Cuba. A more complicated topic can’t be found for refugees of that island, of
which I am one. My family received political asylum when I was three. At that
time my father was a covert revolutionist against Castro when Fidel turned
communist. When it was clear that my father's name was on the list to be
detained or killed, he went into hiding for weeks before his political asylum
request was accepted by the Mexican embassy in Havana. He was flown to Mexico
City where we joined him a few months later, after he secured enough funds to
pay for our flights. A couple years later, we all flew to Miami to start our
new lives in the United States.
I spent the next 60 years acclimating to a new culture while still keeping the
connection to my Cuban heritage that remained integral to my identity.
Escaping the island did not save my family from the pain of its politics. My
uncle died in a political prison and my grandmother drowned a few years later
trying to leave Cuba in an overcrowded boat that capsized just off the Keys.
I have returned to Cuba twice. The first time was in 1998 with my mother. She
introduced me to the rest of my family from our small agricultural town,
Agramonte, which is located a couple hours away from Havana. We also relived
her memories of Havana and other locations on the island. It was a bittersweet
experience. While the trip partially filled a void, my family’s dire
conditions made me wonder,
by what turn of fate, I was provided the opportunity to live a fruitful and
prosperous life and they had not?
They were just as, if not more, educated and hardworking as I am and they
lived just 90 miles from Key West. How could our lives be so different? The
trip was heartbreaking and I promised myself I would not return.
A few years later, after the pain from that initial trip waned, and after
forgetting that promise, I agreed to an assignment for a fly-fishing magazine,
to provide the editor with some translation services, provide my perspective
on the trip, help with the fishing and create some artwork for the article.
Exploring Cuba through its environmental richness was a welcome alternative to
the political repression that had plagued my memories of "home".
We explored the Jardines de la Reina archipelago (Queen's Gardens) on Cuba’s
west coast. We stayed on a refurbished barge amongst the islands in the middle
of the national park. The Italian outfitter, Avalon, had an exclusive lease
for the entire group of protected islands. We never saw another angler on our
fishing excursions and the location was so secluded that the curious tarpon
would often come out of the mangroves when our boats docked between the
islands. We started our days fishing for bones while the sun was low on the
horizon and then hunted tarpon when the sun was directly overhead. Their
distinct shadows were easily seen from a distance. As the sun started to slip
back down toward the horizon, we would strip streamers in the channels between
the islands and would pick up yellowtail snapper, barracuda and a plethora of
The second half of our trip was spent on the other side of the island amongst
the islands of the Jadines del Rey (the King's Gardens). Two decades ago, fly
fishing in this area was concentrated near a couple of resorts. But we were
fishing in new regions, introduced to us by our part-time guides who were
full-time biologists. The tarpon were so plentiful in certain sections that we
could not get our flies to the larger fish because the smaller ones would take
them shortly after they hit the water. This was a special moment in time
although I expect that there are still parts of the island that have not been
fished by anglers due to the difficult access.
The trip was special for me because it provided an opportunity to connect with
other Cubans on the island. There seemed to be a silent bond between us, as
though we were connected by a homeland but separated by factors beyond our
control. As with my prior trip, I did, however, feel as though I was living
within a dark cloud of anxiety—it was possible to be detained and there is no
American embassy on the island. Since I was born in Cuba, I was still
considered a Cuban citizen by the Cuban government. The government did not
like to see Cuban refugees returning to the island, although it depended
heavily on these financial contributions to the economy. The fear of being
separated from my family and my newly born son did not pass until my return
flight was off the ground and heading to my other home.
I have not returned since.