01:13 - Source: CNN
Returning to my family's Cuba

Story highlights

Victor Ramirez's family fled Cuba during the revolution in the 1950s

Born in America, Ramirez is the first member of his immediate family to visit the island since

Programming note: Comedian W. Kamau Bell explores “Latino USA” on “United Shades of America” Sunday, May 8, at 10 p.m., only on CNN.

CNN —  

Sitting in the CNN Havana Bureau, I tasted guava for the first time.

It was lovingly offered to me by Monse, a Cubana working there. Guava is a fruit ubiquitous in Cuban desserts. I grew up in Miami eating guava pastries, guava shells, guava paste with cream cheese and crackers. But I had never eaten the fruit by itself. It was somewhat bland; I guess sugar brings out its flavor.

As I tasted the fruit, it struck me as the perfect metaphor for my trip to the island. In Cuba, I was experiencing the root of everything I grew up with–the raw ingredients that made up my life. And while it wasn’t ideal, it was my story.

Let me back up a little.

The assignment

My parents fled Cuba in the summer of 1960, and no one in my immediate family had ever returned until I was selected to be part of a team covering President Barack Obama’s visit to Havana.

Victor Ramirez
Victor Ramirez

Not only would I be the first in my family to step foot on the island in 56 years, but I would be witnessing this significant moment in the nation’s history.

I had grown up hearing the stories: the time revolutionaries shot at my father, the time Castro supporters began indoctrinating my mother, the time both of their families left for good, leaving behind everything they held dear. Cuba seemed like a mythical island existing only in these stories and in my imagination. Now it would suddenly become a real place, something I could see with my own eyes, something I could touch, hear, smell and taste.

As happy as I was to be offered the assignment, I was apprehensive when I accepted. Of course there were the politics involved.

Fidel Castro: My longevity a result of fate

My parents and grandparents, like many Cuban-Americans, remain on the fence about the loosening of U.S.-Cuba relations. The revolution cost them everything. They were part of the Cuban elite and were forced to abandon mansions and acres of land. My grandfather went from congressman to custodian overnight; my grandmother from socialite to seamstress.

In taking this assignment, would I be helping a government that threatened their lives and took everything from them? But there was also another concern.

A simple question

My journey to Cuba began with a question from my manager: “You do speak Spanish, don’t you?”

I immediately heard my grandfather’s voice in my head, “delinquente!” As a kid, I sat through (and mostly ignored) countless lectures about the importance of learning Spanish.

The question made me feel like my “pollos” had finally come home to roost. Like many Cubans of my generation, my Spanish is purely utilitarian. I know enough to communicate with older relatives, order food at a restaurant and talk trash about the gringos sitting next to me. My answer was ultimately “for your purposes, yes.” Still, the question lingered in my mind and became emblematic of a deeper misgiving: I’ve never really felt Cuban.

Don’t get me wrong: I start my day with a cortadito, can wolf down a lechon like nobody’s business, and have whiled away many afternoons around a domino table. But there are elements of the culture that I never connected with. Even growing up in Miami, where Cuban culture abounds, I felt separate from it.

Cubans tend to be loud and boisterous, while I am soft-spoken and self-deprecating. Baseball is not my thing. I’d rather read Allen Ginsberg than Jose Marti. I’d rather rock out to LCD Soundsystem than salsa to Celia Cruz or gyrate to Pitbull. I am, for all intents and purposes, Americanized. So it felt weird, even hypocritical, that I would be the first in my family to get to visit Cuba.

My disconnect was the very reason I had to go.

History lessons

On long car rides with my grandfather, he would quiz my brother and me on Cuban geography and our family tree. When visiting my grandmother, she would tell us endless stories about growing up on a coffee plantation. During the holidays, we would visit my uncle, a massive Cuban coat of arms proudly adorning the front of his house, and listen to him drone on for hours about Cuban politics and the grand day when we would take back the island.

As a kid, it all seemed so boring. But now that I was actually going to Cuba, I wanted to kick my 12-year-old self in the butt and say “Pay attention! This stuff matters!” Now I had to cram a life’s worth of family stories and Cuban history into a few weeks.

I spent the month leading up to my trip scouring the Internet, learning about things such as Granma, the July 26th movement and the agrarian reform law of 1959. I spent hours on the phone with my parents, piecing together a time line of events and collecting the addresses of long-abandoned family homes.

In the end, I picked three family houses that I would try and visit: my mother’s childhood home, my father’s childhood home, and my great-grandmother’s home. The first two I wanted to see for obvious reasons; the third because it is a source of one of my family’s greatest stories – one that even a 12-year-old could appreciate. After my great-grandfather passed away, my great-grandmother married the Chilean ambassador to Cuba. Her house became the Chilean embassy.

After the revolution, my family was able to use that house, and the diplomatic immunity applied to it, to grant sanctuary to people fleeing the island. At night, my grandmother would bring blankets to scared refugees while they awaited their escape. It was from outside this house that revolutionaries shot at my father, then 5, as he played in the living room.

South Florida/North Cuba

Finally the day came for my departure. As I sat on the half-empty charter flight to Havana, I couldn’t help but wonder what my initial reaction would be when we landed. Would I fall to my knees and kiss the dirt crying, “LA PATRIA!” or would I feel numb to it, a stranger in a strange land? Reality, as is usually the case, fell somewhere in between.

