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Traveling to Cuba was never something I ever considered, even though both sides of my family have their roots there. Growing up as a Cuban-American during a time when there was nothing but tension and hostility towards Cuba made me feel like I should never go there, and well, also the fact that it was illegal for me to anyway. I think my mom once even told me that if I tried to go to Cuba, they would “take my passport away and make me a slave”.
For the most part, all I knew about Cuba was that Fidel Castro was evil, that I wasn’t allowed to go there, and the bits and pieces of memories that my grandmother would repeatedly reminisce about. I still regret being young and naive, and not asking her to hear more about her life in Cuba when she was still here, but I think she knew I’d eventually want to know, because she wrote it all down and hid it in a place where she knew it wouldn’t be found until after she was gone.
I had re-read the first line dozens of times since I found my grandmother’s hidden journal after she died four years ago. She had dated it on January 4th, 1992, my fourth birthday, and I knew she must have meant for it to be found after she was gone, since she had taken two years to write it, and kept it hidden for twenty.
Ironically, out of her four grandchildren, the one who would unknowingly follow in her footsteps, with a curious mind and wanderlust heart, was the one who found it. I had been looking through old black and white photo albums of her in Cuba when I found the thin, green, cloth-covered journal. I remember my hands shaking, and her small diamond wedding ring that my grandfather had just given me slide around my skinny finger as I carefully opened it. When I read it, I cried.
“To my grandchildren, I was born May 17, 1921. My given name was Leida Gonzalez Escandón. We were 12 kids in the family, a large family, very poor, but in my time that was motive for happiness, just been all together.”
So many memories both happy and sad about her life growing up in Cuba that she felt unable to share with us until she was safe in the sky. She left a magnificent legacy that up until that point would have never been known had she not written it down. It was the greatest treasure I could have ever found, and I have kept it with me for the past four years, from when I lived in Florida, to when I accidentally moved to California shortly after she died.
I wanted to see the place my family was from, but my whole life I was told that I would never be able to go to Cuba, and that if I tried, they would “take away my passport and make me a slave or something”. My Cuban family is just hilarious.
But fate struck when I pitched the story idea of tracing my roots in Cuba by using her journal to Geo Chic Magazine, just weeks after the U.S. travel ban to Cuba was lifted. They loved the idea, and loved the fact that I could get everyone cleared for “family visit” visas since I still have cousins who live there! But I refused to believe it was actually going to happen, it was just way too good to be true.
“Let me tell you about my hometown, Cuba is the island in the map, that look like an alligator. Is in the Caribbean, 90 millas from Key West, FLA. The name of the town where I was born is “Santiago de Las Vegas”, 12 miles from Havana, the Capital of Cuba. My town is only 1 millas long for 1 millas aeros, 2 movies, 3 school.”
I looked up from the aged pages of the green, cloth-covered journal and out at the dusty, old, little town of Santiago de Las Vegas. I could hear my grandmother’s thick Spanish accent as I read the words, and for a moment, it almost felt like she was there with me, in her hometown in Cuba, showing me where she grew up.
I don’t think she would have ever thought I’d get to go to Cuba, or for that matter, actually want to see her hometown. I also don’t think she would have expected me to move to LA and become a travel writer, who gets sent to Cuba on a writing assignment that’s based off her life growing up there. But I know she would have been proud. She might have fainted from shock, and lectured me on safety…but she would definitely be proud.
“Izquierda, aqui,” my Spanish wasn’t exactly as great as I thought it would be, but the adequate amount I learned from my grandfather when I was young was enough to communicate with the Spanish-only-speaking driver of the 1950’s Rambler. Ralph, the founder of Geo Chic, and Philipe, an executive of the magazine had already teased me repeatedly about being fully Cuban and sounding like a little gringita, but I still insisted on speaking Spanish as if I was fluent anyway. Especially since no one speaks English in Cuba.
