Long Journey Home

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

On the night Tony Gonzalez comes home with the body of his grandmother, Bayamo's dusty main street is lit only by the dim glow of the funeraria sign. The time is 9:30 p.m., well past the usual Thursday bedtime in this rural Cuban town. Yet more than 200 people are waiting.

First a red van pulls up to the funeral home, and the people surge forward. Then a second car arrives, and from the throng someone shouts, "There he is!" The passenger door swings open and out steps a man in a yellow T-shirt and shorts, 32 years after his parents sent him to America.

"Nene!" cries a woman in the front as she rushes toward him. For an instant Tony does not recognize his sister. Maria Eugenia's black hair is dyed blond. She was nine years old when he saw her last. And he was just fourteen.

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

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)
On the trip to the country (top), Tony and eighteen others ride in an open trailer and cousin Angelito's 1950 Chrysler; getting the car started, however, requires old-fashioned muscle power (center); Antonio's old friend Guillermo (seated, white shirt), his sons, and others send messages back to Miami via Tony's video camera (bottom)
photos by Mike Clary
On the trip to the country (top), Tony and eighteen others ride in an open trailer and cousin Angelito's 1950 Chrysler; getting the car started, however, requires old-fashioned muscle power (center); Antonio's old friend Guillermo (seated, white shirt), his sons, and others send messages back to Miami via Tony's video camera (bottom)
Apart for 27 years: Tony Gonzalez with his father Antonio in Florida City
Photo by Steve Satterwhite
Apart for 27 years: Tony Gonzalez with his father Antonio in Florida City

As they embrace Tony pulls off his glasses. His eyes are filled with tears. His sister clings to his neck. "Por fin," he says. At last. And then the crowd behind Maria Eugenia pushes forward and Tony seems to disappear, consumed by his hometown and a search for the boyhood he left behind.


For more than 40 years the story of Cuba known by most in the U.S. has been told through the tears and memories of those in Miami. Indeed as the revolution pulled the Cuban people together under the banner of socialism, it drove many families apart.

Of all those affected by upheaval on the island, none suffered more than the children separated from their parents. The best-known of those uprooted from their Cuban childhoods were the more than 14,000 Operation Pedro Pan kids, flown from the island between 1960 and 1962 in a plan devised by the U.S. government and the Roman Catholic Church. But between the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Pedro Pan flights ended, and the Elian Gonzalez affair, thousands of other unaccompanied children have been sent into lonely exile.

Mariano Antonio Gonzalez -- called Tony in America and Nene by his family and close friends -- was soon to be drafted into the Cuban military when his parents decided to send him to the United States. Tony's grandfather and namesake, Mariano, was a prominent sugar grower in the eastern province of Oriente, an early supporter of the revolution who welcomed Fidel Castro into his farmhouse and gave him and other rebel comandantes food and money as they came and went from the Sierra Maestra mountains.

But by the mid-Sixties the once-vast Gonzalez farm had been whittled down to about 450 acres, and the elder Mariano's feisty son -- Tony's father Antonio -- had become an outspoken opponent of the communist regime. Over the next 35 years Antonio would be arrested several times and spend nearly nine years behind bars.

The decision to send the eldest of their five children into exile was a torment for Antonio and his wife Lesbia. "Bastante dificil," she says. But at a time when military service could last for five years and Cuban foreign adventurism was rampant, they thought it best.

Before Tony Gonzalez left Bayamo in the fall of 1969, he gave most of his clothes and his shoes to his best friend Pepin Montero. "I'm going to live with my aunt and uncle in New Jersey and see snow," he told Pepin. Tony was excited about the trip but thought he wouldn't be gone long. After all, no one felt more rooted to Cuba or more entwined in the web of his family and its history than Nene. Everybody knew he would come back.


Adis Maria Sosa died in Miami while visiting her family. One minute she was sitting with Tony over breakfast, talking about her return home, and the next minute she lay down in bed and just stopped breathing. She was 94 years old.

Until his abuela died, Tony had been wary of returning to Cuba. Although more than 25 years went by when he did not see his parents, they telephoned on his birthday and wrote letters on occasion. But they did not urge him to visit. Lesbia and Antonio seemed satisfied that Tony was living a good life.

