Next Year in Havana

Chapter 4

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“Was your father born here?”

“No. He was born after my grandmother left in ’59.”

“And he didn’t want to visit with you?”

I shrug. “He works a lot. He runs the family company, and that keeps him busy.”

My father is a man of business and action, not prone to sentimentality or self-discovery. When relations between the United States and Cuba normalize—if they normalize—I fully expect him to pave a way in the new market. But this? Chasing down his family’s legacy? No.

“Sugar, isn’t it?”

I nod, wondering what else his grandmother told him about us.

“My grandmother wanted her ashes spread here. She told me I’d know where to scatter them, but after talking to her sisters, I haven’t decided where would be ideal. They gave me some ideas, but I’d like to visit the places and get a feel for them myself. She trusted me with this; I don’t want to let her down.”

My grandfather was buried in a cemetery in Miami, but my grandmother’s letter made it clear that she didn’t want to be buried on American soil.

I always said I would go back, and now it’s up to you to fulfill that wish for me, to reunite me with those I left behind.

“I’m sorry for your loss. You were close?”

“She was like a mother to me.”

He nods as though he understands that my words are not said lightly. “My grandmother spoke of her often and fondly. She hoped they would see each other again.”

“My grandmother thought she would return,” I reply, the grief creeping up on me the more I speak of her. Talking about her is always a double-edged sword—it keeps her close to me, but it also makes me feel her absence more acutely.

Luis turns onto another road, and I experience my first glimpse of Havana.

I’ve seen pictures, of course, but there’s nothing like viewing it in person, the buildings towering before us. Many of the exteriors are adorned in vibrant colors—coral, canary yellow, and turquoise—the sun bathing them in an amber glow. The walls match the flashy cars surrounding us, the paint on the structures peeling in places. Clotheslines hang from intricate wrought iron and stone balconies, clothes flapping in the breeze; power lines zigzag across buildings. People are stacked upon one another here, crammed into any available space, spilling from the buildings.

The architecture is breathtaking, though. Ornate black iron lamps are posted as sentries along sidewalks. The detail on the buildings is truly remarkable, intricate carvings and scrollwork adorning apartments. But pieces of plaster have crumbled off, leaving gaps on the walls, and there’s a faint sheen of gray that adorns the landscape as though the entire city needs a good scrubbing.

Havana is like a woman who was grand once and has fallen on hard times, and yet hints of her former brilliance remain, traces of an era since passed, a photograph faded by time and circumstance, its edges crumbling to dust.

If I close my eyes I can see Havana as she was, enshrined in my grandmother’s memory. But when they open again, the reality of nearly sixty years of isolation stares back at me, and I’m grateful my grandmother isn’t here to witness the decay of the city she loved so faithfully.

“It was beautiful once,” Luis says, surprising me. Our gazes catch.

“Yes. You can see that it was.”

“Each year it ages a bit more.” He sighs, turning his attention back to the road. “We paint, plaster, attempt to keep it together, but a project of this magnitude?”

The rest lingers between us. Without money, there’s very little they can do.

“Old Havana is better than most of the neighborhoods. They preserve it for the tourists, so if you want a glimpse of what the city was like before, you’ll see it there.”

The Spanish founded the old part of the city in the sixteenth century. From what I’ve read and the stories I’ve heard, Havana is divided into different neighborhoods, each distinct for its own reasons. Part of the attraction of staying with Ana rather than in a hotel is that her family still lives in the house next to my grandmother’s—the house where generations of Perezes were born and raised.

“What can you tell me about Miramar?” I ask, referring to my grandmother’s old neighborhood.

“Which do you prefer—the history professor’s perspective or that of the man who’s lived there his entire life?”

“Both, I guess.”

“The story of the Cuban people—the modern history, at least—is a story of adapting. Making the most of the limited resources the grand revolution affords us—” There’s a hint of disapproval in the way he says “grand revolution,” as though he’s committed blasphemy.

“Miramar has survived better than most parts of the city because the embassies are there. Some of the houses are run-down, but it could be worse. Many of the regime’s generals and high-ranking officials now live in the homes that were once occupied by Batista’s cohorts, by Cuba’s wealthiest families.” This time the disapproval rings clear. “That’s progress, you see. We rid ourselves of the worms and look who moved in to replace them.”