“She’s been in Cuba one day and it’s like she knows the place!” Ralph remarked from the backseat at my innate sense of direction in the town I had never been to before. But in a sense I had been, because I had read about, and pictured it so many times in my grandmother’s journal. To be fair, my mother had also drawn me a stick-figure map of where everything was in regards to the park in the middle, which was strangely accurate and easy to follow.
I didn’t even need to look for the house number of my cousin Ovia‘s house, because as soon as we turned onto the rocky, unkempt road, lined with pale-colored block houses, I could see my other cousin Vinita waiting in the doorway. She looked like she had been standing there waiting all day, and I watched her face as she realized it was me pulling up in the “fancy” black car.
My heart sped up with excitement as I fumbled to gather my things and get out of the car. I handed Philipe my GoPro to video us meeting for the first time, and dashed over to my short, stout, prima who was clasping her open mouth with one hand, and her heart with the other.
There were no words, and there still aren’t any to describe the formerly-unimaginable miracle of that moment. Tears involuntarily poured from both of our eyes and we hugged for what seemed like eternity. She leaned back with wide, blue eyes, that were magnified behind thick glasses, to examine the girl she had only seen in photos for the past twenty-seven years, shaking her head and gasping in disbelief. I choked out a laugh, nodding slowly in affirmation, and we hugged again, confirming that the moment was real.
AlI I could think was, ‘I made it.’ Because up until that very moment, I didn’t believe I ever would.
She ushered us inside the old, narrow house that stretched far back and ended with a small, tree-covered yard. Ovia came from one of the rooms, walking slowly with a slight limp and open arms. I could barely make out the fast Spanish words that came flying excitedly out of her mouth, but the same bewildered look and smile on her face was enough of a translation to know how she felt.
A thin, younger woman appeared in the open doorway, and came to hug me as well. She was a friend of my cousins’ named Lizzy, who helped them with food shopping and cooking, and knew I was coming to visit them that day. She immediately disappeared into the back of the house to make us Cuban coffee, a hospitable trait that is typical of most Cuban people.
We all sat in the simple living room, on the same cane furniture that use to be at my great grandmother’s house down the road, trying our best to converse for the first time with extreme excitement and the slight language barrier. I looked around at all of the photos of my cousin Panfilo, Ovia’s son, who lives in Miami, and his family that made up the majority of the décor in the small living room aside from an old photo of me and my siblings that I was somewhat shocked to see. Like the rest of my family, Panfilo had been immensely excited, shocked, and happy that I was going to Cuba, and especially to the town he grew up in.
I had asked if there was anything I could bring them before I left, and remembered the two cards he had given me with gifts for them. I handed them to my cousins along with the only other thing he asked me to give them, “A big hug and kiss from him and his family.”
There was silence as they read the cards, and I could feel the heartache in their souls as they longed for the person they loved the most. Ovia put the card down and ushered me towards the back of the house where there were several rooms separated by stone wall dividers. She explained how the front of the house is newer which is why it has tiles, and the rest of the house is made of stone and was built in 1863. She showed me her room, which she was also born in, and my cousin Panfilo’s room that still had teenage paraphernalia in it from when he lived there years ago.
After showing me the banana and guava fruit-filled trees in the backyard, we walked back to the living room so I could show Vinita the hidden journal. Vinita, as my mother describes her, is like the socialite of the town –she knows everyone and everything, and could take me to all of the places my grandmother described in her journal.
Vinita actually lived in my grandmother’s house up until a few years ago, when the government decided it was too big for only one person to live in, and made her move into an apartment so a bigger family could move in. She read the first page, and looked up at me, again with those wide, bewildered eyes, as she realized what I had brought. Well, either she realized what it was or was pretending to, because I was pretty sure she doesn’t read English either.
Suddenly she sprang to her feet and marched towards the door like a soldier on a mission, waving her hand at us to follow her as she prepared to lead the time traveling tour. As we stepped out into the arid, dusty street, Lizzy said slowly in careful English, “Wait, wait, my son is coming, he speaks English.”
