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Time Traveling in Cuba Through My Grandmother's Journal

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 7/03/2016 Alyssa Ramos

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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 found the journal wedged in between her old black and white photo albums of her early life in Cuba, after she passed away. The first page was dated on my fourth birthday, which meant she had kept it hidden for over twenty years. The memories were both happy and sad, and all together incredible to discover so much about my roots.
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I don't think my grandmother would have ever in a million years thought I'd ever be able to or want to go to Cuba; so I wonder how she'd react if she knew I was one of the first U.S. citizens to legally travel there, and that I used her journal as a guide to discover her past.
Since I still have family in the tiny, lesser-known town of Santiago de las Vegas, and I just barely qualified as being second generation related to them, I was able to get a Family Visit Visa for entry to Cuba.
I didn't believe I was actually going to go to the town my grandparents grew up in until I was directing my driver in broken Spanish past the park I had read about and seen photos of my grandmother at in the 1930's. Like most of Cuba, it looked like nothing had changed, and driving through it in the classic 1950's Rambler made me feel like I had just time traveled back to Cuba in its prime days. Except for the fact that everything was falling apart.
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I wasn't surprised at all to see my elder second-cousin waiting for me in the doorway of her home, a typical trait of any Cuban relative. But I was surprised at how emotional it was to meet her and my other second-cousin for the first time, both of which had only ever seen me in photographs. There was a bit of a language barrier with my gringo-Spanish and their complete lack of English, but I was able to use my grandmother's journal to help explain where I wanted to go, but not before they immediately made me Cuban coffee and home-made guava paste snacks in the hundred year old house my cousin was born in.
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Finally we set off, slowly, since my cousin had to stop at all of her neighbors houses to say hi and brag that I had come to visit from the United States. Everyone looked at me like I was a mythical creature that didn't exist, or a ghost that had re-appeared from the past when American's used to frequently travel to Cuba. The homes were small, colorful, and attached to one another in rows. They were also all mostly decrepit, which is unfortunately a result of Communism. There were people everywhere, and the occasional classic car or horse drawn carriage would pass, making me feel like I truly was back in time.
Our first stop on the time traveling tour, was the elementary school my grandmother wrote about that she attended in the 1920's. She had written that they were extremely poor, and would be jealous of the kids who got to bring lunch to school. They were eleven siblings living in a two bedroom house, with only enough money to eat. She had written that despite being poor, they felt like they were the richest people in the world, because they had fruit trees in the yard that they could eat whenever.
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The next stop was to the house my grandmother grew up in that my cousin used to live in before the Communist regime took over and relocated many people. I had definitely envisioned it a lot differently, mostly in the sense of size. She told me that the avocado tree in the backyard had been there since my grandmother was born, and if you look at the photos of then and now, you can see it in the yard.
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Next we time traveled to the 1930's when my grandmother was a teenager, and went to the park in the middle of the town where girls would go to "meet boys". They would walk in opposite directions and pass each other to take a look, then sit on a bench and wait for them to come up. She said that was also a way to tell if they were clean or not. The only boys I saw in the park when I went were way too young for me, but still really cute! This was also around when my grandmother met my grandfather, but at the time she said he was too young and poor for her to date. She also wasn't ready to settle down and get married like most girls her age.
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So in the 1940's, she left the tiny town of Santiago de las Vegas, to go live in the then-thriving city of Havana, while my grandfather set off to fight for the U.S. in World War II. I of course did my fair share of experiencing the "good life" in Havana like my grandmother had while I was in Cuba. I went to the Malecón like she did, had mojitos at the Hotel Nacional, and even went out dancing at the infamous Tropicana.
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Although Cuba was the place to be in the mid 1940's, Europe was not, and my grandfather ended up becoming a Prisoner of War. He escaped of course, because he's awesome, and when he came back to Cuba they both fell in love and moved back to Santiago de las Vegas. They then went to the U.S. and spent the next ten years trying to make it there as immigrants, while traveling back to Cuba often to see their families.
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So the next time travel stop in Cuba was to 1955, to the church in Santiago de las Vegas where my mother was baptized. When I went inside they were having a service, so I tried to nonchalantly sneak a photo of the alter that's in the old photo of my mother before sneaking out. That's about as far as she writes about in the journal, she leaves a lovely little cliff hanger saying that it's up to my mother to tell me the rest.
Fortunately my mother did tell me about the rest of her time in Cuba, which ended in 1959 at the same airport I had flown in and out of. She left Cuba with my aunt and mother the same morning Fidel Castro took over, and was never able to return.
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