The first time I went to Havana was in 2016 after JetBlue opened up the route to U.S. citizens. It was, on introspection, a curiosity trip, rooted in my desire to visit a colonial sibling of my own distant mother, Puerto Rico, that I had heard so much and yet knew so little about. I chose the dates at random, and when they arrived, the trip coincided with both Fidel Castro’s funeral procession and the feast day of Santa Barbara—one of the most important days of the year for practitioners of Santeria, which, in Cuba, is estimated to be as high as 70 percent of residents. The result was a city blanketed in the quiet of mourning—the public playing of music had been banned, as had the sale of alcohol (but like most things in Cuba, rules were worked around)—but also the bustle of preparation, albeit subdued.
My small band of travelers also arrived in mourning, albeit for a different reason. Like nearly 3 million other Americans, we had all recently voted for Hillary Clinton and were still reeling from the election results. As if he sensed this, the driver who picked us up from the airport asked us how we were feeling about our soon-to-be next president and, being Americans, we freely spoke our minds. “Well, remember this,” he said, “at least you get to have another election in four years.” Chastened by this fact and the disparity between his reality and ours, we shut up.
Over the course of the next few days, we encountered Cubans with a wide range of opinions about Castro, Communism, and the United States. The true believers—and there were several—were vocal and outspoken about their pride in what they believed Castro had done for them and for Cuba. The skeptics—and there were many—spoke in more hushed tones about their hope for changes in a post-Castro Cuba. We were in the cab back to the airport when the ban on music was officially lifted, and the driver immediately put the radio on. Because now he was allowed to.
I returned to the United States grateful for all the things that we as Americans have been told are unique and valuable about our country: my right to participate in free and fair elections, my right to speak my mind, my right to pursue my own destiny (I had, at that point, the chance to own my own business), and my ability to choose to mourn—or not to mourn—the loss of a political figure.
I am currently at work on my second novel, which is, in part, the fictional retelling of the life and afterlife of a Cuban American artist who came to America as a child as part of the highly secretive Operation Peter Pan. After much research and consternation, I realized that my character’s Cuban-ness and her path to America were an immutable part of the story. I couldn’t write a book with a character who longs for a home that I myself didn’t know. And so, last week, I found myself in Havana again. I traveled in a tiny car on the lush green roads of Cuba, getting more familiar with other parts of the island.