I wasn’t sure how or when they arranged the perfectly timed meeting, but I followed her finger to where she was pointing and saw a shockingly handsome young man strolling casually towards us, as if he were in a Cuban Coca-Cola commercial or something. She introduced us all to her son Julian, who is studying Computer Science at Union Cycliste Internationale, and luckily also takes classes in English.
The six of us shuffled slowly down the rocky road as Julian translated to me what Lizzy and Vinita were explaining about the town. Any time there was a step, crack, or slightly larger rock in the road, they would all grab my arms protectively to make sure I didn’t fall, and literally stood in front of me whenever we crossed a road. There weren’t many cars, maybe a few of the old 1950’s run-down classics and a horse and buggy here and there. But for the most part, everyone was just walking.
People starred as I passed, seeming like they had never seen a visitor from the U.S. before, and I didn’t blame them, since Santiago de Las Vegas isn’t exactly a tourist attraction in Cuba. Life is simple there. It’s as if it’s still exactly the same as it was before the Revolution in 1958. And I loved everything about that, except the crumbling state of many of the homes that had no funds to be fixed, and the lack of goods that were available to the people because of the embargo. I had brought them a suitcase full of my old clothes to give or sell, and a big bag of antacids and aspirin that my mother had given me along with some other gifts, but I wondered what would happen when it ran out.
As we continued walking, Vinita proudly announced to all of her friends and neighbors that we passed, that I was her cousin visiting from the U.S., and the looks of bewilderment came at me again. Some people looked a little scared, but some were excited and kept up with us to chat a bit more about it.
“Mira! Alla!” Vinita said suddenly, pulling my arm towards a long, plain building that had completely crumbled in one corner. It was the first stop on the time travel tour of my grandmother’s past,
‘I remember when we have time off at school for 10 minute, all the girls get together and talk or if we have something to eat, we do it at that time, most all the time I only have a piece of bread with guava jelly. We were so envy to see the other girls, not alls, a few of them, they have an apple, sometime they have grapes, oh, nobody know how we like to take it from them.’
It made me sad knowing that my grandmother hardly had any food to eat growing up. Especially since I was the world’s most pickiest eater when I was young. That was why the next location meant so much to me; the house she grew up in and the backyard filled with fruit trees that made her feel like they were the richest people in the world.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get inside the small school house because the doors were locked, but I imagined her running across the street to play in the park on their breaks, and rolling her eyes at the kids who had food.
‘[We] Believe that we were the most richer people in the world, we have 3 dogs, about 10 cats, chickens, rabbit, all that plus, mango, orange, avocado, guava trees, when we were too hungry, we always can climb a tree an get some fruits.’
Everyone kept warning me that the house was not the same as it was when she lived there. Since then, it had been completely rebuilt, with a new family living in it, however the backyard was still somewhat the same. It was a bit far, so we let Vinita take the Rambler while we walked, which she said made her feel like a movie star.
On the way there, Julian and Lizzy told me about the old homes, and how some of them get rebuilt by the government if they get really bad, or if they have family that sends them money from the U.S. The ones that don’t still remain the same as they were originally constructed, and sadly, the families have no other choice but to live in the crumbling remains.
The whole time I just kept thinking about how I was walking the same streets as my grandmother once had, and I wondered what her every day life might have been like. I distinctly remembered her once telling me that her mother got bit by a scorpion and had to walk ten miles to the hospital in Cuba, in an attempt to scare me into putting my shoes on when I went outside when I was little. I didn’t believe her back then, and would never put my shoes on, but seeing the area in real life made me want to apologize for ever doubting her.
She had also always told me, and also written in the journal, that when she was growing up, they used to smash charcoal until it was powder, put it in a box, then take a piece of cloth wrapped around their finger and use it to clean their teeth. The first toothbrush she used was when she was 12 years old. For deodorant, they would use carbonate of soda, and for face powder, they would take the shell of an egg, make a powder, and use it on their face.
