Fidel was already 42 years old when I was born a world away in Los Angeles, California, but because my family is Cuban, this charismatic despot–like a distant gravitational force–has overshadowed my life and shaped my world view for as long as I can remember. Here, though, is an extended excerpt from my autobiographical essay, describing my first visit to Cuba:
I visited Havana in the spring of 2003, and *** I had resolved to keep a travel journal/scrapbook to jot down my thoughts and impressions and to serve as a repository for the small, quotidian items I like to collect whenever I travel—odds and ends such as ticket stubs, paper currency, and assorted mementos. Since there [were] no direct commercial flights from San Juan to Havana—an anachronistic relic of Russian-American geopolitics during the Cold War—I had to catch a connecting flight in Panama City. The journey was a twelve-hour ordeal. I left San Juan at noon and did not reach my destination until midnight. But my circuitous flight path only added to my anxiousness and excitement. Moreover, I was struck by the eerie darkness of the Cuban archipelago, for I saw few visible points of lights as the airplane descended into the José Martí International Airport on the outskirts of Havana. The darkness and stillness of the Cuban night-sky, I thought, was a metaphor for socialist Cuba herself.
I had read Hugh Thomas’s tome on Cuba’s political and economic history, but a book, no matter how masterful, is no substitute for a dose of reality. By day, Havana is a city full of life; a city full of the aromatic and pungent smells of coffee and tobacco; a city full of West African harmonies and rural poetry; a city full of children and lovers. Despite the enormous economic hardships and the rigors of an obsolete military dictatorship, I had never met such a resilient, affectionate, and beautiful people as the citizens of Havana. The Cubans I met on the streets, people from all walks of life, had a sense of good cheer and love of life that caught me by surprise. I, too, felt I was a citizen of Havana.