1965. I was six years old. We crowded the small, square kitchen in our apartment on Winton Street. Had added one more place at the already small table for the visitor, my father’s sister. I watched my mother pivot between the Formica table and the simmering pot of arroz con leche on the stove, listened to my aunt talk between forkfuls of beans and rice and steak. “Una odisea.” she told my father. “An endless, choppy boat trip from the port of Camarioca to Key West, the long drive to Miami, then finally the flight to Pittsburgh.”
I learned words that day I may have heard before, but this time I listened. Exile (a sad word). Refugee (also sad). Fidel Castro (very bad). I heard my parents say we were just waiting. As soon as Fidel’s regime toppled, we would go home they said.
Wait. Wasn’t this home? I didn’t ask my question out loud.
Later, we watched Walter Cronkite on our portable black and white television in the living room. My mother turned to my aunt. “Everything we buy is portable. Makes it easy for when we move home to Havana.”
Havana? What was that?
I knew my world at 442 Winton Street. The room I shared with my sister just off the kitchen. The cavern-like attic with my parents’ bedroom on one side, my mother’s sewing table on the other. My world had a deep front porch where the milkman brought us bottles of milk every couple of days, a front sidewalk where my sister and I walked past tall, red rose bushes on our way down the cobblestone hill, past my friend Sandy’s house, to get to St. George Catholic School where I would see my first-grade crush Paul at recess and chase him in a game of tag then walk to the corner candy store for Bazooka bubble gum to save for the walk home after school. The only thing I didn’t like about my Winton Street world was Tiny, a dachshund with needle teeth who would growl and snap at me every day as I ran past her in the front hall and flew up the stairs to our second-floor apartment. I hated Tiny, but I liked our home.
One evening shortly after my Tia Maria’s exile from Cuba and arrival in Pittsburgh, the adults lingered at the kitchen table, the portable television murmured the news from the living room. I left my Barbie doll on the floor and raced from the living room to the kitchen. I jumped up and down, pigtails bouncing, and announced, “Castro’s gone! He left Cuba!” I felt a little thrill at the reaction — the stunned look on my parents’ faces, on my aunt’s face, followed by confusion, then joy, and a chaotic race to the television. I slowly followed them to the living room, chin to my chest, realizing I had not anticipated the next moment, that I might be in trouble and how terribly disappointed they were about to feel when they learned Fidel was still in Havana and still in charge.
Dad was gentle. “Why did you tell us that, Laurita?”
“I wanted to make you happy.” I felt powerless and caught. Then my Tia Maria snapped at me. “Niña,” she said. Her eyebrows arched and furrowed, she spat that word at me. I understood. I was a stupid, little girl. I did not love my aunt for a very long time after that.
A typical kitchen table conversation in our Winton Street world in the 60s:
Me: “What’s communism?
Also, me: “Did we live in a fancy house in Cuba?”
My sister: “What is a free press – do you mean it was free? It didn’t cost money?”
Also, my sister: Did we have a horse in Cuba?”
Me: “Firing squads? What’s that?”
We listened wide-eyed. Dad did not skimp on gory details. I imagined the bullets, the blood, the scores of pockmarks on el paredon made by torrents of bullets passing through a victim’s body. My sister and I listened to Dad’s stories of working for the CIA in Havana. We understood his words — underground, counterrevolutionary, covert — since we never missed an episode of Mission Impossible, Get Smart, or our favorite, Man from U.N.C.L.E. This was simple. Our dad was another Illya Kuryakin. A spy! Cuba was dangerous yet thrilling, too.
I don’t know at what point my parents gave up hope of going home to a free Cuba. “Maybe the ten-year mark, maybe sooner, maybe never,” my mother said. Miami became the substitute we visited yearly, making our rounds to see relatives, surrounded by Spanish.
“Are you a cubanita?” Dad asked me. I was around twelve years old. We were visiting his older brother. I thought it was a test, and I was pretty sure the right answer was, yes. But perhaps they would correct me, tell me the answer was, no. How could I be a cubanita if I didn’t live in Cuba? Even though my parents called it home, it didn’t seem we would ever get back there. I answered yes. But I didn’t believe it. I didn’t know what I was other than a technician, stepping in and out of two cultures and two languages with a flip of a mental switch.
I first talked of visiting the island in 2008. “Don’t go.” My father, normally adventurous and bold, looked afraid. “A list of names exists. I’m sure of it.”
I tried to justify the trip in my mind, and I attempted to downplay the threat. Why should today’s Cuban milicianos care my dad and uncles conspired against Castro fifty years ago? I played a little game in my head and it always ended the same, in a scene I imagined at the airport in Havana.
