Discovering My Roots in Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba

It seemed almost serendipitous when I received that first email from Ralph Clermont, Founder of GEOCHIC magazine (www.geochic.com) telling me about his plan to do the next editorial shoot in Havana, Cuba. I had drooled over the beautiful and illustrious photos from their last high fashion shoot in Sestri Levante and could only fathom what types of cultural masterpieces they would produce from the time-capsuled town of Havana.

I could also only fathom the thought of me ever getting to go to the country of my roots, after so many years of being told I wasn’t allowed to, and even more so, the idea of being sent there to do the one thing I strive every day to accomplish; travel writing. That’s why I didn’t even bother to ask, I was simply grateful for the geographically chic photos I would see of Cuba, and the opportunity to publish an article of a place I had already been.

“You are?! I’m dying to go there! I’m 100% Cuban and still have family in the town my grandmother grew up in! I even found a hidden journal after she died that she wrote about her life growing up there, and I’m trying to go so I can re-live her legacy!” I excitedly blabbed in an apologetically long email.

But never in a million years would I have expected what came next; the offer to travel to Cuba with the magazine to write the travel editorial, and discover my Cuban roots through the guidance of my grandmother’s hidden journal. I didn’t know what I had done for the universe to align so perfectly, but I knew it had to be too good to be true.

In fact, I still didn’t believe it was going to happen until that first drive into the city of Santiago de las Vegas. We were two weeks away from the trip date when I got the offer, and we had to deal with every potential hurtle and complication from tour companies trying to scam us, to convincing our funny photographer from Milan that his plane wasn’t going to crash so he’d go.

After sending him a highly convincing letter along with a photo of me on Malaysia Airlines, we got him on board, and all that was left was booking the flights and visas. Except…visas weren’t exactly easy to get since flights from the U.S. to Cuba had just opened up. We were going for journalistic purposes, but those visas take six weeks, and are hard to get approved since they go through the government. So I asked around and finally found a friend who had a solution; a travel agent at Havana Air that they had worked with and gotten visas from last minute in the past.

As fate would have it again, I not only ended up qualifying for the “Family Visit” visa, but I was also able to qualify Ralph and another executive from the magazine, Phillipe Gelin, for the visa as well.

But we were all still worried that we wouldn’t make it for some reason, especially me. We had to get to the airport four hours early, and ended up actually spending three hours checking in. When we finally got to the TSA line, of course something went wrong…the officer denied my ticket because it said Polina Ramos instead of Alyssa Ramos. I don’t even know how that happened but it almost gave me a damn heart attack!

The three of us, who, by the way, had just met that morning in person, hustled back to the ticketing counter where I nervously blubbered to the official-looking man that I had no idea how they messed up my name.

“Well, I guess you can’t go to Cuba.” Although he said it with a smile, it still made my heart and jaw drop. Luckily the president of Havana Air can joke about things like that, since he easily corrected the mistake so we could be on our way.

But even when we were sitting on the Havana Air plane, I still didn’t think it was really happening. I had kept calm the entire time, suppressing extreme excitement because to me, it still was way too good to be true. I had spent the majority of my life thinking I’d never be allowed to go to Cuba or that I shouldn’t go there, yet after three years of working my ass off to become a published travel writer who would get these types of opportunities — there I was, on a plane with the founder of one of the most luxurious, fashion-forward travel magazines there is, on a forty-five minute flight to Cuba.

I knew Ralph wasn’t worried. He had made it very clear that when the magazine does something, they do it damn-well right. But I think the visas still worried everyone a little when we walked up to customs in Cuba.

Of course, my Spanish turned out to be not as great as I proclaimed it to be, and I almost admitted to having traveled to Africa in the past year, but they still let me go without any questions about the family visit visa. But then I got asked for my passport two more times in the arrival area at the airport, which made me worry again. Of course they question the blonde little white girl who actually has the family members in Cuba, and not the two Haitian guys sneaking in on family visit visas!

It took us almost two hours to get our luggage, as if there was only one person working the conveyor belt or something, but at that point, I didn’t even care. I had passed all of the checkpoints, and was legally in Cuba as a U.S. citizen, and a Cuban-American. I had made it to the place I always dreamed of going to, for the purpose of what I’ve always dreamed of doing. At that moment, I became fearlessly unstoppable.

