A few people have asked me why I went to Cuba. In case you’re one of them, here’s why.
To me, Cuba is like the neighbor behind a wall that you hear but you can’t see.
In Western Jamaica, where I grew up, from very early on, I could hear Cuba from my house through the sometimes faint, sometimes clear sounds of music and voices in a language I didn’t then understand. Over the years, I created my own narrative of the place adults talked about in sometimes panicked, sometimes hushed tones.
I wondered about the people, who it was explained to me, could not leave. I tried to imagine what it would be like not being able to leave or do whatever pleased me.
The image I had, even at that age, was of being trapped, being imprisoned. No, no one wanted that.
Cuba was the Caribbean’s bogeyman – there was always the fear that what happened there could also happen in Jamaica. And many Jamaicans were, understandably, concerned.
Then as I grew older, stories began to come out. Stories told by my mother of two aunts – sisters of her father’s, my grandfather – who went to Cuba, married and never returned.
l also found out that another grand-aunt, this time on my father’s side never returned either.
Between 1916 and 1940, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 Jamaicans went to Cuba in search of work. No one knows how many returned despite being allowed to following the revolution.
My paternal grandfather did. As did my godfather and a family friend – all spicing their Jamaican English with Spanish words and speaking Spanish among themselves – clear signs to everyone else that they had been “a foreign.”
Some of those words became so commonplace, they became part of the lexicon. I didn’t realize until I started learning Spanish in high school that these words were.
My fascination with Cuba never waned – blame that privacy fence, the closedoffness of it. And with family connections, it isn’t a place I could put out of my mind easily, despite all that I learned from my Cuban friends.
When I decided to visit, I told each of them in turn. Not one objected.
My family wanted me to look up the ones who never returned.
But, in the end, I went for me.
Fifty years of repression have not dampened the spirit of the Cuban people. The country hasn’t lost its grandeur, its style or its flare. And I’d go back tomorrow. Because now I have my own images to match the narrative of my childhood.
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