Many people see Cuba as a communist country where an evil dictator had control over everything. However, that was not always the case. Life on the island was very different from the perspective of a native Cuban. My grandmother described a very distinctive Cuba where the people had many more opportunities. The people we not under complete control, they had their freedom to do the things that they wanted to. In the beginning life was easy, there were many jobs available and they had plenty of resources. This is a story of my grandmother’s community and what Cuba was like during the start of Fidel Castro’s reign.
My grandmother, Maria, was born March 13, 1948 in Oriente, a rather large province on the east side of Cuba. She lived in a house built by her grandfather made from concrete and rebar with the purpose of withstanding hurricane force winds since Cuba is a tropical island where hurricanes and tropical storms frequent. Her favorite thing about that house was the many different fruit trees in the back yard like the mangos and oranges. That house was always full, not only was home to her grandparents, her mother, her two brothers, and herself, but frequently visited by her 18 cousins. One of her fondest memories of living in that house was sitting on her grandfather’s lap, cigar in his mouth, listening to the baseball game on the radio.
Growing up in the 50’s life was simple. Fathers went to work while the mothers raised the children and life in Cuba was not that much different. My great grandfather like to move around a lot, he preferred to see other places, and other women. He moved to Venezuela leaving Maria and her mother behind. She passed the time outside of school by hanging out at the town center. It had a large gazebo where girls sat on one side and the boys on the other. They mostly talked to each other about the opposite group. Another activity my grandmother remembered fondly was roller skating at the park with her friends. That was where she met a boy named Henry, he was a 13-year-old kid who drove a taxi cab for his father’s company. “Everyone thought Henry was cool, back then if you had a car you were really cool you know.”
Before the Castro regime, Cuba was a bustling island where many tourists vacationed and spent money. Cuba’s hotels and casinos were full with famous people like Frank Sinatra and even Ernest Hemingway (Geiling 1). Hotel deals made this secluded country into a bustling island for Americans for around $50. In 2006, tourist brought in more than $2.4 billion dollars in revenue saving Cuba from economic ruin (Geiling 1). The country appears old fashioned with gangsters in lobbies and old cars parked along the street. However, on the other side of the island there was a revolution forming within the lower class. People were unhappy with the way things were going, the number of brothels and gangsters were unsettling. Violence erupted throughout the city, bombs exploding and dead bodies left on the streets (Geiling 1). During these troubling times, Castro was a beacon of hope to those who felt they needed someone like him. Many people supported him and the things he believed in and they let him into their lives. Numerous middle and lower class citizens voted for Castro, they believed he could change the way Cuba functioned. The country was scared and ready for change.
In 1959 Fidel Castro ended his revolution by taking over. One of his various promises was to provide homes and jobs to the native Cubans if they return. Maria’s father took that offer and returned home to his family. He was given a luxurious apartment along the coast of Havana Cuba where he found a job as a chef although never disclosed. Her mother worked from home as a seamstress where she made clothes and tailored outfits for many residents. Her mother’s usual customers consisted of neighbors and close friends or those who heard about her from others. Due to the fact that her parents both worked long hours, Maria was expected to do all of the household chores. She always made dinner and she would have to make sure the house was clean and the dishes were done. Her mother provided her with money so she could shop for groceries and pay any bills. Life was going well for her parents, they had jobs and a nice place to live along the coast. The house was not very big but it was clean. My father remembered spending the night frequently. He recalled the house, “they had plastic covers on the couch and table cloths on every table. The porch windows were always open and I could feel breeze from the beach.” The view was beautiful; Maria could see the children playing on the beach and sometimes dolphins in the distance.
One day my grandmother’s refrigerator broke down and because they could not acquire a new one, they were forced to get it repaired. In those days, there was no such thing as Angies list, it was all word of mouth. Therefore, her father reached out to a friend to help him find someone to repair it. When the repair man, Manuel, finally showed up, my grandmother caught his attention right away. She told me, “he thought I was so beautiful, he told me I was his and I said no you’re not that interesting.” It took some time and a few annoying dates, but eventually he swept her off her feet. She was young, only 21 and Manuel was divorced with two kids, this caused a problem with her mother. Maria had the same thought, “here was this weird guy who fixed a/c units and refrigerators knocking at my door every day.” Eventually she went on a date with him and would have married him.
One of their favorite things to do together was go out to eat at some of the restaurants nearby. “My favorite place was this small café in Havana where they served como se dice papas, potato soup.” My grandmother told me. She described the café as this small building along the coast, the walls were a pale blue shade with photos on the wall of some baseball players. “I remember the smell, it was very good, it was like you were at home but not you know?” The people who worked there were some of the friendliest and they always talked to my grandparents as if they were family. The owner was a nice old gentleman who never failed to greet them when they arrived and he would seat everyone personally. “He would say hello and ask if we wanted to sit in the same seat,” it was their thing. Another one of their favorite pastimes was going to the movies. My grandmother loved to be able to get out of the house and spend time with my grandfather. She fondly remembered the time she spent at the beach, sun tanning and swimming. The water was as blue as the sky and the way the warm sand squished between her toes, “your grandpa would splash me a lot, he got water in my hair I was so mad.”
