Matanzas and Limonar, Nicholas Fernandez and Natalia Blanco BFA Sculpture 2016
After our first two weeks in Cuba, we began to shift gears and prioritize our own personal explorations of family narrative and environment. In the meantime, Fundacion Amistad and Ennead were reviewing our documented material in order to layout questions and identify opportunities for further research. They would then develop design formats for the work sessions in Vedado in preparation for the Planning Symposium, which had been rescheduled for December. FA was simultaneously working to gain official approval for these events. FA plans to return to Havana with Ennead to present their findings and conduct work sessions with the local community in order to collect their feedback and suggestions.
Because our work for FA and Ennead was temporarily out of our hands, we decided to travel out of Havana in order to meet family and see more of Cuba. We left Havana with one of Nick’s cousins, Lourdes, and her husband Roberto. Lourdes is a medical physician and Roberto works at the US Embassy in Havana. He was once a champion cyclist, who earned the title crocodilo (crocodile) because of his wildly crooked teeth. They generously offered us a room in their home and were eager to cook for us and pack our bags and suitcases with as much guava fruit as possible. We spent most of our time telling stories over home cooked meals or sitting outside under their mango tree. They told us a funny story about their marriage of thirty-five years. Lourdes and her husband wanted to invest in a second home in order to resell it and make a profit. Because it is illegal to own more than one property in Cuba, their financial advisor suggested they get a divorce and remarry after purchasing the second property. And that they did. They looked at each other and laughed as they recalled how odd it was to secretly divorce and openly remarry a week later with their two adult sons at their wedding. Roberto said he is probably the the only idiot to ever marry the same woman twice. Throughout our trip, we heard many people say, “en Cuba, la cosa esta complicada” (in Cuba, it’s complicated), and this was just another one of those circumstances that required some problem solving and creativity. They now have two homes in Havana and are working to sell the second home in order to send money to their sons who have recently begun new lives in Miami.
After a day or two on the outskirts of Havana, we left for Matanzas on a large bus with all of our belongings. We were paranoid we would miss our stop and spent the morning watching the sun rise and with it the dense fog dissipated and exposed the drowsy, wet, green lands of rural Cuba. Three hours later, we arrived in Matanzas and were greeted by another one of Nick’s cousins, Guillermo Nicholas. He walked us back to his home and invited us in for some coffee. He is considered the unofficial historian of the Febles family. He told us about Sabino, nicks grandfather, and how determined he was to leave Cuba with his wife and two daughters. And as I listened to him rocking back and forth in his chair, I thought about my grandparents and their two daughters. I remembered my mother showing me the small blue leather suitcase they used to carry the few belongings they could pack before fleeing to America. I remembered my grandfather having us promise we would never go back to Cuba while it was a communist country. I caught myself drifting into thought and returned my attention to Guillermo’s description of Sabino, a true guajiro, who represented a dying breed of men. These were men born and raised in el campo (countryside) dedicating their lives to cultivating the lands and harvesting crops; anything and everything from sugar cane to tobacco. When Sabino was trying to leave Cuba, the government was sending people to work in the fields of henequen as a kind of punishment for choosing to leave. El henequen yields fiber for making rope and twine but its leaves are long and sharp and can be painful to work with. Like many other Cubans who wanted to flee at the time, he was sent to work indefinitely until the Cuban authorities decided he would be allowed to leave. I pictured Sabino in the fields of henequen and thought of a man I saw in Havana cutting the grass on his lawn with a machete. I remembered my grandmother’s machetes propped up next to our washing machine in the linen closet; a large one and a small one. I remembered my grandmothers hands, particularly the perfect curve of her thumb like a crescent moon. I could picture her pearlescent manicure and her skin littered with brown speckles from the sun; a guajira no doubt.
