OUR FAMILY WAS LUCKY. Or at least that’s what my parents told me, over and over again.
“We got out of Cuba just in time.”
First my mother, with my two siblings and me, in 1960. Then my father, shortly before the revolutionaries appropriated the family business. My grandmother waited the longest, emigrating the following summer. She left her husband behind, forever as it turned out. He stayed in Havana to take care of a younger brother who had been imprisoned by Fidel Castro’s regime for “collaborating with the CIA.”
After I married and had children of my own, I began dreaming of returning to Cuba. My situation was complicated, though. First, because I am a U.S. citizen now. Second, because both sides of our family had been part of the hated bourgeois before the Cuban revolution and had openly opposed Castro.
I called my uncle in Washington, D.C., for advice. He’d been the mayor of Havana and ambassador to the United States under former president Ramón Grau. He discouraged me from going, warning that it would not be safe for any member of our family to return. My father agreed. He knew Fidel well—he had crossed paths with him every day in the hallways of their private Jesuit high school.
“He was a bully then,” he said, his face darkening, “and he is a paranoid bully now. You might get in, but you might not get out.”
Still, one afternoon, he drew a map of Havana with an engineer’s precision and carefully marked a half-dozen places of interest in red pencil: the family business, our home in Havana, my grandparents’ houses.
My maternal grandmother lived with us in New Jersey after she emigrated. One summer morning, she patted a spot beside her and told me a secret. Just before she fled Cuba, she whispered conspiratorially, she had hired a master carpenter to hide a few precious belongings under the staircase of her home—a box of photographs, a bundle of letters, family heirlooms nestled in velvet and gold brocade drawstring pouches.
“Si regresas a La Habana,” my grandmother concluded, squeezing my hands too tightly. “If you make it back to Havana . . . promise me, Ali, that you will go to my house and get my things.”