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.