Thursday, May 10, 2012


Papi and Mami enjoying a beautiful day in Cuba.

I'm no missionary.  I'm more of a cussing, drinking and smoking kind of guy who loves Jesus desperately... sometimes.  

And Cuba is one of the most spectacular places on earth.  There. I said it.

As a boy I heard stories of mountains I imagined climbing, caves with ancient Ciboney (Caribbean indigenous peoples) carvings waiting to be explored by adventurous boys, beautiful lakes, rivers and springs for fishing and swimming, the majestic city of Havana with an unrivaled rich colonial history, the expansive blue beaches of Varadero. When Columbus landed on the island of Cuba, it is said he declared it was the most beautiful land human eyes had ever set eyes upon.

Almost 500 years following the Columbus landing, I was born in Miami, at sea level, next to a swamp... and we have a lighthouse built in the 1800's.  So yeah, I've carried some bitterness over that. Sue me.  I can understand why my father and mother never imagined a life outside of their island paradise.  Cuba is just that amazing.

Among the many memories my parents passed down to me surrounded their life growing up in an Evangelical Christian community.  Their experiences attending Wesley Methodist School and Church in Santiago de las Vegas, Havana Province, made up some of the richest stories about life in their little town.  When they arrived in the United States, grateful to their God for bringing them to a country where they could live in freedom and worship Him without fear of persecution, they also made sure to pass on their faith to their children (I have posted previously about this legacy in this blog).

So I grew up attending church in Miami.  My parents left the Methodist tradition and embraced the Presbyterian church.  Not just any church though; this was a Cuban church, make no mistake (pa' que lo sepan). While most of my Cuban-American friends attended Catholic mass with pretty much every other Cuban in Miami, I attended a Presbyterian church with Cuban grandmothers dispensing enough hugs, kisses, and candy from their purses to make any kid feel at home.  Being part of this church meant I received a weekly dose of Calvinist reformed theology, with a shot of Cuban coffee after each service.  Everything happened in Spanish.  Potlucks included rice and beans and lechon.  Traditional hymns were accompanied (on occasion) with bongos, clave, guitar and guiro.

Over the years, my identity has become cemented in these two truths.  First, I am a Christian.  Second, I have a passion for the homeland of my parents.  As a Christian, I am at a place in my life where it's not about attending church, being pro-life and voting Republican.  I identify more closely to my faith in Jesus Christ than with anything else. My faith is the lens through which I see everything; my wife, my children, my world.  There is no distinction; a church life and regular life. My faith defines my life.  I believe that calling yourself a Christian means something, and that it dramatically changes how you see, hear, and interact with everything around you. But if we don't allow the message of the Gospel to penetrate our hearts daily, it will always seem like just a nice idea for people and cultures to ascribe to.  We will reduce what Schaeffer called "...the greatest intellectual system the mind of man has ever touched" into a nice idea to pass along to the kids.  

Those are big words, and they create a problem; or better said, a tension. God is a ferocious pursuer of men; He does not relent. Among other things, he would not relent with me about Cuba.  I needed to go.  There is work for me to do there.  It's difficult to identify what that work is exactly.  It's one of those things that you can't easily define or put your head around because there are too many variables.  So in 2011, I would go again.  I had to; there was no choice in the matter.  I would go despite all the fear and trepidation that goes with being a first generation Cuban-American going to Cuba, whose parents had fled the island in fear some 50 years prior.  Therein lies the tension.

While everyone around me is speculating and guessing as to why I have gone and wish to continue to go to Cuba, I can honestly say that I haven't figured it out yet.  What do I know about being a missionary?  Nothing.

My father, Roberto Perez and I discussing my trip to Cuba over lunch.

