“Our house is a very, very fine house…”
In January, I became the first person to visit Cuba since my family left as refugees in 1960. It was an emotional trip, especially because I’d already lost my grandparents and I found that being in their home city made me miss them terribly.
Thanks to the U.S. embargo and its archaic policies, I was only able to go to Cuba legally by joining a delegation with an authorized People to People license. This meant that I was required to be shuffled from one meeting to the next on an exhausting schedule.
However, one afternoon, after the group had been dropped off in Habana Vieja, there was a narrow window for me to seek out my family’s home in the neighborhood known as La Vibora. Armed with instructions given to me by my great-aunt, I headed out in our yellow school bus with our wonderful guide, Ariel.
When I left for Cuba, I wasn’t even sure that I would be able to find it since many street names and addresses have changed in the last 50 years. When I saw the condition of the neighborhood I thought that even if we found the house, it may just be a dilapidated mess, a ghost of what it was when my family lived there. There was also the possibility that whoever lived there now would be less than welcoming. Ariel had warned me that many people feared having their homes reclaimed by the original owners, so there was a chance that the door would get slammed in our faces. I had prepared myself for these possibilities.
And then there it was. Our house: #109. Of course it hadn’t been my family’s house in decades, but it was impossible to think of it in any other way, especially since it had not been given up willingly. I was elated just to have found it.
What I had not prepared myself for was the gracious welcome we received when I mentioned my family’s last name at the front door. It was as if I had said the magic words; “Come in,” the man announced and went to fetch his wife.
As it turns out, this older couple had been living in our former home since 1962. “I have been thinking about your family lately,” the old woman, Alida, told me. They had only recently begun to renovate it. Unfortunately, most Cubans cannot afford to fix up their homes when the average salary is just $20/month.
However, they had painted a few rooms and had just completely redone the bathroom. She showed me the original tub, slumped over in the backyard, rusting.
Alida and Pablo seemed just as excited to have me there as I was to be there. They told me to take all the pictures I wanted and happily pointed out all the features of the home which were original.
Our house had really high ceilings and one long airy hallway which led from the front family room all the way to the kitchen at the back.
Though the walls had been freshly painted, the windows were all originally part of the design as were the tiled floors, which had held up nicely against the strains of time. I loved their retro design.
“Your family built the apartments upstairs,” Alida said. This was true. When my great-aunt got married, my great grandparents built an apartment above the home for her and her new husband to live with their own budding family. When my grandparents got married, they built another apartment behind that one for them to live in.
These days, the two apartments have different families living in them. After the warm welcome I had received from Pablo and Alida, I thought there was no way the upstairs neighbors would do the same, but when I was brought upstairs, they received me just as quickly.
My grandparents built another home when their family continued to grow (my mother has three siblings), but unfortunately we do not know the exact location since my grandfather failed to give us the address before his massive stroke.
When I explained to Alida that my grandparents were gone, she told me, “Well, consider us your grandparents in Cuba then.” It was a great relief to know that such kind people had been living in our home. Their daughter gave me her e-mail address and told me to let them know if I would return, so that they could prepare something for me.
Even though my family hasn’t lived in this house for over half a century, it will never cease being ours. The only difference is now when I think of it as our house, I include these lovely people in my definition of ours.
P.S. My family has waited two months for me to post pictures of our house and even though I was only able to stay there for an hour, I snapped as many pictures as I could in order to capture it for them. Below is the complete gallery of images. Sorry it took so long!
The main house and the street. I only took photos of the things they told me had not been changed:
The front apartment:
The back apartment (where my grandparents once lived):