People from all around the world go to Cuba all the time, but not so much from the US, and even less from Miami. My father’s family migrated, some even escaped, from Cuba after Fidel Castro took over the island in 1959. Ever since then it was considered blasphemy to go back. It meant that you supported Fidel’s communist regime. Needless to say, having been blessed enough to travel to farther points around the world, in my first 40 years of life I never traveled to an island that was a mere 90 miles away from the US. How can a piece of land, only an hour away by plane, be so off limits?
Shortly after my 40th birthday, my wife’s uncle invited me to go to Cuba for the Havana Film Festival. I help program a film festival he runs in Miami and the Havana festival invited us to their festival in hopes that we’d find films to bring back to our festival in Miami, which we did.
My parents didn’t seem bothered about me going. In fact, my Mom immediately said, “Go! I’ll take care of the kids.” She had been wanting to go for a long time and knew that if I went, it would open the door for her to go. So with the kids taken care of, my wife Glo and I had the greenlight for travel.
My other family members didn’t seem too enthusiastic. One in particular said, “You know they can send you to the military if they find out you’re there.” I thought that was ridiculous. There’s no way they would still be keeping track of all that.
In December of 2018, 50 years after my family left the island, I was the first in my family to travel back to their homeland.
Upon arriving and reaching the line that led to the customs station agent, I was afraid. They had computers and cameras taking pictures of everyone before they let them through the gates. Will my family’s name come up on the station agent’s screen? Will they ask me to step aside and wait for a guard? Will they send me back?
“Bienvenido a Cuba.”
The next few days were a complete mind fuck. We boarded a time machine operated by American Airlines and landed on a 50 year old time capsule that came to life before our eyes.
A trip to the local book store solidified the reality that we were visiting a dictatorship. The selection was very one-sided. If you were interested in learning about Castro, Che, or Stalin, this was definitely the place. We did enter two other book stores in different parts of Havana and Pinar del Rio, they all had the same books.
Art seemed suprisingly important to Cuba’s way of life. Screenings for the film festival were only $2 for Cuban citizens. This resulted in massive crowds at marquee event films like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”. Aside from the large films, most of the smaller films had a political slant that favored Cuba’s agenda. Coming from the U.S. it was refreshing to see a different point of view on topics like the war in Angola and Uruguay’s socialist government.
We were supposed to meet outside the Cine Yara. I couldn’t go in because Glo had my badge, and there was no cell phone service. I waited outside the theatre for over an hour until I figured I should just take advantage of the time and explore. A man walked up to me and told me he was the mailman for the film festival. He figured I was not from around there. Where are you from? “Spain”, I said. (I was afraid to say I was from the U.S.) He very graciously suggested I check out a street festival that takes place every day at noon at el Callejón de Hamel. I thanked him for his suggestion, and started to leave. He stopped me and started talking about the government. He looked around and then leaned in to speak more privately, “You know we can’t say certain things around here.”
It was around 10:30am so I had some time to kill. This would be my first time venturing outside of the tourist zone where our hotel was, near El Hotel Nacional. I walked towards el Callejón de Hamel and ventured down a few side streets. It was surprising to see shops and rundown properties with “se vende” signs. As simple as this was, I was told these things could not happen in Cuba. There was not supposed to be any private property. But there it was. Commerce.
Then the music started. The setup was simple, but the Afro-Cuban feel of the musicians was undeniable. This was real.
Their music touched my soul.
You can’t help but feel the romance of a lost city. It really is a time warp walking through these streets. The old architecture and classic cars, the lack of advertising, it was all surreal, especially coming from Miami.
It was shocking to learn how large Havana is. The city is sprawling with the remnants of ornate buildings and terrazzo floors. It’s former prosperous self is obvious. The thought that the revolution resulted in so much pain gets a bit watered down when you experience the intoxication of witnessing the past. It feels like such a simpler life. With all the stress of the hustle and bustle back at home, it’s hard not to fall in love with this place.
What I learned about the Castro regime taking over property in Cuba was that it wasn’t a blanket move. They didn’t take over everything. It seems they “nationalized” anything that was of any large value, or that overtly represented an excess of capitalism. (They got rid of the rich people.) If you owned tobacco plantations, they took it away. If you owned a large home, they took that away. If you owned a popular restaurant, they took that away. As a tourist, you can’t tell the difference, but when you pay your bill at many of the nicer establishments, you’re literally paying the government.
We walked into La Floridita with the intention of having a drink and a bite to eat, but it was extremely expensive. It is the textbook example of a tourist trap, regardless of who owns it.
Pinar del Rio, Cuba
We traveled 3 hrs west to the town where my family is from. When you leave Havana, you really see a whole other side of Cuba. The classic cars are few and far between. In fact, when you see an old car, it’s just old, there’s nothing classic about it. It is purely a means of transportation. The people aren’t mean but they aren’t as friendly as in Havana, probably because they don’t see many tourists. I don’t think tourists would want to come here unless you’re like me, searching for ghosts of the past.