What I do know is my parents started their faith journey in a tiny church in Santiago de las Vegas. This little church would be the next step -- a baby step -- in my journey with Cuba.  To help me connect with the old church, my father put me in touch with a family friend, Pastor Roberto Perez.  I met with Roberto and he asked me, "Why do you want to visit the old church?"  I responded enthusiastically, "I want to share with the people there the story of the impact that church made on my life, and how my parents passed that legacy on to me."  Roberto looked at me and said  "Okay.  I can get you in touch with someone.  She still lives there and she knew your parents.  I have to send an email to someone else in that town who has access to the internet, in order to get a message to her though, so it may take a while. I'll see what I can do."

So the second trip to Cuba began with plans to visit, pilgrimage style, the church where my parents were married and started their life together.

At the time, this seemed like a good idea.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Background Story

Santiago de las Vegas is a small colonial town on the outskirts of the capitol. It was established on May 3, 1749.  The old cathedral in the town square was built in 1694.  We don't know exactly how far back our family lived in that town, but we do know our time there and in the neighboring town Bejucal goes back as far as the early 1800's, and possibly earlier.

On December 24, 1962, my parents, my sister, grandparents and several family members left on a ship called the African Pilot, after an agreement reached between the U.S. government and Castro.  1,113 prisoners, brave men captured after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion were released, my uncle Jose Peruyero included.  They arrived at Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  It's reported that over 1,000 of the prisoner's family members left Cuba on or around that Christmas Eve.

My grandmother embracing my uncle; a tearful reunion for a Pedro Pan family.

My dad says the night he left, everything moved fast.  Some goon came to his door and told my parents to step outside the house.  They were to take only a change of clothes.  My mom packed a bag, the door was locked and police tape was put up to block re-entry.  Later that evening my grandfather Tuti (aka Tito) jumped the backyard fence, broke in and took some extra clothes for my sister, then just barely a toddler.

That night they headed to the African Pilot, never to return to Santiago de las Vegas.  The town my dad knew since childhood.  The place where my parents met and later fell in love.  The place my family called home. 

59 years pass.  Time goes by and places once known by heart are forgotten.  Names of friends; gone.  The colors of buildings, faces, facades and shop signs, many lost from memory.  There are still some good memories, but mostly the painful ones overshadow.  Tears, anger, rage, regret.  Too many horrible memories of betrayal, loss, fear and terror.  My parents always told me, "We will never go back."

Then I decide to go.

It's hard for my parents to swallow.  The memories come in again on them in a flood.  Mami cries, get's angry.  Papi just stares and thinks.  This goes on for weeks.  Then the moment of truth...

"Give me a pen and paper.  I want to show you where we all lived."

Mami draws out a partial map of Santiago de las Vegas.  Suddenly, the streets and places come into focus.  She can still see the houses as they were.  She draws a little box.  "That's Wesley Methodist Church.  It's probably a disaster now, but...".  Another box.  "This is where I lived.  I've seen pictures and they put this horrendous addition on the roof.  It's ugly and it wasn't there when I lived there." Another box is drawn on the other side of the street. "Aqui vivia tu papa...".  Your father lived here right across the street from me. "This house is where the Balido's lived, and this is where Rose Bagley lived..."  Another box.  "I lived in this house when our family first moved to Santiago.  It had beautiful columns in front..."  Another box.  "Aqui estaba el mercado del Chino, donde tu papa compraba su chicle". This is where the Chinese grocer had his market; where your father would buy his gum.  

Within ten minutes, my mother has written out a map of all the places that mattered to my parents in Santiago de las Vegas.  It rises from a place deep in her heart, where all the really great memories are kept safe.

Then the warnings.  "Be careful who you talk to.  Be careful what you say.  Don't trust anyone."  I say "Yes Mami..." The fear is still palpable, and I can see her in my imagination standing in front of a door sealed with tape, standing next to a man with a shotgun.  I give her a kiss and I leave.

