You Can Go Home Again
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on July 8, 1994)
For more than 32 years I had been dreaming of returning to my Cuban hometown. No other fantasy could compare with the thought of walking through the streets of my childhood.
There was no place I would rather visit, no people I would rather see than those of La Salud — a small, agricultural community of 7,000 people near the south coast of Havana Province, where I was born and raised until I came to this country in 1962.
Unlike most U.S. immigrants, who can go back to their homelands whenever they wish, I came from a country to which returning was forbidden — by two governments and by my own principles.
But when something is forbidden, you want it even more. It can become an obsession. I've found myself admiring some of the world's greatest attractions, from Disney World to the Eiffel Tower, from Madrid's Museo del Prado to the White House, and I always caught myself thinking: “I'd rather be in La Salud.” My brother, Beny, suffers from the same obsession.
As the years pass, you would think one would grow less interested in retracing his footsteps. But for me, just the thought of seeing that town again made me believe the most emotional day of my life was yet to come.
And then it just happened. Without much time to prepare for the emotional trauma, I was confronted with the streets of La Salud. Without going back to Cuba, because my principles still forbid it, I was watching my fantasy on a videotape recorded by someone who had fulfilled my dream.
His tape begins the way I had envisioned my return, driving into town through the rich farm country that surrounds it — fields of red soil lined by palm trees. It gave me a feeling of euphoria, seeing the place were my roots are planted — even if only on a TV screen.
I was lucky to leave Cuba with all my closest relatives, and to have the option of staying away as long as the island is ruled by a dictator.
But the cameraman, a friend of my family, also was driven by his principles, those of helping the relatives he left behind. In the process, he gave the rest of us Saludeños a tremendous gift, a chance to see La Salud without taking dollars to the Castro regime and prolonging the agony of the Cuban people.
Through five hours of video, I kept thinking of my father and grandfather, who died in Miami while suffering from the same obsession of seeing La Salud once again.But as the visitor entered the town, shooting his video through a car window, I was glad they didn't see it.
They would have felt, as I did, overwhelmed with sadness. On this July Fourth weekend, while many Americans watched fireworks, searched for sales, and took their freedom for granted, I saw folks who have no freedom, and the effects of life under communism.
The tape shows people going through very hard times, scenes of extreme poverty, faces of hunger. The world has progressed three decades, but La Salud looks as if it has regressed a century. Fine homes have turned into shacks — without repair or even a coat of paint. There are hardly any vehicles on the roads, and the town's buses are horse-drawn carriages. You see people walking around barefoot.
As the tour moved on, I saw my dream turn into a nightmare. As a community of farm workers, La Salud was always poor, but these are surely its worst days.
You hear people describing how things used to be, as if they live on memories of better times. ``This was the movie house,'' they say. ``This is where they played basketball . . . That was the cigar factory . . . This was Ricardito's Cafe . . . That was Miguel's bodega.'' Just like I live with my memories, they are still living in the past. But they have to deal with the harsh realities of the present.
Town residents point to old bodegas and describe them as ``history.'' But sometimes a bodega is open. ``That's Gorgonio's bodega,'' a man says, ``and you see that long line outside. They are waiting to buy the only thing that's being sold today: cigarettes.''
You hear people sending messages to their relatives here, asking for medicine in a country that claims health care as one of its only accomplishments. You see them expressing gratitude for receiving things we take for granted, from Band-Aids to vitamins.
The only people who look well fed and well dressed and who live in well-kept houses are those who receive money and packages from relatives here. Those in the new privileged class are not even faithful Communists, but those whose relatives fled. Such are the “accomplishments” of the Cuban Revolution.
You see the visitor, who shall remain nameless to avoid causing harm to his relatives, buying a black-market pig and shopping at a Havana supermarket where only dollars are accepted. You see him treating his family to a good roast-pork meal and you see them acting as if they had never seen meat.
“These are the best times of my life,” says a man as he cuts the pork, ``I feel like I'm dreaming while I'm awake. This is the best thing I have seen happen in Cuba, and about the rest I won't comment.''
You hear people asking whether the camera records voices as well as pictures. And then you see them watching what they say. ``What would you like to say to the Saludeños in Miami?'' a young woman was asked. ``It's best not to say anything,'' she said.
“We wish everyone well,'' a man said. ``We are, more or less, surviving here.'' Most people are clearly afraid of talking, but others can't contain themselves. “Tell everyone we are alive,” another man said, “but only by chance.”
If this had been a journalist with a professional camera, many of these interviews would not have been allowed, but since he was a tourist with a small recorder, he got away with precious tapes. Some people showed him inside their homes, so he could see that -- just like the few, old cars on the streets — they still have the furniture, lamps, and ornaments they bought in the 1950s.
I was 11 years old when I left, but once the camera started moving through town, I was surprised by how clearly I remembered what I would see around every corner. Nothing has changed, except for the worse. I saw my school, the church where I was baptized, the park where I played, the cemetery where my ancestors are buried.
Ironically, the only sites omitted from the tape are the ones I most longed to see: my house and my grandfather's farm, where I spent my youth picking fruit off the trees. But the visitor was advised not to point his camera in that direction because it could get him in trouble. You see, my house is now the town's police station and the farm is an army base.
The visitor's fear of the regime left my brother and me some room to keep dreaming of going home some day, when Cuba is free, to complete our quest — for ourselves, our father, and grandfather. It may be in shambles, but it will still be home.