“Let me tell you about where I grew up. Cuba is the country on the map, that looks like an alligator, and I was born in a city called Santiago de Las Vegas.”

I had re-read that sentence dozens of times since I found my grandmother’s hidden journal the day she passed away four years ago, but it still made me smile the way it first did. I could still hear her thick Spanish accent when I read each word, and in a sense, it made me feel like she was really there, telling me the story of her life in Cuba.

Blinking away the tear that was welling up in my eye, I looked up past the words on the page, to see the town my grandmother wrote so fondly about, in real life. I smiled triumphantly, as my heart filled with pride for multiple reasons.

I made it. I had made it to Cuba, and I had made the journey to Santiago de Las Vegas, where my grandparents grew up, and where they never thought I’d be able to go. And I made it there because of the opportunity that would fulfill my career dreams to write for an esteemed and fabulous travel publication.

I made it to the place that up until now, only existed in the passing reveries from my grandmother telling my three siblings and I not to be spoiled because, “When I was your age, there were twelve of us, with nothing to eat but the fruit in the backyard!”

I made it to the place where many of my family members and even more Cuban families in America are broken-hearted that they cannot go to, for reasons that are far too personal and painful to express in a public publication.

And it was for them, and for my grandmother, that I was there. To re-live her extraordinary legacy, and shine a light on a little unknown town in Cuba that means so much to so many. I was there to show that bravery, gratitude, and ambition will always prevail, and that behind every person is a story, waiting to be told.

“Izquierda, pasado el parque.” I instructed the driver of the classic 1950’s Rambler where to turn to get to my second cousin’s house in Santiago de las Vegas. She still lives in the same house that she was born in, and along with another cousin, is the last remaining family that I have in that town.

The directions were innate to me, as if I had been there a dozen times before, and in a sense, I had been, because it was described in detail in my grandmother’s journal. But I didn’t even need to look for the house number, because as soon as we turned down the dusty road, lined with little box houses, I could see my cousin standing in the doorway, waiting for us to arrive.

I asked Phillipe to hold my GoPro so I could capture on video what their reactions would be. But as I approached the short, stout, elderly woman who clutched her heart with one hand and her agape mouth with the other, emotions overwhelmed me, and yet another unforeseen event occurred.

Tears came flooding out of both of our eyes as we hugged each other for what seemed like an eternity. Finally she pulled me back to examine the girl she had only seen in photos for the past twenty-seven years with bewildered eyes. Words failed to form because the miracle of that moment meant more than anything close to what words could describe. She hugged me again, then carefully put together the few English words she knew to say, “I’m so happy.”

She ushered us into her sister’s house, where my other cousin came slowly from a room in the long, narrow home. The flood gates opened again as she shrieked with excitement, telling me in Spanish how excited she was to see me, as she hugged and kissed me repeatedly.

Just as my grandmother would have done if I was visiting her, my cousins ushered us into chairs in the living room, while another younger woman excitedly dashed off to make us Cuban coffee.

Although the language barrier caused a bit of confusion, I was grateful for the bit of Spanish my grandfather taught me when I was a child that allowed me to communicate at least a little bit. I looked around the simple living room at the various photos of my cousin – her son – and his kids back in Miami, and remembered the two cards he had given me to bring his mother and aunt in Cuba. Their hands shook as they opened the card from the one they love so much, who they are involuntarily unable to see.

After a brief silence that I knew was caused by a familiar heartache, I gave them the only thing my cousin in Miami asked me to bring them, “A big kiss from me and my family”.

I twirled the small diamond on my grandmother’s wedding ring that my grandfather had given me when she passed, around my finger anxiously. I knew it would make them sad when I delivered the message, and I honestly wished I had been able to bring them a lot more, or that he could be there instead, visiting his own mother instead of me.

I wasn’t sure what to say, or for that matter, even how to say it. It hurt my heart to see the hurt in their faces, and I could tell they were trying to suppress their feelings for the sake of me being there. But I understood, and felt it nonetheless.