The candor in his words and the manner in which his voice fairly drips with scorn surprises me.

“We opened a paladar in our home,” Luis continues. “It’s filled with European tourists, because most Cubans could never afford to eat at our restaurant if it wasn’t subsidized by the high prices tourists pay—well, high for us anyway.”

I’ve heard about the informal restaurants Cubans have begun running out of their homes with permission from the government. I have a list of the top-rated ones in Havana to add to my article, and the paladar run by the Rodriguez family is on it.

“Does your grandmother do the cooking?”

“For the most part. Everyone who comes into the restaurant is welcomed like family. It’s harder each year as she gets older, but she enjoys hosting our guests. I help out when I can.”

“And your parents? Do they live in Miramar, too?”

He doesn’t answer me for a moment, his fingers tapping against the leather steering wheel. He turns down a side street, the ocean making a sudden appearance. It’s a perfect Tiffany blue; the waves crash in foamy white caps.

“My father died when I was a boy. Fighting in Angola.”

“I’m sorry.” I hesitate. “He was in the military?”

“He was. An officer in the army. He fought in Angola in ’88. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Died a hero. My mother works in the paladar with my grandmother.”

He offers this last piece of information with deceptive candor; I recognize it for what it is—offering more information than I asked for so I won’t ask for more.

Silence falls between us, and I’m content to spend the rest of the drive staring at the scenery, imagining my grandmother walking down these streets, standing under the lamppost, dipping her feet in the water lapping along the shore. I see her sisters here, too—Beatriz causing mischief wherever she goes; Isabel, who passed away almost two years ago and who spent her life with a perpetual shroud of sadness for the love she lost; and Maria, the youngest of my great-aunts who was little more than a child when she left.

The neighborhood reminds me of the Spanish streets in Coral Gables, and I see why my grandmother gravitated toward that part of Miami when she first came to the United States, how she found her own enclave where she attempted to recreate the country she loved and lost.

Enormous palm trees dominate the landscape, their intricate, spindly trunks a testament to the island’s resilience against Mother Nature and the hurricane-force winds that often batter its shores. The homes themselves exist in varying states of decay, ghosts of a society carried away by revolution. And yet beside the rubble are tall, modern hotels designed to attract European tourists, a smattering of shops and bars that clearly cater to similar clientele. An empty fountain sits off to the side, broken, its mermaids forlorn and aimless, as though it’s been frozen in time by a sorcerer’s spell.

We continue on, and the city stirs, people walking down the street, waiting at a bus stop.

We drive down the Quinta Avenida, past embassies lined up in a row. And then there are more houses—overgrown lawns, empty swimming pools in the backyard visible from the road. There’s more space here, the estates a bit larger, and from the condition of the houses, it appears Miramar has fared better than most of Havana, even as my surroundings are still so different from what I’m used to and a far cry from the opulent splendor my grandmother described to me.

The houses were fashioned after grand European estates, materials brought in from France and Spain on great big ships. Their gardens were impeccably manicured, flowers blooming, the smell of oranges in the air, the immense palm trees casting shade upon us all.

Luis points out the Russian embassy as we pass by. It’s impossible to miss—the building is austere and towering, shooting into the sky like a missile.

Luis makes another turn in the big car, as though he’s navigating a boat into a slip, and we’re on the street where my family lived.

* * *

• • •

Luis stops in front of a house, and despite the rambling appearance, the faded paint, I recognize the structure behind the iron gates immediately.

It was painted pink, the palest color, like the inside of a seashell. Beatriz used to stand on the upstairs balcony like a queen holding court.

And where were you, Abuela?

Swimming in the pool in the back with Maria, probably. Or reading in the library. We would make our way into the kitchen, and the cook would sneak us food before dinner. My mother hated it, of course, which was largely the appeal.

I remove my sunglasses, wiping at my face as I open the door and get out of the car, walking toward the house, staring at the palm trees, the steps leading up to the front door. From Beatriz, I learned the house was built in the Baroque style by Perezes generations past. The image in front of me doesn’t compare to the photographs I’ve seen, smuggled out by family friends and former employees over the years, but the shadow of its former glory remains.


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