If they were sick, their mother would give them natural remedies like lemon, fish liver oil, olive oil, and tea. If they had a cut, she would go to the back yard, take some leaves from the gumbo tree, and wrap it around the cut, or cover it with sugar to stop the bleeding. Although I didn’t know them at the time, I think these types of stories are what made me think that I was Pocahontas when I was younger. And it all makes sense why no one ever thought it was strange when I wanted a lizard or a chicken as a pet.
When we finally arrived at the house my grandmother grew up in, Vinita was already inside chatting with the woman who now lives there. She graciously welcomed us in, but I still felt slightly angered that the government had just taken my grandmother’s house and given it away to someone else. But I knew the three little girls playing quietly on the small bed in one of the rooms needed the space much more than just one person did.
Light seemed like it was shining at the end of a dark tunnel, and I felt like I was being drawn towards it with involuntary hypnosis. I could faintly hear all of my grandmother’s memories about the house, her stories about the backyard, and the secrets of her life that were written on the pages of the green, cloth-covered journal that was clutched tightly in my hands.
My grandmother had written about this place in a journal, because she thought we would never get to see it, and I had physically brought her memories back to the place where they were created. I could feel my eyes fixate on the light coming from the backyard, and knew that the brightness and anticipation were causing my eyes to start welling-up with salty tears. For a second I even considered the possibility that I’d pass out or have a heart attack, but I kept walking towards the backyard anyway.
I couldn’t hear anything anyone was explaining to me about the backyard. All I could hear was my grandmother’s memories, flooding into mine like she was there, quasi-lecturing me about only having fruit to eat and explaining why she always grew so many trees and plants in her backyard in Hialeah.
Nostalgia swept over me as the yard came into focus — even though I had never been to this seemingly familiar place in my life. I could never have pictured her as a little girl before I read her journal, and still, her stories about catching ‘lissards’ are hard to believe since I only knew her later on. She had always yelled at my grandfather for teaching me how to catch lizards with a piece of string, or trap random animals in a metal cage, but I knew now that it was because of her own consequences as a child, because she had been adventurous and gotten in trouble, just like me.
That was the point of her journal, to explain her life growing up, and why it made her the way she was with us. It was to show that maybe she was or wasn’t just like us growing up, and I would have never known she was had I not found that journal. But her childhood was only the beginning. The time traveling machine was just warming up.
A half-hairless dog with mange was barking at me as I gazed up at the massive avocado tree in the backyard. I felt like my brain was typing subtitles out in front of me as my cousin explained apologetically in Spanish that the only thing that still remained the same about the entire property was that tree that was now almost one hundred years old. That would mean that my grandmother probably climbed it when it was still a seedling, and for that, I was grateful for the giant tree.
I couldn’t understand why they kept making me look at the bathroom that was attached to the outside of the house, but later I realized it was because her family had built it when my aunt was young, and too afraid to use the outhouse that my grandmother had to use growing up. It was another part of the house that was still original from when she lived there, and it definitely showed when I peeked in to see rusted amenities.
I took a photo of it, mostly to make everyone stop fussing about it, then tried to steady myself as I took everything in. All of the memories, thoughts, images, and emotions of my grandmother’s life, mixed with the commotion of conversations and explanations from everyone in the small, tattered yard, made my head spin. For some reason, as much as I wanted to stay, I felt an overwhelming sense to leave.
The dog wouldn’t stop barking at me even though it was wagging its tail, which offended me since I consider myself an animal whisperer. There was a grungy-looking, orange and white kitten in the doorway, which, I subconsciously cooed, “aw, gatico” at, but consciously refrained from petting it after being yelled at earlier to not touch the stray animals. The wind blew hard suddenly, making the underwear that was hung on the clotheslines sway, and I felt a pang of embarrassment for seeing a stranger’s private clothing in public. No one seemed bothered about any of it though, except for me and the weather.