I’m in front of a crisp miliciana who wore green camo and had a smirk for a mouth, her waistline accessorized by a slender black semi-automatic handgun, flipping through my U.S. passport at Jose Marti Airport in Havana.
“So, Señora Laurita Platas, you wish to visit Cuba?”
“Yes.” My voice is a squeak.
“Your passport indicates you were born in Havana.” She rocks back on her black combat boots, her mouth now a sneer, her eyes narrowed. “Welcome back, gusana.”
This is not going well. I nod. I can’t speak, my lips won’t move.
“While in Cuba, our esteemed regime will only recognize you as a cubana. Forget being americana. Forget the Scott you added to your name while you were up in the capitalist north.”
I start to shake.
She runs a finger down page after page of names on a clipboard. I don’t move. “Well, well, well… it says on my document that your father, Ramón Platas, conspired with the CIA against Fidel.” She glances up. “Did he come with you?”
“No. He’s deceased.” I look her square in the eye. Sort of square: I look down since she’s about five feet tall, at least five inches shorter than me.
She grins as she starts to remove her gun from its holster. “Today is your lucky day, mi amiga. Since your papito is not here, we will pass his crimes against Fidel on to you. We will drive you to jail instead of to your fancy room at El Nacional. Welcome home! Viva Fidel!”
There was a real airport scene on January 22, 1962. My family of four, my sister and I in matching pink gabardine coats, arrived at Havana’s pretty, white cosmopolitan airport to a swarm of Castro’s guerrilleros in green camo, black boots, machine guns, and bushy black beards, like ants at a picnic. The closest I’ve been to my homeland since that tense day is roughly three miles away.
At dawn on a July morning in 2010, my husband roused me and then my mom in the next cabin over. “Cuba! Off the starboard side!” Our ship was close enough to see the shoreline, but we were passers-by, not visitors. What a tease.
Right after the trip I started a novel about Cuba. In writing workshops, I shared an early excerpt, a dreamy sequence where I got off the ship and imagined myself exploring the places I’d heard about through family stories. “Why not just go?” fellow writers asked. “See it for yourself. If you’re going to write about the island you need to experience it yourself.”
“Thing is,” I told them, “it’s too risky for me to visit, but for this novel it doesn’t matter, anyway. The only way to see pre-1962 Cuba is in old photographs and videos.”
“The old Cuba? Lost. Dead. Gone,” a cousin told my mother. “It doesn’t look the same, doesn’t sound the same, doesn’t even smell the same.” The cousin tried to leave Cuba at age twelve in 1962 but couldn’t. The new regime said he was eligible for military service. He finally saved enough to buy his way off the island in the 1990s when he was in his forties.
An old map of Havana I found on eBay hangs on my wall. Two addresses are circled in red: Libertad 279 and Mariano 157. My parents lived on Libertad when Castro came to power. I still shake my head at the irony of living on a street named liberty when communism came to town. My great-grandmother Josefa lived on Mariano. I love my mom’s story of standing in front of Josefa’s glass curio cabinet, hands folded behind her, an obedient little girl who looked with her eyes and not her hands. Her eyes skipped over the china and porcelain and straight to the top shelf. Two cups. One was ivory, the other one blue, and both were decorated with intricate flowers in a raised motif with gilded leaves. My mother loved to stare at those cups, wedding gifts to her grandparents in 1911 or 1912. Josefa told her they were too fragile, too cherished to be touched or used. My mother imagined holding them, tracing the gilt-edged leaves with her finger. She wondered if they would feel sharp or smooth and if they were heavy. If only her grandmother would let her drink hot milk and honey from the cups.
I have a recurring daydream. I imagine I’m on a boat, just three miles from shore. Somewhere across the water, through the trees, across broad avenues, sit the houses where our lives took place. I’m not afraid.
I jump into the water. It feels refreshing, not cold, not warm. My toes dig into the fine, white sand as I bob towards shore. My mother is with me and, somehow, we find ourselves in Havana, on the wide boulevard that edges the harbor. The time is before Castro’s revolution. We stroll along the sidewalk, arm-in-arm, our pretty cotton dresses swaying in the breeze. My father is behind us, wearing a pressed white guayabera shirt and a white panama hat. The smell of the sea mixes with the aroma of fresh bread — bakeries taking batches of Cuban bread from their ovens. We walk along the shade of Paseo del Prado and stop at a café for breakfast, chunks of hot, crusty bread with salty butter between sips of a steaming café con leche.