In February of 1969, Manuel asked Maria if she would marry him. He presented her with a ring: it was a small gold band with a little diamond in the center. My grandfather was very respectful and old fashion, he asked Maria’s parents if he could have their blessing. It was common for men to ask the parents for the woman’s hand in marriage. The majority of the country were catholic and they believed in traditional values. Since my grandfather was married once before, he was considered an adulterer, which was heavily ostracized throughout the country. At first, Maria’s parents were weary; they were afraid that because he was a foreigner from Spain that he would want to move back to his home country. He reassured them that he loved Cuba and the people and he promised he would not leave. When they finally gave him their blessing he was excited. “We got married on September 27, 1996.” After they were married, they decided to live with Maria’s parents. My grandfather worked at his a/c business while Maria worked alongside her mother as a seamstress.
My great uncle lived in Cuba with my grandparents. He grew up with Maria and would always visit their grandparent’s house. “I loved that house, the best place was in the back with the fruit trees.” He was a very family oriented man, he would always call or visit my grandmother and promised to stick with them when they left. Growing up he would hang out at the park with his friends, “they were crazy chicos, they would skate down the street after cars.” He loved Cuba growing up, there were plenty of things to do and he remembered playing at the beach and,” picking up chicks.” Tio had to take over the role as man of the house after my great grandfather left to Venezuela. He wanted to make sure things were ok, he was always a family man.
In April of 1971 my father was born. My grandmother worked hard to raise him while Manuel worked. During this time, Fidel Castro turned the tides, he no longer believed in equal opportunity for all. His hatred for America was so strong, his only alliance was the Soviet Union. Castro would borrow money from them and never pay it back. He wanted everything for himself. “Eventually my mother had to make our own cloths and we couldn’t get shoes anymore.” Life in Cuba was growing more difficult over time. Some of their favorite restaurants were forced to close and the country wasn’t making enough money. Everything was rationed because outside resources were limited; they only had what was still available on the island. “It wasn’t easy m’ija, papa was struggling to make money and your father was getting bigger.” After my tio was born, things became more difficult.
My father’s memory of Cuba differs from my grandmother’s. He was born into the Castro regime; therefore, he had no experience of the outside world so for him life there was normal. “I remember going to these wooden shacks that kind of reminded me of those old military bases or boot camp. For those of age it was mandatory for you to go there and pick sugarcane and tomatoes.” He recalled going there with his half-brother. He would build his own toys, “we would draw racetracks on the ground and flick bottle caps to race.” My father recalled playing with marbles with his friends where they would try to break each other’s marbles. He even played with a spoked wheel and stick as if it was the 1920’s. Many children made their own toys. There was one toy store available to my father and thousands of kids nearby. Children had to wait in line with a number until it was their turn. Once my father’s number was called, all that was left was a few marbles and chalk, “there was only one bike for the thousands of kids in our city.” One of the harder things he had to deal with was his shoes. His father had to cut holes at the tops of his shoes because he was growing and they could not afford to get a new pair.
Life headed in a new direction because of one fateful mistake my grandfather made. He misplaced his citizenship paperwork that stated he was a Cuban citizen. He went to the courthouse and asked for replacements. “They said there was a problem, that he wasn’t Cuban, he told me he said ‘whaaat? Oh well.’ Then he got his papers from Spain.” As a result, they were forced to leave because he was a Spanish citizen. My grandparents packed one suitcase with some clothes and they all boarded the plane to Spain alongside Manuel’s brother and his family. My father was only eight years old at the time while my tio four. “I don’t remember much, just that we only left with some clothes and $7 in our pockets” my father recalled. Maria had a difficult time leaving her mother behind, she was scared. She was moving to another country where she did not know anyone while leaving everything she knew behind. She missed Cuba but she knew life would be better for her and her children if they left.
My father and his family left on the king of Spain’s plane where they were allowed safe passage to Spain. He was only 8 at the time and he was unsure with what the future might look like. My father lived in Spain for a few years with his family. They lived with Manuel’s brother in Madrid. My grandmother stayed home with the kids to make sure they would stay out of trouble while my grandfather worked. She recalled a time she had left to get groceries and upon her returned, my father was walking on the ledge of the apartment building from the neighbor’s place back to his. She thought, “I was so mad, he could have fallen and died, he was born again that day.” I still did not know what that meant but in a way, it made sense.
Eventually they moved to Miami Florida where they lived for another year. They went on a lot of family vacations; America was a different place with different opportunities. Life was difficult for them, my grandfather had to start his business all over again in a new county while my grandmother went to work for the first time. In Cuba, it was common for women to stay home and take care of the children. She worked as a cleaner for many schools and private homes. It was something she was good at and several Cuban women did these jobs. My father loved Disney World the most. “Your tio was scared on every ride but overall it’s a memory I will never forget.” A job was available in Houston for my grandfather allowing them to move and raise their kids here. My grandmother still works to this day while my uncle took over his father’s business where he turned it into the American Dream.
There are always multiple sides to each story. Cuba was not always a communist country where resources were low and people were behind the times. It was a place many called home and where their lives began. I never had the chance to ask my grandfather his side to the story, but I know his would have been wilder. Cuba is a place where people like my grandmother will always call home, a place where she will remember as peaceful and beautiful.