A Trip to Havana
One of the first encounters I had with the Cuban American community happened in my own backyard. Tio Ricaurte and Tia Barbara lived just a few minutes away; they had recently moved to Texas from Cuba, and became our adopted family. We spent Christmases, birthday parties and summer nights together. We hosted Paulo, a Cuban intern at church, during his stay in the United States. Eduardo, my high school gym buddy, was also from Cuba, though he had lived most of his life in Houston. They all had different reasons for leaving their homeland--family, finances, ambition--but I was always left with the impression that something was wrong with Cuba. My dad said people were trying to escape; every time Cuba came up in conversation, there was reprehension.
Having grown up in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, I generally didn’t understand racism. Houston is 75% non-white and my neighborhood was no exception. But there were always microaggressions. I remember my last name Castro being the butt of numerous jokes about being related to Fidel, the “crazy dictator down south.” People would ask me if I was from Cuba, if I had a soft spot for communism. Inaccurate as the jokes were, they still painted (and tainted) my perception of Cuba.
Last year the opportunity arose to travel to the island, and I signed up as soon as I was able. Lingering curiosity from my childhood inspired my decision to go. There were already so many parts of Cuba that touched my life and I wanted to be able to explore the place for myself. Realistically, the opportunities to travel there are limited, so while the doors were open, I approached them without hesitation.
Plenty of concerned acquaintances cocked their eyebrow as they received news of my anticipated travel. “Are you sure you want to go to Cuba?” seemed to be the consensus. But I was ready to step into that world, and I can only say that Cuba defied all my expectations. It blew me away.
What follows is a story of how this Texas-grown child of Colombian heritage fell in love with the crown jewel of the Caribbean. I experienced a place dearly beloved by its inhabitants, a people who cried out for the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the resentment of so many years of misunderstanding. I felt the warmth of the spirit of Cuba’s people and the pride they take in who they are and what they’ve come to accomplish throughout the centuries. Cuba is a place that captured my heart and helped me see things from a new perspective.
We received nothing but open acceptance and goodwill from our Cuban hosts. Sometimes there were shortages of eggs or bread—shortages that ending the embargo could fix—but our hosts always gave us their very best. Cubans don’t hate Americans: quite the opposite, they wish the doors were more open for Americans and Cubans to interact.
The quote on this wall translates: “I die with you, but I don’t die for you.” Cubans of African descent have a long and turbulent history in the country, as Cuba was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere. This art was created by an Afro-Cuban artist, and seems to express the struggles black Cubans have experienced being integrated into Cuban society, even as they fought alongside their white fellow citizens to bring about Cuban independence.
Cuba has produced a vast array of talented artists. I got to watch a performance of The Nutcracker by the Cuban Ballet here at the Grand Theater of Havana, which was built in 1915. To watch this famous story come to life in the brilliant colors of the Cuban cast was absolutely remarkable. This experience demonstrates the transnational and central role Cuban art plays in understanding the island’s culture, which remains closed off to the U.S.
The remarkably designed capitol building inspires awe upon entering its massive bronze doors and beholding its brazen halls and art pieces. There is a particular place within the building that honors the soldiers who died fighting for Cuba’s independence with an eternal flame. Engraved in the bronze doors is the history of struggle—this year marks 500 years since Havana was first founded. Cuba’s history is long and characterized by resistance to oppression, to which the U.S. has contributed much.
Viva Cuba Libre!
Cubans love their country and love living there. In light of the history shared between the U.S. and Cuba—most recently characterized by cold and passive aggression—it is important to show respect for their country, which they have fought hard to establish and protect. I never felt unsafe or at risk in Cuba; if anything, I was overwhelmed by the openness of this country’s embrace. Sometimes it’s very challenging to embrace the foreigner and their incomprehensible ways. But when I allowed myself to be open to Cuba, it loved me back and changed the way I look at it forever.
About the author: Camilo is an artist from Houston, Texas. You can find him at the water's edge with a mug of coffee in hand.