Guillermo Nicholas gave us a small tour of Matanzas, often stopping to say hello to his friends and introduce the two young strangers that accompanied him. The streets of Matanzas were more narrow than those of El Vedado, more like the streets of Old and Central Havana; populated and bustling with voices and colors. Colors like the ones painted onto the balconies of apartments in Vedado, as signifiers of ownership and individuality. Sometimes they were colors that reminded me of clustered love birds or a freshly diced avocados paired with the tired pastels of old record covers and antique wallpaper. Colors exposing colors in layers of thick, pealing paint on walls or lines and lines of clothing hung out to dry in the day’s resilient heat. Arrangements of colors that seemed to recall the 1960s and 1970s, much like parts of Miami still do. At times, Nick and I felt the odd sensation of being in both Cuba and Miami all at once. It was as though our context could belong to either place or both. Sometimes we would sit in someones home for a time and feel as though we could walk out and find ourselves in Miami. As we moved through Cuba, there was an undeniable sense of familiarity and the identification of Miami’s ancestry.
Ulisis Rodriguez Febles, a playwright and another cousin of Nick’s, arrived in Guillermo’s home to greet us and take us on his own tour of Matanzas. He invited us to dinner with his family. We laughed awkwardly and apologetically as we tried to shuffle and arrange six bodies at a table meant for three. Like many of our meals in Cuba, this one was accompanied by the exchange of many stories. Ulisis’s wife shared a story that spoke to a kind of mythology about American life that seemed to have existed among the Cuban people at one time or another. She told me that as a child, she had this wild misconception about soda cans. At the time, anything that could be considered an American product or American merchandise was kept out of sight because it was illegal. She heard stories about soda cans but had never seen one. By word of mouth, she learned that when the small tab was flipped one would hear this “tkt sssssss“ sound and the soda would instantly become cold. One day she sat and watched the Greek tourists on are their boats in absolute awe. She would listen to them flipping the tabs; anticipating the strangely satisfying “tkt sssssss”. She couldn’t wrap her mind around this kind of technology and the lifestyle that came with it. I thought about how strange the circumstances between Cuba and the United States were that they could foster a kind of mythology about each place. These utopian or dystopian misconceptions were born out of the few limited forms of communication. As an island nation, Cuba is isolated geographically and this isolation is further amplified by its limited exchange of information. International phone calls can be costly for most Cuban citizens and public access to the internet was introduced only a year ago.
We spent the following two weeks in Limonar, a small town about an hour away from Matanzas. We occasionally visited Matanzas but found that the majority of Nick’s relatives on both his grandmother and grandfather’s side lived in Limonar. Nick’s cousin, Lazaro, offered us his home for the duration of our stay in Limonar. The following days were spent traveling around Limonar in just about any available means of transportation: by foot, bicycle, truck, motorcycle, and horse drawn carriage. Nick’s cousin Duniel was determined to have us meet every single one of Nick’s relatives on his grandmother’s side. She is one of nineteen siblings and all those siblings have had children who have had children who are now beginning to have children. Needless to say, we were on a tight schedule. At times, it was overwhelming to try and remember everyone’s names and their place on the family tree. We found ourselves swept up in stories of family, sacrifice, childhood, conflict, politics, culture, past and present. We ate home cooked Cuban meals like the very ones we were raised with in Miami. And it wouldn’t be a trip to Cuba if we hadn’t played a game or two of dominoes. None of these people were my biological family but they were more than kind and generous with their homes and their narratives. I felt as though I had connected with members of my own family and could identify with them on a cultural and personal level.
Unfortunately, I did not have adequate information about my grandparents remaining family in order to search for them during my time in Cuba. A part of me feels a sense of regret for not having found any of my family in Cuba, but a part of me understands it was the result of many circumstances beyond my control. I was raised in the same home as my grandparents. Although I have lived with them for the entirety of my life, we rarely ever spoke about Cuba or the people and things they left behind. My grandmother would show me a calendar with photos of Cuba’s beaches. She would hold the photos up to her lips and kiss them. She would run her hands against the photos as though she could feel something I couldn’t; her gold bracelets softly clinking in response. She would tell me how much she missed Cuba, but she always stressed how proud she was to be an American citizen. I remember the mini American flags she would plant on our lawn and in vases on her dresser. My grandfather’s sentiments were not ones of nostalgia but ones of anger and frustration. I don’t remember him ever talking about Cuba or perhaps I never asked. He did tell me one story about Cuba, and it was the one about how he met my grandmother and how they fell in love. In 1965, they left everything they had called home in pursuit of a better life and future for their two daughters. Their love of sixty-one years was the beginning of my family lineage as I know it.