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Going Home For the First Time: A Return to Cuba

Cuba was the place I grew up with, but not on. That was America, the place both sides of my family fled to in different decades. Talk to other relatives about how they came to the US, and you might be able to piece together a rough history of the island once known for its gangster-run casinos and prized, soft-sanded beaches. 

But I knew a different history: one where my mother would help my grandfather develop photographs so she could get money for a movie ticket; stories of how her family would walk together down tree-lined streets to the local cinemas in Vedado on Sunday, and how abruptly, in the '70s, the vendors who hawked popcorn and candies outside the theaters disappeared after rations dried up.

After listening for years to my mom's memories and stories from newly escaped cousins, I decided to go back to cover the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano in Havana.

"I left, why do you want to go back?" she asked me.

My mom and abuela reluctantly helped arrange my trip to stay with my great uncle, one of the few Cuban members of my family I knew in person rather then in pictures. Less than two months before my trip, he passed away. I felt guilty for not having gone sooner. My aunt took me in, and my cousin offered to help me navigate the city without a map or Wi-Fi, and hell, sometimes no electricity (apagones, or blackouts, have become so routine it's normal to carry a flashlight at all times). Several family members passed on tips on what not to eat to skirt food poisoning, to live soaked in mosquito repellent to ward off Dengue Fever, and which cabs were more likely to swindle visitors. 

But all the stress, worry and sadness melted away the moment I woke up on the plane over the luscious green campo (countryside) dotted by the occasional tin-roofed farm. When we landed at the Jose Martí airport, the plane erupted in applause with some feet-stomping and sniffles. A woman behind me burst into tears, saying it had been decades since she'd seen her island. It was my first time, but I resolved to keep my face straight as I headed into the airport to have my bags searched. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the humidity or the first sight of Cuba outside the airport. If my Northern or Western friends complain that Florida's tropical climate feels like swimming in a lake, then stepping into Cuba's was wading into a hot waterfall that pushed you down into the soggy earth. After the cadeca (where one exchanges money) and customs, I exited into a pen surrounded by Cubans eagerly waiting for relatives. If you couldn't find your family, there were a line of overzealous cabbies ready to sweep you to the capitol. Not too long after, my prima scooped me up in the biggest hug as if she had known me all her life. We did in a way, but only in pictures in our grandmothers' houses. 

I bounced in the backseat of my cousins' car (seat belts are not required here), straining to take in the ungodly bright greenery on either side of us, the chipped paintings, billboards singing praises of the Revolution and the occasional Jose Martí statue. We run errands around town, and, at a mall that's half eaten by malanga vines, we get my first round of groceries. At the top of my to-see list is to walk the Malecón, Havana's famous walkway by the sea. You've probably seen it in pictures or on an Anthony Bourdain special, but for me, it was where my mom and her brothers would carefully climb down the rocks to go swimming. At night, my cousin, her husband, and I walk along it, passing fishermen using nothing but a hook, string and their hands to catch a last minute meal. She and I take our first picture together as the sun sets behind us. We walk on, and her husband points northward joking that I should yell to let my family in America know I'm okay. I look out into the horizon slowly disappearing into darkness, the direction my mother tearfully faced before disappearing into the hull of a small boat bound for the United States all those years ago. I think of the cousins who have since fled towards that horizon and the many relatives I never knew who didn't make it. 

Going to Cuba, I heard plenty from others who had been there before: the people are wonderful and it is a land stuck in time; be sure to get pictures of the cars and cigars! I'm glad visitors like the Cuban people--they may be talking about my family after all--but they're people just like in any other part of the world. I wince at every reporter playing Columbus at the sight of our cars and cigars. My Cuba is more than an idealized postcard. It is a real place full of beauty and pain, of want and generosity. I knew I could never go back to the Cuba my parents left; time and scarcity have seen to that. But I wanted to see what's left of my roots: my family that has never seen me in person and the one-screen movie theaters I heard so much about growing up. The ones where my mom would see her first Disney movies, Japanese samurai films, French comedies, cheap Italian spy flicks and Soviet period melodramas. They're all still there.

One of the first stops my cousins took me to was to the "Kafe" connected to the Karl Marx Theatre, the biggest cinema on the island. The theater's triple balcony and proscenium arches hosted the country's first Communist Party Congress in the early '70s. Later that decade, my mom would return almost everyday to watch her first Barbra Streisand movie, "Hello Dolly!" Now I returned for the 37th premiere of Havana's largest film festival to watch my first movie in Cuba. 

The opening night gala was just like any other, except transplanted to the quiet Havana neighborhood of Miramar. Women in heels braved mud and worn-down sidewalks while men stood in circles outside the theater smoking and greeting each other. I posed next to a Charlie Chaplin impersonator moments before Chaplin's daughter Geraldine took the stage. After a 45-minute orchestral intro and opening remarks, the opening night movie "El Clan" began. At this screening, and every one since, the audience readily talked back at the screen. "Se lo merece!" would be thrown at any character who they thought deserved what was coming to them. Scandalized whispers of "Ay que malo" followed every bad guy's dirty deeds. When it was time for the good girl to throw out her good-for-nothing guy: "Bótalo pa carajo!" The phrase my mamí uses when listening to relationship problems, "que sinvergüenzada," was repeated with alarming frequency. It was as if I was sitting in a large living room with my family, where everyone is encouraged to speak their mind during the movie. Never once having been here before, I felt strangely at home. 

Just as I was getting swept up in festival frenzy, the Cuban government announced they were reimposing travel restrictions on doctors, my cousin included, that would once again take away their right to leave the island. It was a law shelved two years ago but had resurfaced with no vote or no warning. My cousin had four days to leave Cuba, her home, her family and husband.

It's not what I had in mind when I fought for press accreditation to the festival. Months of planning this trip pales in comparison to the throngs of Cubans waiting outside the US embassy attempting to argue their case for a visa out of the country to rejoin family. The process can take months, if not years. My cousin, now reunited in the States with her mom, was lucky. Nonetheless, it was difficult to watch the process of leaving one's home country on the other side. I'd only been a part of the celebratory reception, never watching the personal chaos of uprooting your life at a moment's notice.

That was very much a part of my parents' Cuba, and now it's a part of mine too.

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to

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