‘Hola y adios’, hello and goodbye. We are off to Cuba on a people-to-people visa to revisit my birthplace. Taking my husband and three grown kids there is a dream come true. I was born in Havana in 1961 and left with my parents a year later as refugees.
We ended up in Brooklyn where my hardworking mom and dad surmounted language, climate, cultural and financial challenges and slowly built a brand new successful life. I grew up speaking Spanish first, with a taste for black beans, yucca, plantains, and arroz con pollo, and a sweet tooth craving flan and guava.
Our home was tri-cultural; a mix of Jewish, Cuban and American. Our discussions always loud and passionate punctuated with gesticulations. I told everyone my dad was like Ricky Ricardo.
I returned to Cuba for the first time more than seven years ago with my mom and sister on a humanitarian mission just before the 50th anniversary of the 1959 revolution. My mom laughed and cried during that visit as she remembered stories from her youth. My dad didn’t join us; he had no desire to go back in time. I finally got to see for myself many of the special spots I had only heard about and to spend time with my uncle and aunt whom I barely knew.
We visited el Patronato, the Jewish community center where my parents married. We strolled the lush grounds of the University of Havana, where my father studied law and my mother learned philosophy. We climbed the stairs to my mother’s childhood home in Regla and to my parents’ first apartment in the Vedado neighborhood. The current residents allowed us in to view their rooms and reminisce. We took a day trip to the fabled Varadero Beach, a place that all Cubans hold up nostalgically as the most beautiful in the world.
I pinched myself to be sure that I was really there. It had taken so much time, paperwork and money to go back to that ‘taboo’ island that they had fled. The infrastructure was crumbling yet freshly painted murals decrying then-president Bush screamed out at us. We tripped over broken cobblestones and drove over deeply pitted streets except in the center of Havana where newly smoothed walkways welcomed the early trickle of American visitors. Today that small opening for travel from the US is a rushing stream.
Travelers desire to see the Cuba that’s been frozen in time for 57 years. I want to show my kids our roots. We will bring donations to el Patronato, visit my uncle’s grave and reunite with my aunt and cousins who are strangers to us. I hope to connect them to Cuba through their own interests; my eldest son by its art and music, my second son through the colorful history and my daughter engaging in social interactions with the people we meet.
I’m so excited to take my family to see, hear, smell, taste and feel that island in the Caribbean that shaped my parents’ lives and in turn, mine as well as theirs.
Abrahams was born in Cuba, raised in Brooklyn and lives in Woodmere. She teaches yoga classes, is Hadassah Nassau’s liaison to the Jewish Book Council and a freelance writer, published in Jewish Book World, Tablet magazine and the Jewish Star. This is the first of three stories.