I didn’t want to make eye contact with anyone, and I couldn’t anyway; my pride and poise would not let me show the strong emotions and energy I was feeling from that yard. I looked back up to the rustling branches of the towering avocado tree, trying to figure out what exactly it was that I was feeling, but there were no words. The dog was still barking, the kitten was still sitting there in the doorway, and the sounds of Spanish banter was still drowned out in the background like white noise.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, dark, pillowing clouds came tumbling over us, and I could feel the reflection of their grey color absorb into my eyes. The sudden contrast made everything in the backyard seem even more detailed and surreal as it had been in the bright sunlight, and for a moment, I felt like it was either a warning or acknowledgement that I was there.
Chills ran up my arms, and the thought of a torrential downpour worried me for the sake of my cousins’ and colleagues’ well-being. The dog finally stopped barking, and I pet the little cat anyway on my way back inside, which, was shortly followed by a plea for me to wash my hands. But I kept walking back towards the front of the house, eager to take a picture in front of it before it was too dark, and before I was too embarrassed to use my “selfie-stick” in an area where cellphones hardly exist.
When I got there, a little girl was at the front porch door, her name was Isabelle and she had hazel-yellow eyes with a tan skin tone that matched her hair. She was too pretty to look so shy when she asked to come in, but I smiled at her quietly and held the door open for her to run to her friends in the small bedroom inside. I probably would have acted the same way when I was her age, and wondered if my grandmother would have as well.
I waited out front for everyone to exit the house, feeling as though I was in the Twilight Zone in between two time periods, and not entirely sure of which generation era I was actually in. I think everyone could tell the emotional toll it was taking on me even though I tried to hide it, since they mingled by the front door while I attempted suppressing tears of happiness for a photo in front of the house my grandmother grew up in.
Finally after a few attempted photos in the front yard, I fixed my top knot, and hid my messed-up make-up with my cheap, over-sized black glasses and prepared myself for the next important part of my grandmother’s life legacy.
I remember my grandmother briefly reminiscing about her teenage years when I was younger, and always telling me to never settle. I always thought she was just teasing me, but never really knew the entire story about why she said that until I read about it in the journal.
We walked to the park that we had passed when we first drove into the small yet bustling town. It seemed like there wasn’t much to do besides hang out and talk to each other, so it made sense for the park to be rather populated. The park itself is a square, concrete area, with a smaller square in the middle that has four steps that lead up to a prominent statue. My cousin insisted I take a photo with the statue, because apparently it’s one of my grandmother’s cousins who was a war chief and hero in the 1800’s named Juan Delgado Gonzalez.
On the perimeter of the park are palm trees, bushes, and a few park benches on each side. That is where my grandmother would have probably sat with her friends to talk about the boys in the park like she describes it in her journal. The only boys I saw were a group of about six little boys who looked at me like I was a robot alien from the future, which made me question again which time era I was actually in.
They asked to take a picture, but for some reason, were extremely shy and standoffish when I sat down next to them. They didn’t smile for the photo, they just kept staring at me, each one of them with a different shade skin tone although they were all from the same place.
My grandmother had met my grandfather around this time in the early 1930’s, his family had just moved to Santiago de Las Vegas, and was even poorer than hers. She wrote that he was so skinny that she only saw him as a boy and as her best friend’s brother, plus the fact that she was an entire year older than him made him unsuitable for a suitor. It broke my heart more than anything to hear about my grandfather being hungry when he was younger. And it breaks my heart when he gets so upset that I’m so skinny now. But that’s later in the story.
Instead my grandmother and her friends would walk in the park, the girls would go one way, the boys the other, then the girls would sit on the benches, and the boys would come over. She wrote that that was how they would find out if he was good looking and clean, and if he wasn’t, they would make an excuse to get up and go around the park again. Kind of like an ancient version of Tinder.
