Long Journey Home

Three decades after his parents sent him into lonely exile, Tony Gonzalez returned to Cuba to face his demons

After high school Tony joined the Florida National Guard and then transferred to the U.S. Army. He became a paratrooper, trained in electronics, and during seven years of active duty served in Germany, Nicaragua, and Panama. When he came back to Miami he stayed in the National Guard while working at a series of jobs: new-car prep at an auto dealership; grounds maintenance for a cemetery and a golf course; debt collector for a bank.

Tony and a partner now own a business installing irrigation systems while he studies for yet another career -- performing home inspections for realtors and mortgage brokers. He and his wife Nora, a native of Guatemala, have two children, fifteen-year-old Tania and ten-year-old Erik.

Tony grew up a Miami Cuban, versed in the anti-Castro rhetoric of el exilio."What I heard about Cuba was so bad," he says. "It sounded like they were going through hell."

Despite the late hour, hundreds of people wait outside the funeraria (top) for Tony's arrival; fragrant funeral wreaths were made in the shop (center) of Adalberto the bicycle repairman; Miami funeral home officials Rafaiy Alkhalifa and Delia Kennedy explain to a Cuban official what they know about abuela's body arriving late in Bayamo (bottom)
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Despite the late hour, hundreds of people wait outside the funeraria (top) for Tony's arrival; fragrant funeral wreaths were made in the shop (center) of Adalberto the bicycle repairman; Miami funeral home officials Rafaiy Alkhalifa and Delia Kennedy explain to a Cuban official what they know about abuela's body arriving late in Bayamo (bottom)
Lesbia Gonzalez, Tony's mother, says goodbye to her mother (top); a bicyclist hitches a ride on the Russian station wagon carrying abuela's body to the cemetery (center); Tony, his mother, and other family members gather before abuela is entombed (bottom)
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Lesbia Gonzalez, Tony's mother, says goodbye to her mother (top); a bicyclist hitches a ride on the Russian station wagon carrying abuela's body to the cemetery (center); Tony, his mother, and other family members gather before abuela is entombed (bottom)

Over the years other relatives came to the United States: Lesbia's sister in 1963, then Antonio's brother two years later. During the Mariel boatlift in 1980, Tony was on duty with the National Guard in Key West when he spotted the name of another relative on a list of refugees. Days later Tony retrieved his uncle Pedro from detention in the Orange Bowl. Pedro, a cabinetmaker, now lives in New Jersey.

His parents too could have quit Cuba years ago. With Tony an American citizen and the oft-jailed Antonio Gonzalez considered a nuisance by the Castro government, exit visas were available. But Tony's father, now 72 years old, loved his life and his land in Cuba. Despite his problems with the government, he insisted on staying. Says Tony: "He thought he could outwait Castro."

But he could not. By 1997, with his acreage shrinking and some of his children flirting with trouble through anti-government actions of their own, Antonio and Lesbia agreed to leave. With them came seven others: daughters Lesbia and Irene and son José; Lesbia's husband Saul and Lesbia's twins Lesbia and Ideliza; and Irene's Adis. They all settled in Florida City, a few miles from Tony.

With most of his immediate family in Miami, Tony wanted nothing more than to be swept up in the embrace of belonging he remembered from his cherished boyhood, to resume the life so abruptly interrupted. He wanted again to be a part of that close-knit Cuban family of his dreams.

Alas, that did not happen. In Cuba the family Tony left behind was united in the daily struggle to get by. Antonio was in and out of prison, Tony's mother was busy tending her free-spirited husband and her children, and before long Tony's sisters and brother had children of their own. They arrived here united by a shared history in which Tony had no part.

Ironically, with his family nearby, Tony felt more estranged from them than ever. "I try to get close to them, to make up for those years," he says, "but they don't see the need. They were raised different than me."

But when abuela died, Tony saw an opportunity. He would escort her body back and see to her burial. And he would search for remnants of his lost childhood in hopes of connecting with the family he longed for.


Flight time from Miami to Havana is 43 minutes. On a Wednesday morning in late March, Tony is in coach seat 13A, by the window. His grandmother's embalmed body is below him in the cargo hold of the Continental Airlines charter. She has been dead for six weeks. But Tony has never felt more alive.

When the plane reaches its cruising altitude of 22,000 feet, the Florida Keys disappear beneath the wing and within minutes the green outline of the Cuban coast creeps into view. Tony, who is 46 years old, stares out the window in silence.

For months his family has been telling him whom he will see. He has talked on the phone to many people. He has seen pictures. But his mind is racing. "My biggest fear is that I won't recognize people," he says.

Two people are on hand to meet Tony at José Martí International Airport. One is a man he has never met, his brother-in-law Roberto Brito, who is separated from but still married to Tony's Florida City sister Irene. Called La Mole, or the Hulk, Roberto is a burly six feet two, a former Castro bodyguard who is now a supervisor with the government agency that controls rental cars on the island.

Also there is José Diaz, a friend of Tony from Miami who owns a concrete-pumping company. Diaz left Cuba in the late Eighties but is back to visit relatives and wants to welcome his friend. Diaz is easily the most conspicuous person in the vicinity of the airport because of what he is wearing: a bright yellow ESPN logo shirt, a U.S. flag headscarf, and around his neck what looks like several pounds of gold jewelry.

When he clears immigration and customs and emerges from the terminal, Tony quickly spots Diaz. From the description Irene gave him, and from photos, Roberto is also easy to find. As Tony makes introductions, Roberto, trained in the Soviet Union to note suspicious persons, shakes Diaz's hand warily.

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