My name is Alyssa creator of ojosextranjeros. I was born in Tunisia to a Cuban mother but raised in Queens, NY after my mom left my birth country with me as a baby. Despite being born in one place and raised in another, I have always identified as Cubana. My family fled Cuba in the ’70s and like many other Cuban-Americans forced to flee, they have a love-hate relationship with the island. Once a Cuban left the island, it was usually for good. That’s why it was a very big deal when I decided to visit Cuba, being the first in my family to do so since they left.
In 2017, I got the opportunity to visit Cuba and travel around the island. Needless to say, it caused a lot of discomfort with my family. My grandmother was upset and called me a communist for wanting to support Cuba by giving the government my money. My mother was heartbroken that she could not go. She left Cuba as a young girl, and she barely remembers her homeland. This trip was not only for me to connect with Cuba, but also to be a lifeline between my family and our ancestral home. I took this trip for my mother who never returned, my grandmother who left so much behind, and our family who we lost contact with.
I remember landing in Jose Marti Airport in La Habana and heard the unmistakable Cuban accent, feeling like I was home. My family sent me to the island with a list of places and people to connect with, to find long lost primos and find my family’s old home. No pressure, right? I started my journey in la Habana and made the most of it. I was able to track down some primos who have a very well known and successful restaurant in Chinatown, Los 3 Chinitos. I heard stories of my grandfather who had passed and my uncles when they were younger. I remember crying so much that day because we never thought we would meet. While it was my first time in Cuba, there was no doubt in my mind that I had come home.
I made it a point to not spend my money in certain areas. Not because they would be giving the money to the government, but because they were complete Americanized tourist traps. I tried to spend my money in smaller, family establishments vs. El Floridita for example. I understand certain areas of Cuba are “must-see” places (Bodeguita del Medio, Ambos Mundos, etc) but this is not the real Cuba. I would be doing my family a disservice if these were the places I decided to spend my time. Instead, I walked around and got lost in la Habana Vieja, Chinatown, and el Centro and I would recommend anyone do the same. I imagined my mother walking down these same streets, and photographed everything for her.
My aventura took me around the island, a blessing that I did not take for granted. I visited more places than my mother, and even grandmother have been to. After la Habana I visited the musical streets of Cienfuegos, I swam in posadas in El Niche National Park, I walked the cobblestone streets of Trinidad (Cuba’s oldest town) and eventually made my way to where my grandmother was born, Camaguey. Here, I saw her childhood home and reconnected with family members that hadn’t heard from my grandmother in over 40 years. This visit was especially hard because I met my grandmother’s cousin, who she lived with and they were raised like siblings. He was 91 and every time he looked at me he thought I was her and would call me my grandmother’s name. It was heartbreaking to me, to know what my grandmother left behind and the fact she would never come back.
I am extremely blessed to have visited the island, and that I’ve had the opportunity to return. While I am the only one in my family who has continued to return, it has been a healing experience for us all. My mother, aunt, and grandmother reminisced on their old life over my photos. I have been able to be the messenger between our life in the States and our loved ones on the island. And now, thanks to social media, I was able to connect my grandmother to some of our family on the island. While my family was initially torn about my trip to Cuba, they eventually came around. My family has been more open with their memories on the island, and my uncles are trying to apply for their visas to return. You see, Americans do not need to apply ahead for a visa to Cuba. However, if you were born on the island and left before December 31, 1970, you need either a Cuban passport or a HE-11 visa. I am so eternally grateful that my trip has inspired my family members to try and go back to their homeland.
My new goal is to take my younger brother, my younger cousins, and my son to Cuba. I especially want my younger family members to understand where our parents came from and the life they left behind. I think it is extremely important for Cuban-Americans to return to Cuba to heal some of the generational trauma that came with the exile of Cubans after the revolution. It is also important for Cubans to understand the island is not as backward as American media, or their own biases, have depicted. I also want my son to grow up knowing his ancestral home. I never had that opportunity as a child to visit my homeland, as many of my peers did during summer vacations. I want my son to know where we come from, and how lucky we are to live the life we do.