We explore the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Old Havana and climb the steps of la Iglesia del Santo Angel del Custodio, the Church of the Guardian Angel. We leave the brilliant sun outside and step into the cool darkness of the 300-year-old church. Our fingertips dip into the white marble font of holy water where my sister and I were baptized as infants. I stop to light a candle for those I love, here or in eternity, then walk up the aisle of worn, old marble just as my mother did on her wedding day. Her gown’s full layers of tulle and lace would have rustled as it brushed the rows of stately wooden pews.
The daydream takes us to the beach.
We step under the groves of curved palm trees that edge sugar-white sand and a sea of brilliant blue at playa Guanabo. Dad watches from the shade of the palm trees as we wade through the clear water, dangling our sandals. Mom touches my arm. “This is where I first taught you and your sister to swim.” What a delicious moment. We leave my father behind and appear in front of my grandparents’ house in El Cerro. My grandmother, Mima, sits waiting for us. We rock on white chairs sipping cold glasses of limonada on her shady porch. The Chinese fruit vendor pushes his cart up the street, hawking a pyramid of fragrant, rosy mangoes. We buy two then wander up the street to my great-grandmother’s house. Josefa, a tiny woman dressed in a black skirt and black blouse, is standing in her living room by a tall curio cabinet. She doesn’t kiss or hug us. My mother feels the need to explain: “She was never affectionate.”
“Does she always wear black?” I ask. My mother glances at me, her eyes in a mischievous slant.“No. When she wants to be colorful, she wears navy blue or dark brown.” I bite my lip to keep from laughing. We admire her porcelain collection, my mother points to the cups on the top shelf. Small, gaudy, and just as my mother described.
Mima stands smiling by the back door. “Vamos,” she says, and then we’re blocks away, back in Guanabo. We walk through the back door of the beach house, my shoes off so I can feel the cool terracotta tiles on our way to the front porch. Across the street, my grandfather, Pipo, stands at the wheel of the boat docked on the Guanabo River and smiles at us, his muchachas bonitas. We step into the boat and push off the dock. We cross the mouth of the river and head out to sea. Pipo turns east and we follow the shoreline, skimming along the turquoise water and then fade into the horizon.
Imagining Cuba is a brain exercise. I use it to limber up before I write scenes for my novel. Maybe once I finish the book, I’ll reconsider travel to Cuba. Maybe not. A few years ago in St. Mary’s Georgia, we took a boat tour of the waters off Cumberland Island. My husband and sons were thrilled to learn we were skimming over the largest shark breeding grounds on the east coast, but I was too distracted to be afraid. The boat captain had just told us he went to Havana regularly.
“You’re Cuban, and you’ve never been back?” he asked. “Seriously? I’ll take you! It’s easy. I have no problems breezing in and out of that harbor. I don’t get off the boat, though. Just go for the fishing and I always fuel up at a marina in Havana. Great people down there.”
Tempting to accept his offer. A little frightening, but a simple way to get to the island and bypass harassment at the airport.
I took his name and number.
Mom moved to Miami Beach. Royal palm trees, the sea, the lively chatter of Spanish, her sister: She’s surrounded by all things that evoke home. Her friend Raquel told me the city is the elephant burial ground for Cubans. As they age, the craving for their homeland grows stronger and Miami is as close as they can get to Havana, a substitute for the real thing lying just beyond their reach.
But not for my mother’s cousin. Travel to Cuba is simple since he bought his way to exile in the 90s. Mom called him ahead of his yearly trip to visit his mother. “Remember the curio cabinet at Josefa’s?” she asked him. “When you go this time, would you ask Marta if it would be OK for me to have the two cups from the top shelf? You could wrap them up in a shirt and put them in your suitcase.”
Two months later the cups were in her hands, finally. She held them, traced their edges, pored over every detail from every angle, and then placed them in her china cabinet where she could admire them every day. Not long ago she gave one to my sister, the other to me. She never used them, and we don’t either. We only look at them, perhaps to honor Josefa.
If my dad were alive today and asked me if I was a cubanita, I would answer, “Yes! One hundred percent!” My concept of home, however, is slippery. Pittsburgh stopped being home a long time ago. Atlanta is a home base, but so is Miami. Our current home is in South Carolina and we hope Portland, Oregon, where our sons live, is our future home. Our next house will be a cottage and will be white on the outside with a turquoise front door. Inside, we’ll use the colors of a Cuban parrot: red, orange, green — and splashes of blue to represent the sea that surrounds the island.
The essence of Cuba is portable.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Nick Henrick