I felt it because of the way my family in Florida looked at the mere mention of Cuba when I was growing up. I felt it because of the way they looked at me before the trip, in nostalgic, wordless, awe, as if they were hoping to spiritually join me on the journey. I felt it because of the angry and opinionated comments I saw on social media in response to the ignorantly-stated news posts stating that “Anyone is allowed to go to Cuba from the U.S. now”, that neglected to include the past seventy years of suffering that the Cuban and Cuban-Americans had to endure. I understood, and it hurt my heart too.

I pulled out the green, cloth-covered journal that had the treasure map to discovering my grandmother’s life in Cuba out of my travel bag. Again, my cousin looked at me with astonished eyes, as she carefully examined the first sentence, and realized what I had found. In an instant she hopped up out of her seat, grabbed her cane, and ushered us all towards the front door.

We followed her excitedly, along with the younger woman who helps them, whose shockingly attractive son had also just appeared in the open doorway. “My son, he speaks some English.” She carefully explained. He smiled with dimpled cheeks and introduced himself, and I was immediately grateful for the cute Cuban translator.

As we walked and talked along the disheveled streets of Santiago de las Vegas, they told me stories of my grandmother and grandfather when they were young. When we passed other people, they would greet each other casually, and my cousin would proudly inform them that I was her family who came to visit from the United States. More looks of bewilderment came from many of the people, as if this town had never seen visitor, or even a person from the U.S.

The first stop on my time travel tour was the elementary school my grandmother went to. I couldn’t go inside, but I recalled her saying that they were so poor that they usually didn’t have any food to bring for lunch.

I also knew she used to walk to school, so I asked to walk to her house next. Since it was a bit far, we let my cousin take the front seat of the Rambler while the rest of us walked through the dry, hot blocks of Santiago de las Vegas. She said it made her feel like a movie star, and I was beyond grateful to give her the seemingly small luxury of a fancy car ride. Many of the houses were in the same deteriorating condition as the old mansions in Vedado, and most of them had an inhabitant inside that peeked out through a window or open door as we passed.

When we finally got to the location of the house my grandmother grew up in and wrote about, I was a little shocked at how small it was. It had since been renovated, but still did not look like the house for the family of twelve that I had imagined.

Like all the houses, it was very narrow, and crammed between two other houses, but stretched back far enough to create space for four bedrooms. That was considered to be a big house, and in fact, when the Revolution happened, my cousin was living in the house by herself, and was forced to move out so that a bigger family could move in.

Luckily everyone is friends in this town, and the woman who lives there now happily let us in to take a look at where my grandmother lived from the 1920’s to the late 1940’s. Everyone kept telling me it wasn’t the same as it was when she lived there, but there was only one thing that I was concerned about seeing that she talked about the most; the backyard.

I wanted to see the fruit trees that made her and her siblings feel like they were “the richest people in the world” even though they were very poor. I wanted to see the neighbor’s yard that they snuck under to grab chicken eggs, while he looked away because he felt bad for them. I wanted to see the fence where she tried to “catch a lissard” but fell and had to go to the doctor for a brutal cut involving a nail on the fence. And there it all was, right in front of me, in real life.

Perhaps the most remarkable feeling of that moment, was an eerie sense of nostalgia from my own childhood. I had never realized how similar I had been to my grandmother, or why she was always so worried about me chasing lizards in the backyard, but now it all made sense, because she had done the exact same thing.

We also didn’t have much money growing up, but seeing the little fruits grow on my wimpy mango tree made me the happiest kid in the world. In fact, to this day, I still get obnoxiously proud when I plant something and it actually grows, and it’s because of all of the gardening she did that I saw in her later years.

As I was examining the one-hundred year old avocado tree that my grandmother had probably plucked fruit from over ninety years ago, storm clouds began to roll in as if she was acknowledging that I was there. We headed back inside, but there was still one very important place that I needed to see.

It was a place that became important after my grandmother’s rough but happy upbringing, a place where she made her debut as a beautiful Cuban woman with a smart brain and a fickle heart. Up ahead I saw the park that was a center point of the little town, and knew exactly what its role was in my grandmother’s life.

