Editor’s Note — Katia Hetter is a writer/producer for CNN Digital. This story was first published in December 2014.
(CNN) — This holiday season, I am heading to the only Cuba I’ve ever known. To Nochebuena dinner with my cousin’s roast pork, her mother-in-law’s flan, platanos maduros, yucca and a salad.
Nochebuena is a Latino celebration of Christmas Eve, and it’s a big night for us. There will be quick-fire Spanish, varying degrees of English and jokes in the way I’ve only ever heard my Cuban relatives parry back and forth. Many presents will be opened, and everyone will act like we all got each other the perfect gift.
I will travel not to Havana but to Miami, where my grandparents and other relatives came years after Fidel Castro took over Cuba, when it became clear there would be no free speech for anyone but him.
The stadiums were filling with “trials” against the enemies of the state, friends were disappearing and my mother, despite her government job, knew her unwillingness to stay quiet while people suffered would get her in trouble. So she went into exile in 1961, and she’s never been back.
Years later my grandparents followed their grown children — my mother and uncle — to the USA. When they applied to leave the country, Cuban government officials did an inventory of the contents of their home. Both their home and all of their things would be confiscated by the government on the day they departed.
The morning she left, my abuelita was washing the dishes in their apartment before she and my grandfather left for the airport. Suddenly she stopped. “Let Fidel do the dishes,” she said. I have never seen that apartment.
When we land Tuesday in Miami, my mother and uncle will meet us at the airport and rush us to Havana Harry’s or some coffee stand where I can get a real Cuban coffee — none of this Starbucks silliness. There’s a hint of Cuba in the taste. And Cuban and U.S. flags will be everywhere.
I don’t care about South Beach or Art Basel or Coconut Grove. Every bit of Cuba I get is gleaned from pictures, music, stories people tell me and these trips to see Miami family, where I get hints of my ancestry in the food and jokes and presents. I soak it up on every visit.
I’ve never seen the sleepy, agricultural town of Pinar del Rio where my mother was born and lived until her teenage years. I’ve never seen where she went to high school after they moved to Havana or the beaches where she swam in the summertime and where one friend dangling his foot over a pier lost it to a shark.
I don’t know where she had her first piano recital. When she plays my favorite Cuban music on the piano, all too rarely, for some reason the notes make me cry. Maybe it’s the hints of her life before me.
The Christmas heat in Miami must be similar to what they feel in Cuba, only a short flight to the south. I will pack my summer clothes and a bathing suit for my daughter.
Around midday on Christmas Eve some of us will head to El Palacio de Los Jugos for lunch and Cuban sandwiches. I will get my favorite Materva soda, too sweet for me now but still worth the memory. My cousin, whose Nochebuena pork would make Martha Stewart cry, likes to tease us to not to fill up at lunch.
But we will be fine. Dinner won’t be until much later — our family is always late — and we all want her cooking.
Filling in the gaps
My definition of beauty isn’t blond hair or blue eyes or any classic American stereotype. It’s my black-haired Cuban cousins, who look so refined and elegant. They hug me, the baby of my generation and the half-American with the brown hair, so hard.
They remind me to come back. To Miami, not to Cuba.
I’ve only seen pictures of the tobacco trucks. My mother was taught to drive by the drivers at the tobacco trucking company where my grandfather worked, and it’s why she still drives a car like she means business. Another hint of Cuba on those long road trips.
I welcome the news of thawing American relations with Cuba and easing of travel restrictions. But I am tired of the ads for religious charity trips to Cuba and all-inclusive beach resorts where tourists get pampered while my people, once removed, depend on charity for the most basic medical supplies.
I am tired of the reasons for the sadness in my older relatives’ eyes.
I don’t want to hear any more stereotypes about who my people are or tourists talking about going to visit Cuba “before it changes.” As Miriam Zoila Perez has written, I don’t want to hear about your Cuban vacation.
I simply want to buy a plane ticket and go there myself. I want to go to my mother’s hometown and see where she was born without crying the entire trip. I want to put those hints together, fill in the gaps and see for the first time, where I am from.
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