Halfway through the pandemic lockdown, I developed a habit of watching videos posted by Cubans touring our homeland. At first, I simply wanted to revisit my old neighborhood, see the streets I wandered as a boy, find the city block I called home, and pinpoint the actual house I lived in. In time, these videos became more than an obsession; my only link to a past I had not felt, touched, or seen since 1969.
Happily, I joined the walking tours of the old city—La Habana Bieja—on my TV screen. I recognized these city blocks at once. In 1964, when I turned ten and announced that I was old enough to ride the bus alone, I developed a taste for exploration, and it was in this maze of narrow streets and broad boulevards that my adventurous spirit soared.
Seldom planning my journeys, I drifted on instinct, allowing the crowds and their noise to guide my path.
Beginning at the ancient Baroque cathedral, La Catedral de la Habana, I traveled the narrow streets, where even the most utilitarian of buildings had been painted in brilliant shades of lapis blue, turquoise green, a deep rose, or the delicious flesh of a ripened cantaloupe. What was going on behind all those walls where las gentes humildes—the poor humble people—lived? Cautiously, I would walk past a window and listen, my head reeling with all the tales of murder and lust that my elders told.
Turning onto a favorite street, I spun every time on my heels to catalog the endless pots of blood geraniums exploding over the wrought iron balconies. In their cages, lively canaries and finches preened their feathers between songs. White linens waved merrily from their makeshift clotheslines. Occasionally, when the lazy breeze picked up, their tails brushing the sun-kissed ladies slowly pumping their cardboard fans. Always anxious for the next flash of interest to pass them by, men and women alike languished in the doorways while smoking great big cigars. Just ahead, the façade of a Moorish palace dripped in masonry fantasy—each block a unique treasury of colonial and nineteenth century elegance. There was a hint of ocean salt in the air from the nearby waterfront.
I would roam incessantly until arriving at Paseo del Prado and rest on a bench, sheltered by the shady trees and guarded by the many bronze lions up and down the promenade. I loved sitting there. It was a place of dreams, where I once stood at the edge of the road to cherish the flamboyant floats during carnival. One year, I couldn't believe my luck when a captivatingly handsome Adonis, his rippling muscles glittering gold, reached down to me and placed rolls of streamers into my welcoming hands.
To relive these treasured moments of my youth, I joined others on their driving tours, gladly taking my imaginary seat in the back of one of the meticulously refurbished 1950s American convertibles. Usually painted hot pink, these cars invoked joy, fun, vivacity, music, and romance—the perfect depiction of the Cuban heart.
Starting in the oldest part of the city, these drives always followed the same route. Tracing the waterfront of the Malecón, they’d turn left, sailing past the 1930 Hotel Nacional. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, it was once the favorite gathering spot of the American mob.
After circling the imposing edifice, the rides continued up the hill, turning right and to where the once grand Habana Hilton stood. Renamed the Habana Libre after the revolution, it was always at this point that the tours just stopped. Baffled, I’d watch the passengers get out of the cars to stand there admiring the hotel, as if they had just completed a religious pilgrimage.
I did not understand why these riders seemed content ending their journey at this hotel. Why not continue? There was so much more to see. They could've continued onto Miramar to admire the endless rows of mansions and onto the once restricted beach clubs. My daring nature wanted to drive on.
In my curious bafflement, I rang my older cousin in Cuba who told me that such scenes went on all the time.
How can these Cuban tourists ever evolve or move on if they kept insisting on reliving sixty-year-old memories? He’d ask. He thought of them as a foolish, not seeing why they insisted on romanticizing a dead and long buried past.
At first, I was startled by his harsh remarks but then I saw the situation thought his eyes and I understood.
He had lived in La Habana his entire life and forgotten about our carefree and comfortable childhood. In the world of revolution, his life had become detached from the honor of dreams once sacred to him. In this world, it was impossible to ever find the energy or the time to honor such idealistic things against the reality of securing a meal for each day.
He had never experienced the multigenerational emptiness that every exiled Cuban carry with them, the post-Castro trauma for which there is no antidote, the hell and damnation of a once prosperous, modern country now in decay, the expulsion of our way of life, and the purgatory of we native sons. He didn't feel the same void that every exiled Cuban carry with them, regardless of where they were born.
I understood, because this hotel and its name stood as the architectural pinnacle of a once certain future of endless possibilities. Such was the Cuban world of 1958, when everything seemed possible to its people.
For me and those riders then, this hotel stood as the last bastion of progress before the revolution replaced all hope with the traumas of hunger, devastation, and loss.
I remember visiting the mid-century extravaganza with my parents when it opened in 1958. I remember its cavernous lobby, its gleaming floors, the scent of flowers in the air, all the well-dressed women and men. I remember stepping onto the terrace and staring at the blue swimming pool. Even as a four-year-old, I felt the optimism that everyone felt.
I understood, because our exiled souls burned with the human yearning for a happy past, even if for just the twinkle in a child’s eye. In such a euphoric state, we were all free to exist in a place where the revolution never took place, where a ruthless leader never lived, and where a misguided embargo starving the people and not the revolution was never conceived. There, it was easy to dream of a world when everything is as it was in 1958.
I was a happy child then, before the revolution took away everything that I cherished and loved—my maternal grandparents' luscious farm and my stubborn white horse. Before the only choice left was to leave our homeland and run away to Spain and then to the states. I wrote about those dreams in my novel, The Light of Cuban Son.
So, let me be a romantic idealist, happy to join my fellow Cubans in their tourist memories. Let me follow every human in their endeavor to bring a better future to the world we live in. Let me dream about attending every worthwhile gathering. Let me dream of meeting every positive person determined to make real such equalities—I wish to learn from them. I want to apply my Cuban perseverance in the pursuit of every marvelous thing.