In the 1940’s when my grandmother was in her 20’s, she would walk around the park with friends for an hour on weekends. The girls would walk in one direction, and the boys would walk the other, so they could see if there were any potential suitors. If they were interested, they would sit on a park bench and talk, and if they wanted to become boyfriend and girlfriend, the families would meet, and it usually led to early marriage.

‘That was how we met boys’, she explained vaguely in her journal.

Although there were many boys that wished they could have sat on the bench with my grandmother, she was a picky woman who refused to settle, and even ended up moving to Havana for some time because she got scared of being forced to marry a boyfriend she wasn’t in love with. I smirked, relating her life to my own little escape from the norm in Florida to the opportunities in Los Angeles at around the same age.

In fact, I breathed a sigh of relief when I first read about her flourishing life in Havana in her late-20’s, because my mother had done somewhat of the same thing, at exactly the same age, which meant that my wanderlusting heart was definitely genetic, and that I’d never have to succumb to thinking that life has a schedule.

In photos from her mid-20’s, she was always smiling with brilliant white teeth, even though growing up she used charcoal and a cloth around her finger to brush them. She was making money for the first time in Havana, and could finally afford small luxuries like toiletries and dancing, and could even send her mother some money back home in Santiago. I recalled my first night dancing in Casa de la Musica in Havana, and how I imagined her twirling and stepping to the beats of live salsa music as men drooled over her and waited in line to dance.

She was beyond beautiful, and classic. She even won a modeling competition in Havana, where the prize was two tickets to the movies. Back then, that was an enormous privilege. It made me think of the Cuban models we were using for the editorial, and how they were probably getting paid more than they’d make in a year at a regular job.

In the park, I didn’t understand why my cousin insisted I take a photo with the statue of Juan Delgado Gonzales until I got back home. Ironically, I found an old photo of my grandfather standing in the same exact spot in 1946. Apparently the statue is another war hero…and his great uncle.

My grandfather was extremely skinny in the photo, and wearing his army uniform, because he had just gotten back from Germany after being a prisoner of war in World War II. He had met my grandmother in Santiago de las Vegas before she moved to Havana, and before he went to war, but back then, she thought of him as just a boy because he was a year younger than her, and even more poor than her family was.

But when word of his capture in Germany came to Cuba, she became worried, and suddenly the thought of losing him made her heart ache. She waited and waited, and finally he was freed, earning a Purple Heart for courage for being a prisoner of war, and staying in an attempt to continue fighting with the Russians against the Germans. When he finally made it home to Cuba, he was considered a hero, and the town of Santiago de Las Vegas threw a massive party in his honor. That was when my grandmother no longer saw him as a boy, but as a man, who she fell deeply in love with.

‘We would sit and listen on the radio for the names of Cubans who were captured in the war, every day I would pray that your grandfather wasn’t one of them…then one day, I hear his name on the radio…your grandfather is a prisioner of war in Germany.’

The last stop on my time warped tour was the old church that faces the park. After the treacherous journey of trying to make it in America after the war, getting robbed, and my grandfather being diagnosed with Tuberculosis, my mother was born in 1955 in Miami, Florida.

At the time, flights were still open from the U.S. to Cuba, so my grandparents brought her back to Santiago de las Vegas to get baptized in the very same church I was standing in almost sixty years later. For the first few years of my own mother’s life, she was able to visit and experience Cuba where my grandmother had, which she has always been very appreciative of.

But just before midnight on December 31, 1958, my mother, her sister, and my grandmother were sleeping in the house I had just seen in Santiago, when my great-grandmother woke them up with a grave warning.

“Get up, get your girls, and get to the airport. You have to leave Cuba now.” She instructed, although she couldn’t leave Cuba herself.

They were one of the first flights out of Cuba the next day, as the Revolution leaders made their way into Havana, and took over power of the government. Just a few days later, all flights to and from the U.S. were shut down, either trapping Cubans in or out of Cuba for what they didn’t know might be forever.

My grandmother never got to see her mother or sisters before they died. She never got to go back and see the town that gave her so many memories, and made her who she was. She never got to know whether her grandchildren would ever get to see it before she died. So she wrote it all down.

She wrote it all down in a small, green, cloth-covered journal, that I was holding in my hands, in the town she had described.