Finding Mi Familia

October 13, 2003

When the coast of Cuba came into view through the airplane window, my colleague Les Palich leaned across the aisle and remarked that the sight must be an emotional experience for me. By the time the plane touched down at José Martí International Airport and the passengers simultaneously applauded, I had a lump in my throat and tears were welling up in my eyes.
This was my first trip back to Cuba in almost 50 years. My father was born in Cuba and later was sent to the United States to complete high school and to study engineering. By the late 1930s, he was an experienced civil engineer, had married and had settled in Florida, where my sister and I were born. In the 1950s, we were living in New York City, and the opportunity presented itself for me to travel to Cuba and spend the summer there with relatives. That was in 1955, and I was 13 years old. I returned to Cuba the following summer, but in the 47 years that have elapsed since then, I have not been back. 
My almost half-century-old memories of Havana are quite detailed and vivid, partly because I was an adolescent traveling alone for the first time and partly because the situations and events that were about to unfold before me would prove truly extraordinary. During that first visit, I managed to explain to airport authorities in halting Spanish that the aunt I would be staying with while in Havana could not come to meet me. I gave them her name, address and telephone number. After a phone call and some wrangling, an official handed me several forms that required the signature of an adult. He then put me in a taxi and instructed the driver to return with the signed forms. My aunt Monina was waiting for me on the sidewalk in front of her architecturally imposing and well-maintained apartment building. She hugged me, signed the papers and rushed me inside and away from the disturbance that was brewing on the nearby campus of the University of Havana and in the surrounding streets. 
She expressed concern for my cousin Elma who was a student at the university and had not yet returned home. From a window of her third-floor apartment, I had a clear view of the broad granite stairway that led to the campus' main entrance. Several students demonstrating against the repressive Batista regime were prying up manhole covers and rolling them down the steps toward the police cars that had sealed off access to the campus. The 200-pound discs struck the parked cars broadside with a force that crushed doors, shattered windows and rendered the vehicles unusable. Fortunately, my cousin was in no way involved in these events, and shortly after my arrival, she walked through the apartment door. 
Many changes have taken place during the intervening decades. Thankfully, my Spanish is much improved. And whether we like it or not, today's stricter airport personnel follow procedures to the letter. The Baylor in Cuba group probably spent more time going through identity and security checks at the Waco, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami and Havana airports than time in the air completing the various legs of the journey. My aunt Monina, cousin Elma and most of my other relatives no longer live in Cuba. Soon after Castro overthrew Batista and declared himself a Communist, these family members requested and were granted asylum in the United States. 
The apartment building where my aunt and cousin had lived is, regrettably, in an advanced state of decay. Years ago, the elevator was damaged by fire and never restored to working order. The corridors and stairwells have no electric lighting. Walls, floors, windows and doors are all in need of repair, paint and a thorough cleaning. Nevertheless, the low-income individuals and families who occupy the apartments seem content to be living there. 
Attitudes on the University of Havana campus vis-à-vis the Castro government range from acceptance to open support. I saw no overt signs of student unrest because of human rights abuses. That is not to say that dissidents are nowhere to be found, and herein lies a major similarity with the Cuba that I remember. From the briefing and printed information received by the Baylor group at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, popular resistance to the Castro regime is growing. Sadly, as in the past, advocates of a change in the government are being hunted down, jailed and, in some cases, executed. One can only hope that the approaching period of political upheaval will be followed by the eventual establishment of a stable, forward-looking, representative democracy. 
Each of the two summers I spent in Cuba in the mid-1950s was divided lopsidedly between Havana and my family's hometown, Banes, on the eastern part of the island. The first summer I traveled alone but the following summer, I went with my aunt Hilda and my cousin Gonzalito. They lived in the same New York City neighborhood as my immediate family and I, and Gonzalito was only one grade ahead of me in school. For a couple of teenagers from the upper west side of Manhattan, the prospect of vacationing in a small but bustling town in the center of a rich agricultural region had the lure of the exotic. The white sand beaches of Cuba's northeastern coast, only 30 minutes from Banes by car, turned out to be our favorite playground. The lush geographical setting was not the only attraction. The well-developed network of relatives and family friends provided many opportunities to participate in a variety of fun-filled activities. 
