Monday, January 08, 2007


Photo, L-R: Lola looks on in surprise as her sister-in-law, Cuca, visiting from Cuba, breaks a wishbone with Lola's daughter-in-law, Yolie. This was the first time the family had eaten at a common table in some 40 years.

“And in what year did they take your mother away from us Mr. Quintanal?”

The first words spoken to me by a rather acerbic Cuban immigration officer thumbing through my travel documents stung just as much as I thought they would. No one had “taken” my mother, Rosi away from Cuba. In late 1960, she, along with her brother Gerardo, grandmother Beatriz, father Gerardo Sr. and mother, Lola were forced to flee the island after the new revolutionary government had taken hold.

They left with nothing – well, almost nothing. Unbeknownst to my grandfather, Lola had sewn several pieces of jewelry into the collar of her coat. “We’ll have to sell these if we go hungry” was how she put it to Gerardo Sr. when he questioned her, seething with a quiet anger as their plane entered U.S. air space. Had the “contraband” been discovered, the family would most likely have suffered a fate similar to that of the unfortunate fellow seated just a few rows behind them on that fateful Pan-Am flight. After the plane had begun its initial taxi in Havana, it was brought to an abrupt halt. Several M-26 militiamen -- long arms slung over their shoulders -- boarded the plane and hustled him away at gunpoint. No one said a word. No one asked where he was going. They didn’t have to.

Photo: At left: Lola stands with her mother, Beatriz outside the family's home in Havana. At right: At her Pennsylvania home, Lola reads a 1964 letter sent to her husband, Gerardo Sr. by her father-in-law, who remained in Cuba, unwilling to leave his daughter, a Castro supporter, behind.

Almost exactly 43 years to the day of that event, my brother Miguel and I found ourselves standing in the very same airport our mother had in 1960. We stood in line at immigration with perhaps two-dozen ex-pats whose emotions ranged from jubilation to sorrow. A lonely woman standing in a line directly across from us caught my eye immediately. Hands shaking, tears in her eyes, this was – without a doubt – her first trip back to the land of her birth. I tried to light a cigarette but soon found my trembling hands had been infected by some of her fears. This was my first trip to Havana and the beginning of a project to document our family’s story.

The seeds of our journey had been planted in the Spring of 2001. Our mother’s uncle Emilio and aunt Cuca had finally been deemed old enough – and thus not a flight risk – by the Cuban government to obtain exit visas to visit us in the United States. My grandfather Gerardo, by that point nearly 90 years of age, stood in complete and utter shock when his younger sibling walked into his New Jersey home. The two hadn’t seen each other in some 40 years. For an entire week we sat around a common table, exchanging stories and filling in the missing pieces of our lives. High-test cups of ultra-sweet Cuban coffee flowed across the table like a river, every sip peppered with a memory from a long-since dead and buried Havana. All-the-while, Emilio kept a wrinkled hand atop his older brother’s shoulder.

As the week drew to a close and Emilio and Cuca’s departure crept nearer, Gerardo began to show his age. Growing tired at the end of each meal – try as he might – his head would inevitably descend toward the tabletop until sleep overtook him. Finally, on the evening of April 25th -- the day Emilio and Cuca said their last goodbyes and set off for the return trip to Havana -- Gerardo said what seemed to be a final “hasta lugeo” to his daughter, Rosi and slipped away into death as he slept. Shortly therafter, I began sketching out an idea for a project that would serve to tell the story of both halves of our family – those left behind in Cuba, as opposed to those able to flee 40-plus years earlier.

Two generations of Quintanals have been divided by the revolution. While I was busy slogging through elementary school in the 1980s, relatives of mine back in Havana who were of college age, were being denied higher educations by the Cuban government due to their lack of communist party affiliation. As I was completing my second year in college, one cousin was busy constructing a raft he hoped would ferry him and a select group of friends to the shores of the United States. The two halves of our family had developed along very divergent paths.

And so I began to amass a hoard of vintage photographs and documents, smuggling some of them out of Cuba hidden amid items in my baggage. Those pieces of history, along with current photography from both sides of the Florida Straits compose
Dos Epocas.

Revolution is an ugly business. Cuba’s version is filled with stories of children pitted against their parents, extrajudicial executions and the often-times forced exile of more than a million people from a beloved homeland. Over the years, many people have asked me what I hope for in regards to the island. I’m not quite sure. On a personal level, I hope to bridge the bitter divide between an island community suffering under a rogue regime and their brothers, 90 miles away, who seem to have transformed a fight for democratic change into nothing more than a political juggernaut, full of all the corruption and back-scratching that plagues politics the world-over. Cuba’s is a story of families, of people. All too often, those of us living abroad, far from her shores, forget that. Politics be damned. Broken bridges must be mended. There’s rum to be drunk and I, for one, would like to do it in my uncle Emilio’s backyard.

1 comment:

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