Another square perimeter makes the road that goes around the park, and facing it is my grandmother’s school, a church, and several shanty homes and little market shops. My favorite shop was a “bookstore” I stopped at on the way in, whose walls were piled high with old, dusty books, that only cost about fifty cents to buy. I ended up buying more than I could carry because the adorably hunched, old man who works there kept shuffling back and forth with different titles saying, “Mira, mira, en Ingles!” when he realized I was looking for books written in English.
She worked for a dressmaker, and said the lady had a maid, who knew how hungry she was and would secretly save her scraps from dinner. My grandmother would give her mother 50 cents, and keep 25 cents for herself which she used to buy her first tooth brush, ice cream, and even some perfume. She wrote in her journal that she ate her first apple when she was 16, “it costed 5 cents, which was considered a lot in that time, especially with so little money”.
She also had her first boyfriend, and she wrote about how his family had come to meet hers, which was what usually led to marriage. Many of her friends were getting married at that time, but she got scared, because she didn’t love him, and asked her mother if she could go stay with her sister in the then-thriving city of Havana. That was how she broke off the relationship.
Although the war was starting, things in Havana couldn’t have been better. In my grandmother’s journal she writes about how the “yankees” came to build an air force base, and she started working at it making $40 a week, which made her feel like a “rich girl”.
Things changed for her in 1944, she had money to spend, and could finally afford to buy nice clothes, and other small luxuries. She wrote that she met a couple of nice guys, and would go out dancing every weekend, or go on a tour around Cuba, and that it was all good clean fun.
She hung out on the Malécon often, which is the long, winding stone wall that separates the city of Havana from the daunting ocean waters below it. It’s where friends, family, and lovers have gathered for decades to enjoy a beautiful sunset, drinks, and time together laughing and chatting. I immediately understood the appeal of the Malécon when I went there for sunset the day before, and although I had no one to share it with, I felt enough love from the warm Havana atmosphere to enjoy it regardless.
I can tell that my grandmother loved that year. I could imagine her at one of the discotecs, dancing innocently and laughing more than she ever had in her life. I imagine her being cautious, and well-aware of her surroundings, not afraid to turn her nose up at an un-welcomed solicitor, or snap at someone for getting fresh.
Soon though, my grandmother started to realize that things over in Europe weren’t going so well with the war. She wrote that she was too young to worry, because everyone was working in Cuba, and it was the best year for her country. Money was flowing in like water from the U.S., and new places were opening like movie theaters and restaurants. There was electricity and radio, water and good things to eat, but they never put their minds to the fact that hundreds of people were dying in France, England, and all over Europe.
“In 1945 things started getting bad, young people started going to the war, Plinio, your grandfather went to the U.S., enlisted in the army, and went to the war in Germany”
The radio had started announcing men from Cuba that were either killed in action or prisoners of war, and suddenly, my grandmother became worried. She was close with my grandfather’s family, and his sister, Olga, was her best friend.
She was 24 at the time, and said it was when she started changing. Things weren’t looking too good for the U.S. but there was nothing anyone could do in Cuba to help it. She kept working in Havana so that her mother, who was then-widowed, could have money and groceries for herself and the younger siblings. But she kept listening every day on the radio for the names of the Cuban soldiers who were missing in action.
She kept listening for one name that she didn’t want to hear. Until one day she heard it. My grandfather, Plinio F. Muñoz was a prisoner of war in Germany.
My grandfather returned to the tiny town of Santiago de Las Vegas, where he had first arrived as a poor, malnourished child, after being a prisoner of war for 10 months. My grandmother returned too, and the town threw a big party for him, and honored him as a hero. He was also a hero in the eyes of my grandmother, who no longer saw him as a boy, but as a man that she was very much in love with.
They enjoyed the good life for a bit in Cuba after the war. They got to go out dancing and to shows like the Tropicana, which was the very same show I had watched in the very same place in Havana almost seventy years later. But my grandfather, a very smart man, knew there was more money to be made in the U.S. He had a dual citizenship so went back to find work in America. He would send letters back and forth, begging my grandmother to come to the U.S., because there was something very important that he wanted them to do there.
