Long Journey Home

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

It is also a city of 130,000 residents locked in time. Most people get around on foot or on bicycle. Taxis are not cars but horse-drawn carts called coches. On Saturday nights pigs are roasted on street corners, and when the beer wagon arrives people scramble to fill a plastic bottle or kitchen pot for just a few pesos. But when strangers come to town, everyone knows.

An hour after Tony's arrival a young Interior Ministry official comes to the funeral home. He is, of course, aware of Adis Maria Sosa's death. The family is well-known, and the official also knows Tony's sister Maria Eugenia, a university-trained agronomist who is in charge of all public plantings in Bayamo. And in a society webbed with neighborhood-watch committees and state informants, 200 people milling about well after dark does not go unnoticed.

The young official says he is perplexed. He summons Tony, the American funeral-home officials, and the journalists into a small office in the funeraria. Abuela's body was supposed to arrive the night before, he says, but it's still not here. And what are these American journalists up to?

Steve Satterwhite
Click to enlarge photo

Tony and his sister Maria Eugenia (center) are finally reunited following the journey from Miami (left column and right column, top to bottom): The Continental departure gate at MIA; from a window seat in row 13, Tony sees Cuba for the first time in 32 years; abuela's body is removed from the cargo hold; Tony touches down at José Martí International Airport; Tony's provocative friend from Miami, José Diaz; common on the streets of Cuba: old American cars and socialist propaganda; during the journey from Havana, Tony sees through the window a Cuban countryside unchanged since he left; curious Cubans step aside as the red van passes through small towns on the way to Bayamo
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Click to enlarge photo

Tony and his sister Maria Eugenia (center) are finally reunited following the journey from Miami (left column and right column, top to bottom): The Continental departure gate at MIA; from a window seat in row 13, Tony sees Cuba for the first time in 32 years; abuela's body is removed from the cargo hold; Tony touches down at José Martí International Airport; Tony's provocative friend from Miami, José Diaz; common on the streets of Cuba: old American cars and socialist propaganda; during the journey from Havana, Tony sees through the window a Cuban countryside unchanged since he left; curious Cubans step aside as the red van passes through small towns on the way to Bayamo

Delia Kennedy explains that the body is en route, being transported by funeral officials from Havana. Tony tells the solemn young man that the journalists are writing a story about him. The official seems placated. "He just wanted to nose around," Tony remarks. "It's his job."

Minutes later a commotion erupts outside as a pale-green Russian Volga station wagon pulls up. The white casket is in the back. Dozens of men and children follow the car into an attached garage, and watch as the casket is unloaded and carried into a tiny embalming room. There a man in a white coat opens the lid. He adjusts abuela's pink gown and combs out her wavy gray hair.

The viewing of Adis Maria Sosa, widow of José Mendoza, onetime Bayamo postmaster, is held upstairs. Dozens of coronas, wreaths of fresh-cut wildflowers made by Adalberto the bicycle repairman, have been propped behind the open casket, and the fragrance of the flowers mixes with the odor of perspiration and cigar smoke to infuse the small room with an earthy scent.

Throughout the night scores of people file past, many lingering for hours. They sit in large rocking chairs, or outside on the second-floor patio. Sounds of weeping for the deceased mingle with the joy of Tony's homecoming.

The night is warm but not hot. In the funeraria,overhead fans stir the air and a nurse is on hand to comfort mourners who feel faint. Abuela's body has made the trip well. "She looks good," Kennedy says.

Every relative and old friend Tony meets here is 32 years older than when he last saw them. They have grown up, grayed, grown old. He throws his arms around Mayda, the aunt who helped raise him in Bayamo. He hugs Gladys, the woman with whom he lived in Manzanillo when his parents stayed in the country to work the farm. His grandmother's oldest friend, 93-year-old Luli, arrives in a wheelchair, and Tony kneels to kiss her. "We have been waiting for you," she says in a whisper.

Tony's mother Lesbia, who is 65 years old, is also here for her mother's funeral. She arrived a week earlier, her first return visit. As Tony works his way through the crowd of mourners, Lesbia hovers, helping with introductions. "He was just a boy when he left," she says of the pudgy-faced, dark-haired man being hugged and kissed by old family friends. "He doesn't know all these people."

About midnight Tony interrupts the homecoming to take a shower at his sister's apartment and then joins other family members at the spare, small house of his second cousin Lolita. She runs a paladar and wants to cook for Tony and the other visitors. Despite the late hour, everyone is still wound up from the trip and the funeral home.

Standing in front of the house, Lolita's son, 32-year-old Angelito Rodriguez, proudly tells Tony about his car, the only vehicle parked on the dark, deserted street. "It's a 1950 Chrysler with a 1943 tractor engine," he says, lifting up the heavy-gauge American metal hood. Angelito says he bought the car for the equivalent of $600 from someone who could no longer afford to run it.

Tony, looking exhausted but unable to relax, briefly takes in Angelito's car, and then steps into the middle of the street. "I'm really here!" he exults in a raspy shout. "I want to laugh and cry at the same time."

On Friday morning the closed casket is returned to the Volga, which leads a slow procession down the street to the cemetery. The hearse is followed by the red Hyundai van, a taxicab, two private cars, and several curious boys on bicycles. Tony helps carry the casket to the family plot, where abuela's husband was interred in 1965. Tony remembers that funeral too. It was his tenth birthday. The previous day he had visited his father, imprisoned in Holguín.

After several men wrestle the casket into the uncovered tomb, a bricklayer with a trowel and a bucket of mortar jumps down into the hole and begins to build a wall that seals abuela into the ground.

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