrow aisle and give his hand a tight squeeze: love and luck for safety.
On a ridiculously early morning flight out of Tampa on March of 2017, he took his usual aisle seat, his long legs framing the narrow seat in front of him.
I took the window. I wanted to see Cuba as we landed.
The last time I’d seen Cuba was over fifty years ago, in 1965, when I was eight years old. My parents, brother, and I, along with the entire side of my father’s family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—seventeen of us in total—left during the Camarioca Boatlift. Rarely covered in history books, the Camarioca Boatlift lasted a few weeks from the end of September to the start of November in 1965. Approximately four thousand Cubans left the island during those weeks. My uncle, Tío Onil, who’d escaped from Cuba a few years earlier, sailed from Florida to get us. He and a friend, who was also claiming his extended family, rented a shrimp boat, The Dolphin. Three weeks before we left the island, we’d left our homes in the Pinar del Río province, traveled to the port of Camarioca in the province of Matanzas, and waited for The Dolphin to be permitted to leave. Twice, during the days we spent waiting in a make-shift compound, bullhorns announced that The Dolphin could depart. Both times, we were forced to turn back without explanation before we even glimpsed the boat.
Our permission to leave Cuba was finally granted on the evening of November 1st. Earlier that day, a storm had moved in.
I remember my family gathering at the dock to greet my uncle; my father saying to my grandmother, “Mamá, you go first.” Fragments of memories from that night stay with me. Always the same and in the same order. My memory of leaving Cuba is a music box that plays only one song.
The shrimp boat was perfectly sea-worthy, but the seas were too high. The sporadic wind and rain from the day’s storm had intensified. There were too many of us, and our boat rode low, taking on water. Because there weren’t enough life jackets, every child on board was held tightly by an adult. My mother held my three-year-old brother, and my grandmother, Abuela Pura, held on to me. Dozens of us sat next to each other on deck. I remember Abuela praying while pressing me to her chest as we huddled together against sea spray and rain. When the swells intensified, I panicked. Abuela took a plastic three-inch statue of La Virgen de la Caridad, the patron saint of the island, from her purse and squeezed it in my hand.
Turning back was not an option. We had nothing to go back to. There was only forward. The Dolphin’s captain radioed for help, and an American Coast Guard cutter promised rescue if we made it to international waters.
When we reached the Coast Guard ship, it towered, big as a building, above the shrimp boat. Grandparents, aunts, and cousins were transferred through sheets of rain from one vessel to another. But, Tío Onil, his friend, my father, and two more of my uncles stayed on The Dolphin to help the shrimper sail his boat, the source of his livelihood, back to Florida. The cutter continued to patrol the Straits for the next forty-eight hours rescuing refugees from other boats in distress. For the first twenty-four hours, we didn’t know if the men of our family were alive.
My husband of thirty-eight years has wanted to visit Cuba for a long time. I’ve been the holdout.
Since the end of the 1960s, both sides of my family have lived in the United States. With the connect-the-dots concatenation of refugee families, everyone settled in Naples, Florida, directly across from Miami, on the west coast of the state. My parents had no urgent left-behind voices beckoning them back. Returning to Cuba with my parents was a dream that pulled me. As did the yearning that every Cuban exile child grows up with—as ubiquitous as an azabache bead dangling from a gold chain—to experience for ourselves as adults the island that’s been our ever-present, yet unknown, companion.
My eighty-six-year-old father doesn’t want to visit. Not out of rancor; he simply prefers to live out his life with his memories. My mother would make the trip with me, but she wouldn’t leave Papi at home stressed and worried.
My parents share an apprehension about returning to Cuba. They were gusanos, worms, the term used by the communist for anyone opposed to the government. They lived through the times of unannounced house searches, mass round-ups, detentions, and—paredón—where people against the revolution were summarily lined up in front of a paréd, a wall, and executed by firing squads.
I shared their uneasiness. I remember sitting with my mother in a dark house in a mandatory blackout during the Missile Crisis and waking in the morning to find the roads scarred by the teeth marks of tank treads. We had a bomb shelter dug into the side of the hill behind my grandparents’ house. I grew up knowing my grandparents hid a young man, a counter-revolutionary friend of the family, in the wall behind a bedroom dresser for weeks.
Now, getting from where I live in Tampa, Florida to Havana, is a quick and easy flight. My husband, respectful of my indecisiveness, had given me a frank ultimatum: if I didn’t want to visit Cuba, that was fine, he would go by himself. But I did want to go, even though I was extremely conflicted: about the apprehension spawned from my childhood, about the still-autocratic Cuban government, about the dissenting opinions of family and friends who saw my trip as dishonorable to those who had risked and sacrificed in opposition, and about the fact that I’d be traveling with American privilege. I could spend on one modest dinner what an average Cuban earned in a month.