We stayed with my aunt Zoila, her husband Paco, who was the mayor of the town, and their daughter Eneida. Throughout our stay, Gonzalito and I were pretty much allowed to do as we pleased. For me, at least, having fun was tempered with some serious and ultimately life-changing thought. I realized that virtually everyone I met already knew who I was, that I had a particular place and standing in the community and that all around me were people who took an interest in my well-being. I found social integration and interaction of this kind not only novel and intriguing, but definitely preferable to my day-to-day existence in the impersonal New York megalopolis I called home. 
Later in life, I have reflected often on how prominently the short time I spent in Cuba, particularly in Banes, has figured in the formation of my identity and in my choice of career. It was then and there that I first made a serious effort to learn the Spanish language and to understand Hispanic culture. Without realizing it, I was taking the first steps on the road to becoming a professor of Spanish.
This summer, almost 50 years later, I again rode the bus east from Havana. Banes was no longer on the route, so I had to get off in Holguín, the provincial capital, to determine how best to reach my final destination. I found lodging at the Pernik, a rather plain, Soviet-style hotel similar to ones I was familiar with from travels in eastern Europe. At the taxi stand in front of the hotel, I met a driver who revealed that he was originally from Banes, so I hired him to take me there the following day. We left midmorning and arrived in Banes a little before noon. I barely could recognize my aunt Zoila's and uncle Paco's house. It was almost at the point of collapsing. The house next door that had belonged to Paco's mother, and the City Hall on the corner, where he had his office, were in somewhat better condition. 
My only relative still in Banes was Nely, an unmarried cousin employed part time by the Cuban telephone company. Following sketchy directions to her home, I knocked on the door where I thought she lived, and to my surprise, Nely answered. I explained briefly who I was and she invited me in. The long, rambling conversation that followed dwelt more on our sweet memories than on the harsh realities of the present.
After my visit and lunch with Nely, the driver and I went to Puerto Rico beach, some 8 or 10 miles away, where I had spent many afternoons and some weekends. My uncle's rustic but well-kept bungalow perched on stilts was gone, as were the dozen others like it. In their place stood a few shanties built at beach level. Generally, the landscape as it appears today struck me as barren, especially with respect to vegetation and humanity. To be sure, the salt breeze, the white sand, the waves breaking offshore and the water's different shades of blue are all still there. But the dry branches and driftwood to build a fire on the beach at sunset, and relatives and friends who would sit cross-legged telling stories well into the night were sadly absent. 
The cab driver dropped me at my hotel in Holguín in the early evening. It had been a long day with many highs and lows, but before dozing off, I called my cousin Pepín, whose whereabouts I had learned from Nely. We agreed to meet the following evening in the hotel lobby. The reunion was quite an emotional experience, with several abrazos -- those bear hugs with pats on the back upon arriving and parting -- and in between, many hearty laughs as we reminisced and long silences as we remembered those who had died, among them Gonzalito and another cousin, Panchito. 
Pepín's fervent wish was that I take on the role of intermediary and work toward reconciling those few family members who long ago had decided to stay in Cuba with the many who had chosen to live in the United States. The 40-plus years of separation had to end. We, and other senior members of the family, should be able to spend the years to come in much the same way as we had spent the years of our youth -- being a part of each others' lives, meeting and getting to know new members of the family, spouses, children and grandchildren. I made a solemn promise that I would do as he had asked. 
As I ponder this summer's visit to Cuba and the memories it rekindled, certain themes become clear. An obvious one is Cuba's economic decline as seen in the deterioration of the physical environment, including my aunt's apartment house and the buildings in Banes and the Puerto Rico beach. Another is Cuba's perennial political unrest. Regardless of who is in power, Batista or Castro, authoritarian rule, coupled with the use of brutal repressive measures against opposition groups, alienates large segments of the population and eventually leads to turmoil and a change of regime. The third thematic element has to do with extended family, an institution admirable for its ability to get things done and its general adherence to high moral purpose. Through the cooperation and diligence of caring family members, a 13-year-old was able to travel safely on his own from New York to Banes and three long-lost relatives succeeded in finding each other. Such resourcefulness and concern for the common good, so characteristic of Hispanic family relationships, if applied to economic and political problems, surely would facilitate the transformation of Cuba.

Dr. Ortuño is chair of Modern Foreign Languages and professor of Spanish.