Finally she went, and in 1946, they got married in a courthouse in New York City, where the only witnesses were another couple who were getting married after them. But they had each other, and the hopes and dreams of building a life in the United States.
The time travel timeline of my grandmother’s life in Cuba pauses at this point, because the next two years were spent scrambling to make money and raise a baby in the U.S. It wasn’t nearly as easy as they thought it would be. Times were bad, jobs were scarce, and the entire nation was reeling from the war.
Since my grandmother married my grandfather as a U.S. citizen, and had her two children in the States, the whole family had U.S. passports and could travel freely to and from Cuba as they pleased. But although they went to Cuba often in the late 1950’s, my grandmother wrote hardly anything of it in her journal.
This was around the time when Havana was notorious for being considered the “Las Vegas of the Caribbean”. Although it was a flourishing era for the wealthy people of the U.S. who’d visit, and the workers benefiting from the income, the rest of the country was suffering because of the corrupt relationships of the Cuban leader, Batista, and the majority of the mafia, mob, gangster, and government leaders in the U.S.
In fact, the last stop on the time travel treasure map of Santiago de Las Vegas in my grandmother’s journal is at the old church that faces the park she walked in as a teenager, and where my mother was baptized as an infant around 1955.
It was good Friday so there were many people inside the church, they were sitting on the wooden pews and peeking out from behind their prayer hands at me as I quietly made my way to the various statues and displays.
I had seen all of the places that my grandmother wrote about in her journal from 1921 to 1958, and still it all seemed so surreal, like there was so much more to see and stories to hear. She ends her journal with a brief introduction of my mother’s younger years, noting that the rest of her life is for her to tell me, but doesn’t talk about her last three years in Cuba, or anything after the 1960’s. And I think I know why.
My grandmother may have omitted the facts from her journal, but luckily my mother recalls her last memory in Cuba as clear as day.
“It was January 1st, 1958, we were sleeping at my Grandmother Tomasa’s house — your great-grandmother — when she came to my mom in the middle of the night and said, ‘You have to get up. Get your girls, get your things, and get to the airport, you have to leave Cuba right now.’ We were one of the first flights out of Cuba the next morning.”
As my mother, aunt, and grandmother took off in the early hours out of Havana, Fidel Castro and the Revolutionaries took power of the government, and marched into the very same area they had just left.
I had already been to my grandmother’s very last time travel stop in Cuba in 1958, because it was the same airport that I had flown into a few days earlier.
The time travel tour of Cuba through my grandmother’s past ends there, because after that, she wasn’t able to go back, and it was very painful for her. She was separated from her family, just like the Revolution separated an entire island full of families, and left them with lives torn in half. She was heartbroken when she got news that her mother had died seven years later, and that she hadn’t been able to see her before.
Then she got news shortly after that her only brother was dying, and spent almost a month in the Bahamas trying to gain clearance to go see him before he died, but by the time she did, it was already too late.
I knew there were many Cuban and Cuban-American families who experienced the same pain she did because of the harsh consequences of communism, and it was for them too that I wanted time travel through my grandmother’s past, to show what so many went through.
As I made my way back out to the middle of the park, I squinted around, taking in the history, and re-living the legacy of my grandmother’s past. My mind was filled with more wonder than it was before I read her journal, and I felt pain and regret from not asking her questions sooner before she left. But I was grateful for the conversations we had, and the memories I had found, and grateful for the curious person I had become that led me to seek out what she had wanted us to know.
She wrote about an era in Cuba that is intriguing, yet difficult to understand, and what she wanted us to know about her and her life.
It was for that reason, that I was standing there in 2015, in her tiny little hometown of Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba, holding back tears behind big glasses, as I twirled the little diamond of her wedding ring around my finger, and clutched onto the green, cloth-covered journal of my grandmother’s past.
In loving memory of Leida Gonzalez Muñoz
Dedicated to my mother Marilyn and my grandpa Plinio, thank you for always believing in and encouraging my crazy ideas and travels