Santa Clara’s streets are narrow, flanked by single-story homes built so that no room is left for alleys or porches. It is horizontal space conservation to the extreme. Even in this tiny car, in which I am riding with my grandfather and father, it feels a little claustrophobic. We arrive in front of 84 Martí Street—a house that looks almost identical to all those around it except for a roof that has long since collapsed. Standing in front are two older women and several younger adults, roughly my age. We park the car on the street and step out. Within seconds I am smothered in repeated and unrelenting hugs; I am being kissed on the forehead and cheeks; I feel hot tears as they are dropped haphazardly. This is my family. They have been waiting for my grandfather to come home for almost 60 years. They tell me that I look like a Machado.
The following interactions seem strange to me. We fall easily into a familial atmosphere: welcoming, inviting, loving, accepting, and comfortable—as if we have known each other our entire lives. In reality, we are almost complete strangers, but strangers bound by something infinitely more profound than the politics, cultures, and countries that had separated us. Although I need to continually be reminded of names, the smiles and laughter of familiarity fill the small house to its capacity, straightening the old, wooden columns and raising the sagging roof for the first time in a long time. It is as if the walls and the rooms and my aunts and cousins and father and grandfather can all breathe a huge sigh of relief, 60 years in the making. “Home at last” sounds quietly on the breeze, lazily meandering its way through the halls.
My grandfather walks slowly through the home, here and there relating a story of things that he remembers from his childhood. The tile floors are the same; the room he used to sleep in seems so much smaller; the mango tree still curls its gnarled, prolific arms towards the courtyard’s square window of sky. It is a living artifact and yet a home still, being occupied by a family—our family—just as it was when my grandfather was a child.
I spend the night sleeping in the room that my grandfather once shared with my uncle Hilberto. I sleep in one bed while my aunt Marucha and cousin Yanet doze in the other. My cousin Yandy sleeps by the door. Someone snores all night, but I don’t know who. I dream about the past that surrounds me. —Mario Machado
I am with my grandfather and father in a little Korean-made car, hurtling down the crumbling central highway on the way to Santa Clara, Cuba, my grandfather’s birthplace. He has not visited this home in almost 60 years, although the actual house he was raised in still stands. In his half-century of absence, his grandparents, parents, and sisters have passed away. We are going to this place so that my grandfather can finally pay his respects. We are going to meet family that I have always had, but never knew. We are going so that my father and I can finally realize our own history. We are going to find something for ourselves.
Endless fields of sugarcane and tobacco sway like calm oceans, gentle waves lapping up to the acacia- and palm-lined banks of the forests. In brilliant reds and yellows, flamboyant trees rise like islands in the midst of these green seas while cattle escape the late-morning heat and humidity by dozing in the shade. Farmers’ hovels dot the landscape. They look almost comical, with grass roofs and wooden planks that have been warped and animated by passing time, the elemental cycles of rains and droughts, highs and lows. Ancient sand dunes create natural levies along the coast, while truer mountains rise cautiously to misty heights further inland. This place is gorgeous. The old Cuban tune “Chan Chan” strums slowly away on the radio as we wind our way to my grandfather’s long-lost home.
Entering Santa Clara is like driving through a living museum. The battle of Santa Clara, the last major guerilla offensive during the Cuban revolution and the battle that made Che Guevara famous, seems written on every surface. Memorials, statues, and murals greet visitors at every corner. Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in certain areas, especially at the Santa Clara Libre hotel, where a major skirmish took place. If one didn’t know better, they might think that the revolution happened just yesterday. It’s a proud and also desperate attempt to hold on to history. The world is moving into the future; Cuba (in more ways than one) seems to be holding blindly to those early years of revolution. —Mario Machado
Driving out of Cuba’s capital city, La Havana, one immediately encounters the chaotic bustle of a developing country. Having just come from living in Paraguay for 8 months, I was much less shocked by the people and landscape than my father and grandfather seemed to be. Still, Cuba hardly fits the mold; it is a country like none other on Earth. As many Cubans will tell you, through hushed whispers and barely parted lips, this is the land of contradictions.
For those still preoccupied with Fidel Castro, I would like to offer this bit of solace, though it comes perhaps 50 years too late: Cuba is not Fidel’s island. Cuba is growing up and finding itself full of a younger generation that doesn’t remember the communist revolution of 1959. This generation is becoming increasingly tired of the intellectual and social restrictions imposed by the very state that has given them an education that is equaled by few countries in the Americas. (Cuba’s literacy rate is higher than that of even the United States.) Dissent is brewing, fueled by the regime that it will one day topple or otherwise transform deeply. Castro represents the old, tired, and variably successful politicians of communist Cuba. He and his numbers are aging, soon to be replaced by an unknown future. There is still one potent symbol for this next generation, however, and especially at this time in Cuban history, it seems both extremely appropriate but also quite ironic: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Driving around Cuba, one thing is almost immediately evident: Che is the symbol and the martyr of the Cuban revolution. He was memorialized idealistically, like a delicate flower in amber, at a time when the guerillas were still young, progressive, and shaking up the modern world. On every available surface on the island—on the walls of aging, Soviet-era factories, on streets and dumpsters, in homes and on tourist souvenirs—the face of Che appears in defiant, immortal glory. The man whom Jean-Paul Sartre once described as “the most complete human being of our era” reigns over an island that is sauntering into an uncertain future.
It is curious to wonder what the revolutionary would think of modern day Cuba, were he alive today. As members of this young generation flex their well-educated minds (which, according to Cuban communist philosophy, are actually the property of the state), the old regime trembles. And yet, the world continues to move on. —Mario Machado
I recently took time off from work in Paraguay and spent 10 days on the island of Cuba with my father and grandfather. It was a very intense, if also brief, trip that took these three generations of my family back through our personal history—my grandfather was born in Cuba—as well as through the maze that is Cuba’s political, economical, and cultural reality. My next several posts will represent an honest, though inadequate, attempt to put that story and my experience into words.
The humidity feels like a blanket. At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, basset hounds make up the K-9 unit. The whole situation is like organized chaos: “locura con orden” (madness with order), as my grandfather says. The inside of the terminal looks like a makeshift import-export business with hoards of expatriate Cubans running neon-plastic-wrapped bundles of goods past ambivalent customs agents. In quantity, it would alarm and enrage those remaining stubborn proponents of the United States embargo. In principle, it makes all too much sense. Economics is simply running its course.
The great Cuban experiment, which has played out on this small island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast since the revolution of 1959, is as tangible as ever. Low, sea-swept clouds play games with the tropical sunlight as we drive across rickety roads. In typical developing-world fashion, horse-drawn carts and hopeful hitchhikers crowd the shoulders, sometimes wandering between the lanes of a sparsely traveled and sluggish freeway.
For those with a mind to history, a certain feeling is quickly evident—the smell of saltwater and fumes from ancient automobiles (running on aviation fuel) fill the lungs with it. It is the need to figure it all out. The island seems to echo, enveloping one’s mind with this great imperative to understand the reality of the forbidden country of the Americas before it crumbles under the weight of time and economic inevitability.
I have family on this island—great aunts and uncles, their children and grandchildren, who have waited 60 years for my grandfather to come home. They have heard stories about me, seen my pictures, and heard about my life and the life of my family. And though we are connected by blood, we are separated by worlds of politics and culture and economics. Just 90 miles away, but somehow, our lives could not be more different. Where in the world am I? —Mario Machado