Long Journey Home

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

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.

Later in the afternoon Guillermo's sons -- 51-year-old Hervasio, a teacher; 48-year-old Robert, who works in tourism; and 40-year-old Hector, a school inspector -- grab a pig from the yard, pin it on a table, and kill it with a knife thrust to the heart. After the pig is cut up, put in a cast-iron kettle of water, and cooking over a wood fire, Tony and the other men pass a bottle of rum and talk.

"It must have been hard for you," remarks Hector, a big-bellied man who was a small boy when he last saw Tony.

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

"Claro," Tony agrees, barely hinting at the depth of his pain. "It is not easy to be away from your family."

"But hermano," says Hervasio, "you seem so natural. You are American, but you sound like you are from here."

"Of course," laughs Tony. "I am from here."

As the day drifts on, the talk turns more and more to the one who is not here -- Tony's father. One by one people peer into Tony's video camera and speak to the man who waits in Miami. They remember how Antonio acquired a generator that could power the houses of twenty neighbors. They recall the night he came home on a bus carrying a group of musicians who stayed at the farm for a month. They mention his indomitable spirit, unbroken even after stints in prison.

Guillermo tells the story of the day Antonio rounded up several young men from the farm and trucked them into town for a party at a house where several young women lived. When they arrived, Guillermo recounts, Antonio lined everyone up and issued a command: "¡Muchachos, pinga en mano!" Boys, dick in hand!

Everyone roars.

After another meal of pork and moros, Tony couples his goodbyes with promises to return. The night sky is pitch black and ablaze with stars when the Chrysler is cranked up and the group heads back to Bayamo. The mountain air is cool but Tony, sitting in the trailer, has been warmed by the rum and reminiscence. "You know, I didn't ever spend much time with my father," he says. "But I heard so much about him today. I feel like I know him better now."

Over the next ten days Tony visits relatives and friends. He hangs out with his old pal Pepin Montero, who now teaches chemistry. The two go swimming in the Rio Bayamo. Through another friend Tony arranges to have some dental work done. He has two teeth pulled and two others capped -- at no charge.

Staying with Maria Eugenia in the small two-bedroom apartment where she lives with her children, Tony reconnects with the little sister with whom he once shared a bed. They feel close but their lives are so different. In Miami he has just landed several lucrative irrigation contracts that will enable him to buy a house closer to his parents. He has a new car, and his daughter Tania, a gifted music student, is thinking about college.

Maria Eugenia's everyday existence, as with most Cubans, is fraught with worry over money. She does receive cash from the family in Miami, but her job pays her only 220 pesos per month, the equivalent of ten dollars. She makes her rounds of city parks and gardens on a Chinese bicycle. If her ex-husband would give permission for her to leave the island with the children, she would come to Miami in an instant. "For now my life is here," she sighs.


Tony returns to South Miami-Dade with eight hours of videotape and a growing uncertainty about what he has learned. His father is teary-eyed with nostalgia as he watches and listens to his friends talk about him. Despite imprisonment and even torture, he insists, "We lived a good life. The government may be communist, but the people are not.

"If Castro falls tomorrow," Antonio vows, "I will be there the next day."

Tony's mother Lesbia is not so sure. "The only thing I miss," she says, "is Maria Eugenia."

For Tony settling back into life here is like the visit to Cuba: bittersweet. Contrary to what he has heard for years in Miami, he saw that everyone in Cuba is not miserable. Getting food is inconvenient but no one is starving. You can kill a pig for a party without being reported.

But he also feels grateful for his life as an American. One Sunday evening before dinner at his parents' house, Tony mentions that the twenty days he spent in Cuba marked the first time he had ever been apart from his two children. "I don't blame my parents for what they did, sending me away," he says. "I would never do that to my kids. But since being over there in Cuba, I understand a little better."

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