My mother's home at the far left... with the ugly addition on the roof. 
These homes are from Cuba's colonial period.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

El Willy

I spent my first 2 days in Cuba with my good friend Don.  We stayed in a "casa particular". These are homes throughout Cuba where the residents are allowed to have rooms-to-let.  I would explain how this system works, but frankly I just want to show the Willy video, and this topic gives me a headache.  Like the tax code in America, pretty much everything the government does in Cuba leaves you going... "huh?".

Our ride was a 1942 Willy. Roy is a local and he gave us a ride.  He was cheaper than paying a taxi, which was fine with us since we knew it was helping his personal economy.  Roy and his dad rebuilt 2 Willys in their front yard (amazing).  It was great hearing Roy talk about his dad and how they worked on the jeep together.

We had a blast riding around in that Willy.  You can see the jeep in action by clicking on the link below.  The town we are riding through is called Fontanar, just outside the capitol.  My dad tells me this was a new development in the 1950's and my Tio Alberto owned a few lots to build before they were taken away by the regime.

Our journey in Cuba was underway.  On this Sunday, I was off to attend a church service at the same church my parents went to youth group, attended school, and were later married more than 50 years ago.  I would be the first of my family to step in this church since my parents left in 1962.

Please note the 2 liter bottle of gas sitting between me and the driver, and the towel he's using to wipe away... spilled gas.  The 2 liter bottle is a homemade gas gauge.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Broken Island

I visited Cuba for the first time in 2009, and it was an amazing trip. It was exciting, terrifying, saddening and hopeful all at the same time.  I look back on that trip as one of the pivotal points in my life.  I wrote a little about it, not being able to put too much into words that would accurately express what I felt in that first Cuba experience.

In 2011, I took my second trip.  Things are a bit clearer after that trip.  In 2011, my experience was real; the romanticism was stripped away.  The first trip was a vacation of sorts; a magical week of seeing the world I may have been born in under different circumstances.  The second trip was going to be the completion of the first; a time to finish the experience of Santiago de las Vegas, La Habana, and all those places my family passed on to me via memory and nostalgia.

In the second trip, I was intentional going in.  I was intent on telling more people about Jesus; this was after all, a missions trip.  I was intent on giving of my time to listen, to love and to be with those people I came into contact with.  And in the end, I was able to do all this, but it was difficult.  It was difficult because Cuba is a hard place physically, mentally and spiritually.  It was also difficult as it exposed things about me; those ugly things that dwell inside us we would rather not look at.

I snapped this photo my first night in La Habana.  This is El Capitolio, the Capitol Building.  For years this building sat in darkness, as the leaders sought to conceal and erase the grandeur of the city's past.  Now the tourist dollars demand lighting.  The consumer cries out for a view of this once great city, and the irony is missed by the ideologue tourists walking it's streets.  The statue designed in the 1920's by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli casts it's shadow majestically on the marble wall.  For a moment it takes your breath away; especially at night when you can't see the destruction just across the street from El Capitolio, where underwear from Miami hangs from the balconies of decaying buildings once used as offices and residences for men of commerce and law.

Havana is a city living in the shadow of it's great past.  And as I walked down it's majestic old streets, I realized why it's leaders let it decay the way they did; why they hid it for so long in the darkness as if hoping people would simply ignore this city, once and still considered one of the most beautiful in the world.  As long as the city casts it's shadow, it reminds everyone that somewhere in time, a huge mistake was made.  Something beautiful was lost.  A city was broken, and the people broken along with it.

Over the next few posts I will create a journal of my 2011 Cuba experience.  I want to be honest as I write, so I will most assuredly piss off a lot of people.  I'm okay with that.  It has been my experience lately that honesty is progress.  It helps us progress past our own collective bullshit.

I'm not looking to be overly poetic.  I have no idealism left for this place either; it is simply broken.  I do, however, have hope.  There is a story to tell here, and a lot of good stories start at a broken place.  So I hope this is a good story.  The story hasn't ended, so this is a work in progress.  In writing this down I also hope to find, in the end, redemption.