Long Journey Home

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

Side by side, Lesbia and Mayda dab their eyes. Tony reads the plaque that will be affixed to the tomb: Adis Maria Sosa, 25/5/1909-15/2/2002, USA.


Easter Sunday dawns clear and bright. With his grandmother buried, Tony is eager to visit the countryside and the family farm, the place he remembers most vividly, the place he was most happy.

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

Roberto Brito and his girlfriend have returned to Havana, taking along Alkhalifa and Kennedy in the red van. José Diaz has also gone. So Tony puts together what he calls "a Cuban stretch limo" -- Angelito's 1950 Chrysler towing an open trailer used for hauling pigs. In the trailer are four straight chairs from Lolita's dining room.

At midmorning fifteen people, squeezed into the car and the trailer, head southeast out of Bayamo for the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. Along with Tony are his mother Lesbia; Lolita and Angelito; Tony's sister Maria Eugenia and aunt Mayda; Maria Eugenia's two sons Daniel and Frank; Mayda's son José Manuel, his wife Nena, and their son Joséito; Maria Elena, a neighbor of Maria Eugenia; a New Timesreporter; and a friend of Angelito named Juan, who is driving.

Cloaked in a lush springtime green, the Cuban countryside seems a long, tranquil way from the bustle of Miami. Once out of town, there is no traffic on the narrow roads, few people to be seen. Vultures wheel lazily overhead, floating over acres and acres of sugar cane.

About twenty miles outside town, where the road begins to rise toward the mountains, the car is stopped at a checkpoint manned by two soldiers who had been sitting outside a small wooden kiosk with a young woman. Their chief mission is to check not for drugs or foreign spies but to police Cubans trying to smuggle coffee and meat for sale on the black market.

Before they can begin a search, however, Angelito asks the green-fatigued guards: "You know who this is? This is the son of Antonio Gonzalez, and this is Antonio's wife."

"Hola, señora," one of the men responds, smiling in immediate recognition of Lesbia in the front passenger seat. Tony's mother gets out of the car, and she and the two guards exchange besos. They accept a drink of rum from the bottle Juan offers, and then pose for pictures. There is no search.

A few minutes further on, the entourage pulls up to a dark wooden house that at first looks as though it is abandoned. "Destruido," hisses Lesbia as she sees the home in which the Gonzalez family lived for more than 50 years. Destroyed.

As he gets his bearings, Tony flirts with memory overload. He flashes back to the well-tended coffee plants, the flowering shrubs by the front porch, the storied jug of aliñao -- a fruit-based rum drink -- brewed to commemorate his conception, but never found after it was buried under a towering palm tree and left to age.

He too is stunned. The farm and his memories do not come close to matching. "One whole part of the house is missing," he says. "And there was a good septic tank here." He looks with disgust at the sewage trickling from the bathroom into a muddy pool where chickens and ducks are milling about.

A young man in a red shirt arrives on a motorcycle. When he spots Lesbia, he greets her warmly. A member of the Communist Party, he once worked for Antonio. When the Gonzalezes left, he was given the house. They discuss crops, and two women emerge from the house with several cups of coffee on a tray. The man points out the tobacco shed, a new building made from old lumber. Lesbia doesn't ask him why their former home is in such disrepair.

Before the visitors depart, the man in the red shirt chases down the road after two turkeys and returns holding one by the legs. He ties a string around its legs and tosses the bird into the trunk of the Chrysler. "Dinner tomorrow," says Lolita. The men push the Chrysler to pop the clutch, and everyone climbs aboard to travel several miles down the road to a blue-painted farmhouse with a thatched roof. It is shaded by trees; flowers bloom in the yard. Guillermo and his wife Olga come to the gate and sweep up Tony in a huge embrace. "Nene!"

Guillermo was Antonio's closest friend, once the foreman of the farm. Antonio is godfather to one of Olga and Guillermo's four sons, three of whom are there to welcome Tony back. For Tony the Sunday afternoon now becomes the dreamy Cuban idyll he had nurtured all the years he was away.

From a well he knows is 400 feet deep he draws a drink of sweet water. He walks down a steep hillside to find the swimming hole in the creek that runs behind the house. Before he even looks, he knows the pichilingas -- little black-and-yellow finches -- will be on the ground in the pig pen, scratching for seeds. "There they are!" he says when he rounds the shed.

The decades now seem not to matter. After a lunch of sliced pork, moros, and salad that Olga and two other women produce from the open-air kitchen, Tony leads the way to the front porch, where he stretches out on the cool, polished concrete. He appears relaxed for the first time in three days. "I remember this place so well," he says, and is soon asleep.

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