A sojourn into my Cuban roots

Vintage American cars are impossible for tourists to resist. Here, we get ready for a ride in a 1959 Ford Fairlane taxi in the resort town of Varadero.
Vintage American cars are impossible for tourists to resist. Here, we get ready for a ride in a 1959 Ford Fairlane taxi in the resort town of Varadero.

My journey to Cuba began almost a year ago, when two boxes arrived at my house filled with two very different types of letters.

In one box sat stacks of tissue-thin love notes written by my grandparents during their courtship in the 1940s, full of romantic phrasing and beautiful penmanship, mailed between their two towns, 42 miles apart, in Cuba.

The next box’s letters had a starkly different tone: Heartbreaking dispatches spanning 1961 to 1966, written between my grandparents in Havana and their two daughters (my mother and my aunt), then living as orphans in the United States because of the Cuban revolution.

My grandparents, like thousands of other Cuban parents, put their two girls (then 11 and 13) on a plane in 1961 and sent them alone, knowing no English, to Philadelphia, because they feared that Fidel Castro’s communist government would force children into work camps. The girls lived in an all-girls Catholic boarding school for five years, until their parents and little brother, Benjamin, could join them in the States.

mom and aunt -then
My mother, Isolina (left), and aunt Mercedes (right) posed for this photo days before coming to the United States in 1961. Cristina Bolling

In the letters, the pain is tangible: five years of birthday cards with hopeful notes that they’d be together for the next birthday, tidings of school dances, and reports from the girls about friends who had offered to take them home for Christmas. At one point, my mother stopped writing her parents in Spanish and began writing in English.

Last May, during a basement-cleaning spree, my aunt passed the letters on to me for safekeeping.

I slowly and gingerly sifted through the stacks.

Then, the epiphany: It was finally time for me to travel to Cuba.

Dream team

Over Christmas, the planning began in earnest.

My Cuba “dream team” was assembled: My mother, Isolina, who had gone back to Cuba only once, in 1998. My aunt, Mercedes, who had never returned since leaving as an 11-year-old. And my cousin, Merced, 10 years my junior, who was as eager as I to meet our family who remained there and visit the places we’d seen only in photographs.

This photo, taken around 1957, shows my mother (front), my aunt (middle) and their cousins on the roof of my great-grandparents’ home in Los Arabos, Cuba. We four travelers recreated the photo during a trip in April. Cristina Bolling

We four travelers recreated an old family photo posed on steps on the roof of my great grandparents’ home in Los Arabos, Cuba. Cristina Bolling

Cuban visas had to be obtained by my mother and aunt, naturalized U.S. citizens but still considered by Cuba to be Cuban citizens.

Planning travel to Cuba as individuals, rather than a group tour, proves incredibly difficult. American credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere in Cuba, and busy hotels are unwilling to hold rooms for individual Americans. Even booking four seats on a charter flight is tiresome, requiring the help of customer-un-friendly travel agencies.

Through Airbnb, we found lodging in Havana with a Russian woman who had three bedrooms to spare. Our family members in Cuba had homes too small to host the four of us.

We shopped for things we knew they would need and want: frying pans and powdered milk; bras, shoes and canes for elderly friends and relatives. Powdered Jell-O and Pepperidge Farm cookies. An unlocked cell phone. In Cuba, citizens buy goods at government-owned stores, where quality is poor and supply is spotty. (Toothpaste may be available today and gone tomorrow.)

Our gifts filled three large suitcases; we packed our own clothes and toiletries in small carry-ons.

And at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, we arrived at Miami International Airport for the 1-hour flight.

View from above

The journey got off to a rocky start.

The Latin American charter terminal was a disorganized mess, with no signage and confusing check-in procedures. Half of our flight’s passengers had boarded when the crew discovered the plane had no fuel. Everyone was ushered off and forced to wait another hour in the terminal.

Fifty-six minutes after takeoff, we clapped when the wheels touched down in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. We descended stairs to the tarmac and climbed aboard a wawa (bus, in Cuban slang) to the terminal.

We were prepared for a hassled trip through Cuban immigration, especially for my mother and aunt. Cubans who left during the revolution have long been referred to as gusanos, or worms, by some in the Cuban government. But we sailed through with relative ease.

As we walked out into hot daylight, I was prepared for what we’d see – but it still took my breath away: An enormous crowd of people waiting to welcome loved ones, and a parking lot crammed with 1950s American cars, and a sprinkling of aging, boxy Russian ones.

We watched in disbelief as our cab driver crammed our seven suitcases into the trunk of his ’50s-era yellow cab and took us to Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.

Elena, our Airbnb hostess, spoke excellent Spanish – with a Russian accent. She rattled off rules about how and when to use the air conditioning units (severely sub-par, by American standards) and the weak, waist-high shower. Our jaws dropped when we saw the stairs to the room where my cousin and I were to stay: a ladder-like set of uneven marble stairs so shallow we had to turn our feet sideways.

Our room was an add-on someone had constructed on the building’s roof; rooftop construction is common in Havana, where the only place to add on is up, and extra rooms mean extra income for people who rent to tourists.

But from the top, the view of Havana was outstanding.

Reminders of wealth

After a few hours of rest, we took a harrowing taxi ride. Pothole-filled streets force drivers to keep to the center of the road and dodge each other. Fumes made us both giddy and nauseated, and there were no seatbelts, though a fire extinguisher was taped to a door.

We made it to the home where a cousin, Louisa, and her 99-year-old mother, Ada, live. Ada, nearly blind, took my face in her hands as she greeted me at the door.

