Visiting My Mother's Cuba

It was the trip of a lifetime, one to a land I had visited only in my imagination. 

Wanda Medina and child in cuba Wanda Medina 
I had fantasized about visiting my mother's forbidden homeland ever since I can remember. But considering that she and her family had fled Cuba for Miami in the '60s, after Fidel Castro set up his dictatorship, it had always seemed an impossible dream. As a young girl, I would while away the hours staring at her old black-and-white pictures as she shared stories of a pre-revolutionary childhood spent lazing on the beach and playing outside until the sun went down. Her photos transported me to a place I wasn't allowed to visit, but I claimed it as my own whenever someone asked where I was from: "Yo nací­ en Cuba,"I'd lie. Not even her occasional tales of scarcity and fearmongering could crush this national spirit.

But as a mom trying to instill that Cuban pride in my multiethnic boys—Auggie, 3, and Luca, 1—I occasionally questioned my authenticity simply because I had never stepped foot on the island. Deep down, I felt that the missing passport stamp made me not quite Cuban enough. After all, going back "home" is a rite of passage for second-generation Latinas, many of whom grew up spending summer vacations with their abuelos in the old country and experiencing day-to-day life there. So, when the United States announced in late 2014 that it would ease travel restrictions to Cuba, I jumped at the chance to close that gap and invited my mother to join my husband, sons, and me on this maiden voyage.

Auggie showed me the Cuba that I missed out on as a kid every time he marveled at the cool vintage cars and majestic colonial buildings that have turned Havana into a veritable time capsule. At Coppelia, the city's famed ice-cream parlor, he polished off a scoop of chocolate while other Cubanitos seated at nearby tables did the same. As I watched my mother wipe his chin and hands clean, I couldn't believe that we were sitting in the same spot my mom had frequented during a youth not yet marred by Communism.

street in cuba
As Auggie brought to life the Cuba of my imagination, I experienced emotional hurdles that took me by surprise. The highs of taking in iconic sights—such as Ernest Hemingway's old hangout La Bodeguita del Medio and the Malecón seafront—were deflated by the guilt I felt playing tourist. We were staying at one of Havana's best hotels, fully aware that homes around the city were visibly crumbling because of government neglect. Each morning, we were treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet served by locals who were most likely rationing their own food at home. I tried reconciling these feelings by taking time to get to know the waitstaff personally and tipping generously, but it never seemed enough.

It wasn't until we got to my mother's old neighborhood of Buena Vista (yes, it's where the musical group The Buena Vista Social Club originated) that I was finally able to let go of these conflicting emotions and soak in the moment. As we strolled down the block where my mom grew up, I saw her black-andwhite photos converting to color right before my eyes. All those summer vacations that I missed out on as a kid came into full view as I watched the palm trees swaying in the warm Caribbean breeze. Little boys played béisbol in their chancletas while neighbors dipped in and out of one another's houses, the sounds of television sets and stereos bouncing off the walls. I recognized all of it as part of my culture, a culture that runs in my blood and that of my children.

Auggie seemed right at home as he chatted with the neighbors in a Spanish that wasn't as broken as I thought it was back home in New York. Listening to him, I was surprised to hear that familiar Cuban accent more pronounced than ever. Only then, surrounded by my family, did I realize that no matter where we live or spend our vacations, we have always been and always will be Cuban enough.