Walking through Jose Marti Airport, everything felt oddly familiar. Like a slightly rundown Miami. Suddenly all those South Florida/North Cuba jokes made more sense. Sure, I had never seen anything like this airport security – a flock of women dressed in miniskirts and fishnet stockings but something like that would not be completely out of the question at Miami International Airport. Even the famed vintage cars called to mind the retro aesthetic of South Beach.

In many ways, Cuba felt like the guava fruit of Miami: a cruder, less-sweet version of what I grew up with. It wasn’t until the drive to Old Havana, and passing dozens of billboards praising the glory of Fidel Castro and the revolution, that I realized this place was completely different.

Piecing together the past

I set aside an afternoon to find the three homes on my familial scavenger hunt. First on the list, my mother’s house.

I faced immediate backlash from the driver, Norberto; the house sits less than two miles from “El Laguito,” the neighborhood Fidel and Raul Castro call home. With some urging in my broken Spanish, I was able to convince Norberto that we would not step out of line.

As we got closer, my heart began to pound, my mother’s directions racing through my head.

“Make a left a few blocks past the Havana Yacht Club…” There’s the yacht club, OK we are getting close. “… There used to be a gas station on the corner of our street …” Oh my God! There’s the gas station! "… It’s two houses in, on the left.”

I looked around frantically trying to figure out which house it was, comparing the black and white photos with the current structures. Then suddenly there it was, right in front of me, two houses in just as she had said.

In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, this house was also an embassy now. Inside it was well-maintained – a fact the embassy employees pointed out. The living room was now a reception area; the dining room now an office. But the kitchen remained untouched, as did the ornate staircase leading to the second floor. I imagined the meals my grandmother never cooked for us inside that kitchen and the games my brother and I never got to play atop those stairs. (Sliding down ornate staircases was a favorite pastime of ours as kids.)

From there, we tried to find my father’s house, which led to the first major disappointment of the trip.

I knew that it had been torn down, but I had hoped to find the portion of the Quibu River that once flowed through his backyard. This time, however, Norberto refused to stop.

Where my father’s house sat is now the Palacio de Convenciones, the largest convention center in Cuba and the site of many important government gatherings. As Norberto explained it, to stop there and be seen taking pictures would not be good. With the reality of life in a police state slowly creeping in, I decided not to press my luck.

My great-grandmother’s house was easy to spot.

Sitting on the corner of Linea and G streets in Vedado, even the years of economic stress and the renovations being done on the home could not hide her glory. She was a grand dame in every sense of the word. From behind scaffolding, I could see her dramatic columns and intricate architecture. This was the Cuba I grew up hearing about. I begged the construction workers to let us in, speaking Spanish better now than I had in my entire life. They gave in.

Walking within those walls, all of the stories came flooding back to me. Not just the stories about this house, but about all of the houses. I was standing in a mansion, in a city, on an island of legend and it was real. My roots were there in front of me – cast in metal, marble and concrete. I could taste the guava. And I wept openly for the first time.

The second time I cried

CNN had put us up at the Hotel Capri, one of Havana’s most storied hotels, and of course my family had a story about it.

My father’s parents celebrated New Year’s Eve 1959 at the Hotel Capri. History buffs will recognize that as the night Fidel Castro took power. They returned home from that party to learn that President Fulgencio Batista had fled the country and that their lives were in danger.

Sipping a Cristal beer in the lobby of the Capri, contemplating that story, I became aware that the odd familiarity I had felt since my arrival had nothing to do with Miami, and everything to do with my grandparents. Everything looked like them, smelled like them, sounded like them. How had I not noticed it before? I could feel their presence in every bar stool, in every empty glass, in every piece of artwork on the wall.

I wanted to chase this feeling, so I went for a walk. Eventually I stumbled into the Hotel Nacional, another famous landmark. Wandering through the lobby, I could hear music playing in the distance. I followed the sound as it lead me into a grand ballroom where the Orchestra Aragon was playing Cuban big-band music.

Something about the music touched me that night, in a way that I had never experienced before. And I cried for the second time. These were not the restrained tears of earlier in the day. I was ugly crying. Waiters and other patrons stopped to check on me, but I laughed them off through my tears and ordered another Cristal.

The unexpected

I expected to get emotional while seeking out my family’s heritage. But it was the Cuban people, their lives and their struggles, that moved me in ways I could not have anticipated. When Monse first offered me the guava fruit, I jokingly replied that it would go great with cream cheese. Her face lit up as if hearing a long forgotten song.

She explained that she loved guava and cream cheese as a girl, but the dairy product was too expensive and too hard to find on the island. I resolved to come back, and bring her as many tubs of Philly’s Original as I could fit into my suitcase.

Warnings that Cubans on the island might in some way resent me or my family for leaving were completely unfounded.

Every Cuban I met embraced me as a brother and welcomed me home with open arms and an open heart. Every time I came across a 20-something-year-old man, I could not help but wonder, “Is this some alternate universe version of me?” or “would we have been friends in another life?”

When I asked one 20-something-year-old cab driver about Obama’s visit and the forthcoming changes to the island, he was more interested in talking about the upcoming Rolling Stones concert. I learned, in that moment, that I was more Cuban than I had realized.