Two Homelands
An artist risks detainment in Cuba while connecting with relatives and putting the hurt on tarpon and bones.
By Alberto Rey

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 other species.

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.

Alberto Rey

Alberto Rey is the 2021 Orvis Guide of the Year, a Distinguished Professor, an artist, a videographer, a writer,  and the founder/director of a youth fly fishing program. His artwork is the permanent collection of over 20 museum collections and he has written and illustrated three books, Complexities of Water: Bagmati River, Nepal, The Extinct Birds Project, Lost Beauty: Icebergs and is the cowriter for Survey of Canadaway Creek in Western New York. More information is available on his website,