I was here on a mission, and I was afraid. If anyone were to know my name and turn me in to the authorities for being a family member of refugees that illegaly escaped the island, this would be the place.
I pressed on. I’m here and determined to find the places that are part of my past. Specifically, I wanted to find my Dad’s home, the church where he was an altar boy, the location of my family’s business and the movie theatre where my Grandfather proposed to my Grandmother.
I had found the theatre online and recognized it immediately, but the store, which was supposed to be in front or adjacent to the theatre was difficult to pin down. I called my Dad back in Miami to make sure I had the right info and it was correct. The building where they had the business was directly to the right of the movie theatre, but it’s not there anymore. It was torn down after the property had been nationalized and was now the terrace to Coppelia, a nationally run ice cream shop that was part of Castro’s initiative to show good faith to the natives after the revolution.
If my calculations are correct, my Grandfather was still in Cuba when the business his family built was torn down. At that time, most of his family had already fled to the U.S. and he stayed behind waiting for his son to get out of jail for “crimes against the state”. It must have been a painful sight to see.
This is the church where my Dad was an altar boy. Even though he left Cuba when he was 8 years old, he still remembers going to church here. The church is on the same block as his home.
I found the building where my family lived, but there were 4 units. I didn’t know which one was theirs. This man was sitting in the porch of the first unit, so I asked him. At first, he said he didn’t know. But as I walked up and down the sidewalk taking pictures, he called me over and said, “The Capos? They owned this whole building. Manolo lived in my unit here.” We spoke for a bit. I asked if I could take his picture, gave him some cash, and thanked him for his time.
I walked to a nearby park to get a wifi signal and called my Dad. (Cuban’s rely on state run wifi signals that are generally available in public parks.) He said what the man said wasn’t true. They didn’t own the building and the number of their unit was #100, which was 2 doors down from this man’s place. So I went back.
This door is the main reason I came to Pinar Del Río, Cuba. In 1966, my Grandfather walked out of this door and escaped to the U.S. on a previously sunken boat that he salvaged, refurbished, and christened “El Dorado”. He never returned to Cuba. My Grandmother and Dad were able to leave legally one year later. I’m the first in my family to visit their abandoned home in the 50 years since they left.
Pedro and his family have lived in this home since my family left. I asked if he knew them. He said he had heard that they left and were doing well in Miami. I asked if he had seen a lot of change in the 50 years since he lived there. His response: “Change? Nothing’s ever changed here. That’s the biggest lie they sold us. That things would get better. I don’t care, I’ll shout it out loud. Nothing has changed. Esto es todo un engaño!”
I was looking for the school where my great aunt, Dr. Moravia Capó taught physics and mathematics. I was completely wrong about where I thought it was and asked this lady if she happened to know. She said she did and remembered her. Moravia was very popular in town. She taught many kids that still remember her to this day. She even had the “honor” of being mentioned by Fidel Castro himself due to her having gone to the United Nations to speak against his regime.
Walking around town we found a furniture / carpentry shop and walked in. I spoke with this older gentleman about the local furniture. He explained how they sourced their materials and how everything is built and finished by them in house. I finally got the courage to reveal my identity and asked if he knew of my family’s business, Casa Capo? He said, “They had the store on main street. It was a very fancy store, very elegant.” I asked if he knew them personally. He said he had done some work for them, and then asked me, “So, do you want to buy the chair?” At that moment, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. No one gives a damn who I am here. I’m free to roam.
Trying to fall asleep the night before we left, I suddenly felt extremely anxious. I realized I was chasing ghosts. My family had left this place 50 years ago. They were more American than Cuban at this point. I wondered what I was doing there. I didn’t belong there. My home was their adopted home in the U.S.
Like the corpse of a loved one, my family’s soul was no longer in Cuba.
After 8 days in Cuba, I was ready to come back home.
Now at the airport in Havana, I realized how much of a luxury this journey was. Many Cubans have never left the island and many never will. They will never gain the knowledge and introspection that travel brings.
I went back in time and felt the romance of a city that has been a dramatic topic of conversation all my life. I touched the walls of my Dad’s childhood home, that he has yet to visit himself, and that my Grandfather never returned to. I met very nice people that care much more about moving their lives forward then about the politics that consume us in Miami. I completed a circle and now I’m done.
The moment Glo and I got off the plane and cleared customs, which contrary to what I was told was not a problematic event at all, we stopped at the first bar we found and had an American beer.
With all its faults, it felt great to be back home in the USA.
Originally published at http://www.petecapo.com on April 17, 2019.
All images shot with a Ricoh GRii. Special thanks to the best schoolteacher in Broward county, Katie Bell, for proofreading this post!
If you’d like to use any of the images or text on this page, please contact me at email@example.com