Early in 2016, almost a year out, I decided we’d make the trip in March 2017: after our daughter’s November wedding, after I’d turned in my MFA thesis, after hurricane season, and before the start of the summer rains.
Because I was born in Cuba, I had to apply for my visa months before the trip. That innocuous act left me momentarily paralyzed in my car outside a Cuban American travel agency that was helping me with the trip paperwork. A part of me felt I was making a terrible mistake—I was tempting fate. As the trip approached, my anxiety intensified. Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Cuba regularly without any problems, but that didn’t prevent me from waking up in the middle of the night frightened, heart pounding, unable to breathe.
I was being irrational, and I knew it, but I couldn’t control it.
A few weeks before our departure my mother called, “I’d like you to bring me back one thing. When you go to Viñales look for una palma barrigona. They grow tall and fat in the middle, and like the name, they have a belly. I’ve only seen them in the valley. Bring me a picture, and if you can, bring me some seeds.” My mother can grow anything.
I saw the sun rise over Cuba from my window seat as we approached the José Martí Airport. I’ve heard of returning fellow Cubans cheering, applauding, weeping, kneeling to kiss the ground after landing. I didn’t react any of those ways. I reached in my purse and squeezed my grandmother’s small saint—like reaching for my husband’s hand, a gesture of love for everyone I cared for who’d never had the chance to return, and luck for our safety. I didn’t arrive in Havana joyous and nostalgic. I arrived exhausted from weeks, months, of emotionally conflicting feelings and fear.
It’s cliché to say that when one travels to Cuba one travels back in time. Yes, the cars, the buildings. But I did travel back in time—as an eight-year-old girl. Like Cuba, a part of me was frozen. Of all the hash marks that define my life: university, marriage, motherhood, failures, successes, the loss of loved ones; one follows another like the marks of those tank treads on our street, but none bifurcates my life as precisely as leaving Cuba.
Within a day of my arrival, I began a transformation. Words I hadn’t used in years came easily to my tongue: chapapote, pregonero, marañon. I explored Havana without fear. Tourists are a commodity to be courted. The Cuban accent—blunt vowels and swallowed word endings—is quite distinct. Within two sentences of commencing conversations, people stopped me to say, “You’re from here.” I am, but I’m not. I was acutely aware of the difference between traveling to Cuba with relative ease for a week and the challenges of surviving there daily. For people living in Cuba, food and goods are still scarce, human and civil rights are still oppressed, and freedom to travel is still restricted.
Everyone wanted to talk. What was my story? I told them about Camarioca, The Dolphin, the community my extended family created, and the lives we’ve lived. I anticipated resentment. What I was met with, was curiosity and kindness.
I was surprised at the candor with which complete strangers expressed their opinions. When we lived in Cuba, my parents were extremely cautious about what they said and to whom. They’d taught me to do the same, warning me never to repeat anything I heard at home. Now, some told me they had no desire to leave; they didn’t want to start over. Others see change coming, slowly, but coming. While still others told me if they could leave with their families, they’d do so in an instant. The spectrum of views and desires is just as broad as the views toward Cuba within my Cuban American community.
The chasm between the little girl who left on a boat, and the person I am today was closing, filled by experiencing first-hand as an adult the country that only existed in the recounted stories of my family or in the tendrils of my childhood memory. With every different place, I fell more in love with the island’s natural beauty—the afternoon sea breeze coming across the gulf and bringing crashing waves over the malecón; the landscape and colors of el Valle de Viñales (where my mother spent time as a child) with its rounded-top hills called mogotes and burnt-orange soil—all stole my heart. The spirit, ingenuity, and resiliency of the people I met was admirable, inspiring, and familiar. These were the same attributes of the family and community that raised me.
Perhaps Cuba will always be a two-sided coin for people like me. We belong, but we don’t; we’re happy to visit, but grateful to know we can leave.
I returned with videos and hundreds of pictures. My parents and relatives poured over them, asking just as many questions. This time the stories and memories to share were mine. I brought my mother pictures of whole fields dotted with palmas barrigonas. I gave her a picture of me standing next to an unusual fat-bellied palm. It grows tall from a sturdy trunk in the earth and balloons at its belly, but instead of growing straight up, it splits, becoming two separate palms.
Aracelis González Asendorf was born in Cuba and raised in Florida. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Kweli Journal, Puerto del Sol, The South Atlantic Review, The Acentos Review, Litro, Saw Palm Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. Her stories have been anthologized in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color and 100% Pure Florida Fiction. She has an MFA from the University of South Florida.