Joining us for dinner was another special guest: a woman my mother and aunt called Tete (teh-tay), their favorite childhood live-in nanny. My family never lost touch with Tete, now in her 80s. She told us how depressed she became after seeing my aunt and mother off at the airport in 1961. (She then cared for my uncle, who was 3 when his sisters left.)

As we walked around Louisa and Ada’s tidy three-bedroom ranch, my mother and aunt remarked on the furniture, artwork and dishes that had come from family members who’d left Cuba during the revolution. Most of what my grandparents left behind was confiscated by the communist regime, but as happened with lots of families, those who didn’t leave absorbed some belongings.

Louisa, now an employee of one of Cuba’s state-owned banks, was our tour guide in Havana.

On our first full day, she took us to my mother and aunt’s childhood home in the once-ritzy neighborhood of Miramar, now a Spanish restaurant visited only by tourists. (Almost all Cubans are employed by the state and make $25-$45 per month. So most never dine out, or only do so at inexpensive, state-owned restaurants.) The proprietor, Mauricio Estrada, let us look around before we ordered paella, stuffed eggplant and sangria in what had been my grandparents’ dining room.

front of house - then
My grandparents pose with my mother and aunt in front of their Havana home not long before my mother and aunt were sent to the United States during the Cuban Revolution. The home is now a Spanish restaurant. Cristina Bolling

front of house (restaurant) - now
My mother, Isolina (left), and aunt Mercedes stand in front of the home they lived in as children in the Miramar section of Havana. The home is now a Spanish restaurant. Cristina Bolling

After the revolution, the home had become an orphanage, and later a dwelling where up to three families lived together. Now, with the government allowing some Cubans to open private restaurants and businesses, Estrada runs Tapas y Toros.

We walked down the street, my mother, my aunt and Louisa reminiscing about the homes where friends had lived and driveways where they’d rolled scooters and ridden bicycles.

Those homes are still there, but the difference is stark. Pre-revolution, they were inhabited by families like my mother’s, who employed staffs to keep them immaculate. Now, they need fresh paint and are surrounded by chain-link fence and untrimmed bushes: A reminder of how communism brought an end to the wealthy class here.

Later, my mother and aunt could barely look when we pulled up to the building that had housed the children’s clothing boutique my grandmother operated, La Cigueña de Paris (The Stork of Paris).

Once the “it” place for Havana’s upper crust to buy custom clothing for their kids – famous Cuban-American talk show host Cristina Seralegui mentioned it in her memoir – it’s now a dilapidated apartment building.

Family home now state-run museum

The biggest gut-wrencher came in the middle of the trip, when we traveled to Los Arabos, a town about 120 miles southeast of Havana, where my great-grandparents had lived.

My great-grandfather was an entrepreneur and savvy businessman who made his fortune in real estate, lumber, gas stations and a hardware store next door to his home in the center of Los Arabos.

In 1939, he commissioned construction on an entire city block: It would become a home for his family, a hardware store and a home for his brother’s family. The Art Deco structure exemplified the style of the day (with the exception of enormous columns he had imported from Spain – symbols to him that he had achieved wealth and success).

Going to Los Arabos was exciting for my cousin and me; we’d seen photos of my grandparents’ engagement party on the building’s back patio, photos of big holiday dinners in the dining room, and snapshots of my mother and aunt playing on the front porch.

Now, the building is a state-run museum devoted to showcasing the building’s Art Deco architecture. It’s named for a revolutionary from the war of independence against Spain in the late 1800s, and although my great-grandfather’s initials are etched in the glass over the front door, no mention of him is made in the museum.

Tourist’s delight

The trip wasn’t all heartache.

We treated ourselves to three nights at an all-inclusive resort in the beautiful beach town of Varadero, where a branch of family lives.

They were a lively bunch and picked us up from our hotel in a gorgeously restored red 1959 Ford Fairlane convertible taxi. They took us to see the Xanadu mansion, which had been owned by the (American) Dupont family until the government took it over in 1958. It’s now a bar and restaurant where tourists mingle and marry.

By day, we swam in crystal-clear water and in the evenings met family for dinner and live music.

Canadians surrounded us at the resort, owned by a Spanish hotel chain. From our lounge chairs, my cousin and I wondered what it would look like overrun with American tourists.

Back in Havana to close the trip, Louisa took us to the must-see tourist spots: the Capitolio, or capitol building, built to resemble the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The iconic Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Old Havana, where Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis had visited. And La Floridita, the bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who penned seven of his books in Cuba.

Plans to return

Once back in the States, it was hard to stop thinking about Cuba.

In the weeks that followed, my husband, a and I went through records that my uncle Benjamin had compiled – letters my grandfather had written to the United States IRS in the 1970s, documenting the family’s lost assets in Cuba. We did the calculations, and couldn’t believe our eyes, so we did them again. My grandfather had, when adjusted for inflation, lost over a billion dollars in property in the revolution.

I looked through old family photos taken in Cuba and regretted that I hadn’t asked my late grandparents more questions about their lives there while I had the chance.

Some days, I find myself staring into a large oil painting I bought in a Havana arts market, painted on the Malecon (the iconic sea wall Havana is famous for), looking across Havana Bay to the El Morro fortress.

I’ll return there one day, and my children will see our family’s landmarks and meet our relatives.

For me, visiting Cuba wasn’t so much a chance to see what the world was like 60 years ago. It was a chance to see the stock from which I come – to learn about people who worked hard and believed anything was possible.

People who, when life didn’t turn out as planned, thankfully, forged a new path here.

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