By Cristina Calzadilla, Senior Vice President
I am an 80s baby who grew up in Miami, FL, when Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Pony were all the rage, and Adventures in Babysitting was the go-to movie rental at Blockbuster on most Friday nights.
Born in the U.S. to first-generation Cuban-American parents, my daily life looked a lot like this: Pepsi and Little Caesars with the neighborhood kids, and arroz con pollo and tres leches con la familia at night; hanging out with my friends at tennis camp while spending most weekends watching Sabado Gigante with my abuelitos.
You see, my heritage was (and still is) pretty fluid. In Miami, you were never really asked where you came from, or how you identified. A vast majority of the community in South Florida comes from somewhere else. I was Cuban. I was American. I was both. I could switch from English to Spanish to Spanglish with ease and was just as happy watching Double Dare as I was watching telenovelas. As a teen, I loved Green Day and Soundgarden just as much as I did Juanes or Maná.
That must have been a strange thing for my parents to witness. This hybrid child that was neither one nor the other, but both. Especially since, all things considered, I would have looked exactly as I do now if my parents had stayed in Cuba. My parents, childhood sweethearts, grew up in Guantanamo, Cuba, considered a rural town in the countryside.
There is simply too much Cuban history to capture in one essay so let us fast-forward to the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro which started around 1959, ushering a new government that began to introduce communism to the island nation. In an instant, almost overnight, life completely changed for many Cubans. I think of this often, especially as we weather a global pandemic — a drastic and dramatic shift in everyday life without a say or a way to stop it. My parent’s generation went through that as teens and young adults. Suddenly, everything that had worked for, whether a home, small business, or farm, became government property. That is really glossing over the specifics and years of turmoil but as a result, scores of Cubans fled the country, whether through ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ means.
My mom and her family were granted a lottery visa. They had 48 hours to gather their belongings (one suitcase per family member, and you could only wear one piece of jewelry, everything else had to stay behind) and leave the country on a designated flight to Miami, whereas my dad swam Guantanamo Bay to the US Naval Base where he was later transferred to Miami via the US Coast Guard (that’s a story for another day — about how my mom learned of my dad’s arrival over the car radio or the fact that my grandfather was a double agent — National Police in Cuba and CIA for US — and facilitated my father’s escape).
As Cubans sought exile in the US, in cities across the country, from New York to Chicago, many landed in Miami. What took root was an entire generation of hardworking, highly motivated individuals that had just gone (and grown) through a mass traumatic experience. In the decades that followed, they would do two things: fervently preserve their Cuban culture and traditions, and work tirelessly to achieve the American Dream. They would also vow never (EVER) to go back to the country that had turned its back on them. This was the golden rule.
Let us fast-forward to 2015 when a career-defining opportunity somewhat landed on my lap. I was tapped to form part of a small dedicated team responsible for expanding a significant global brand in a new market: Cuba.
I was in for it. I had spent an entire lifetime listening to stories of Cuba, from the sights and sounds, smells and vistas, only for those same storytellers to quip, “But I would NEVER go back — that is the ultimate betrayal.”
I waited a long time to tell my mom (my dad passed in 2005). When I finally did, she stopped what she was doing, stared off for what seemed like at least 10 solid minutes, and coldly replied, “If that’s what you think is right.” The room was thick with guilt and regret. It went on like this for several days (Cuban moms know how to hold a grudge), but ultimately I told her this, “Not only is this a professional opportunity of a lifetime, but it’s also an opportunity to understand where I come from — to understand your journey, your hardships, everything you sacrificed to offer us a better life. I want to understand, and not through second-hand stories. I want to see it for myself.” The visit ended just as quickly as the conversation did, and my mom left without saying more.
Boarding my first-ever flight to Cuba, my client turned to me and asked, “How do you feel?” It was a loaded question. I was nervous but mostly excited, traveling back to the very place where it all began for my family, where my ancestors grew up, where our traditions took root, where I ultimately would have grown up had circumstances been different.
If you’re interested in learning more, I invite you to a cafecito to share the details of that life-changing first visit — and all the visits that followed, but I’ll leave you with this: after a week in Cuba, filled with tears and laughter, memories and emotions, heartbreak and hope, I touched down in Miami. I felt like I was still wearing Cuba on me — it was on my clothes, in my heart and on my mind. Years of growth, healing and a deep awakening were packed into that 45-minute flight.
I jumped into my Uber and headed home, wondering if my mom would ever speak to me again. Would she answer my phone call? I wanted to tell her about my experiences, about how I grew a much deeper appreciation for my parent’s sacrifices. Did she even want to hear it? I had broken the golden rule. Would this forever change our relationship?
As the car turned onto my street and I started gathering my things, I can see someone standing on the front porch from the corner of my eye. My mom had been waiting for me to come home, holding a box of what I would later learn were photos of her Cuba, eager to compare photos, stories, and experiences. That is when I realized: this trip was so much bigger than a journey back to Cuba. It was a journey back to my parents.