And Tony did make a life for himself. He spent his first year in America with his aunt Jorgia (his mother's sister), her husband Oscar, and their two young children in Elizabeth, New Jersey. When the family decided to move to Miami in the summer of 1971, Tony came too. But when Jorgia and Oscar struggled financially they decided it would be better if Tony went elsewhere. They contacted the Rev. Bryan O. Walsh, who ran the Catholic Church's Cuban Children's Program here, and asked if Tony could join the Pedro Pan refugees who were still without their parents. In the fall of 1971 Tony moved into a dormitory at St. Martha's Church and began the ninth grade at Archbishop Curley High School.

For the second time, Tony admits, he felt as though he had been pushed out of the nest before he was ready. "I had to learn to chew, swallow, and digest on my own," is the way he puts it. "But I made the best of it. I learned to take care of myself."

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."

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.

Much of the afternoon is spent dealing with the bureaucracy controlling the importation of cadavers for burial in Cuba. On hand to help with those chores are two Miamians who have accompanied Tony: Rafaiy Alkhalifa, a Guyanese native who runs three cut-rate funeral homes in Miami-Dade County, and his administrator Delia Kennedy, a Cuban American who in the past two years has escorted dozens of bodies back to the island.

First abuela's body must be inspected at the medical examiner's office. From there Tony and his entourage go to the state-run funeral parlor at Calzada and K streets in Havana, the prerevolutionary home of the Rivero family business, where Cuban officials finalize plans to transport the body to Bayamo.

Tony had originally planned to take a domestic flight to Bayamo the next morning. But when that flight is canceled, Roberto offers to drive to the island's eastern end. Tony is ecstatic; not only will he be able to see the country from the ground, but he will reverse the 455-mile journey he made by bus in 1969, when he went to Havana to begin his trip into exile.


At midmorning two cars leave from the Melia Cohiba, the $250-a-night luxury hotel on the Malecon where Alkhalifa and Kennedy are staying. In the brand-new red Hyundai van Roberto has picked for the trip are his girlfriend Marisel, Alkhalifa, and Kennedy, along with a New Times photographer and reporter.

Tony rides with his friend José Diaz, who has decided to go to Bayamo just for the adventure, and a Havana friend of Diaz named Carlos. Diaz, again outfitted in the stars-and-stripes headscarf and jewelry, is at the wheel of a rented Peugeot.

Roberto, whose job takes him all around the island, knows the few main roads well. "Every pothole," he says. He leads the way.

From Havana west to Santa Clara, Roberto takes the Soviet-built Autopista Nacional. It is six lanes in places but the pavement is uneven, and the railroad crossings are treacherous and all but unmarked. While there are few other cars on the highway, there are many slow tractors, horse carts, trucks converted to buses and jammed with standing riders, untethered farm animals, bicyclists, and knots of hitchhikers. Nonetheless Roberto is relentless at the wheel, at times reaching speeds above 100 miles per hour, using only his horn and his reflexes to avoid disaster. He speeds up, then brakes hard when a slow-moving vehicle or wagon suddenly looms. And Diaz is in close pursuit.

The scenery whizzes by in a blur, but Tony is trying to inhale every bit of the passing scene, pointing his video camera out the window and imploring Diaz to quit tailgating the red van. At a gasoline stop Tony marvels at the stately royal palms that trail off into the distance over the flat farmland. "When I went to Havana it was at night," he says, breathing in the Cuban air. "So I didn't get to see all this."

East of Santa Clara, the highway narrows into the Carretera Central, a two-lane road built in the early Thirties. As it winds through many small towns, and more tractors and trucks clog the road, La Mole is forced to let up on the gas. The Cuba Tony sees here is little changed from the one he left three decades ago. Oxen harnessed to rough-hewn carts. Cadres of workers waiting for rides. Tobacco-drying sheds, garden plots of carrots and corn. The smoke from distant sugar refineries. Billboards touting not soap but socialism: Hoy la lucha es diferente, pero no menos epica. Today the struggle is different, but no less epic.

At midafternoon the two-car caravan stops for lunch in Camagüey. Two boys on bicycles spot the rental cars at the edge of town and offer to lead Roberto to a paladar, a state-licensed, twelve-seat restaurant in a private home. For steering customers to El Coloneal the boys will earn a finder's fee in U.S. dollars. "To help the family," says one of the boys, neatly defining what's different about la lucha now.

When Tony gets out of the Peugeot he can barely speak. He has lost his voice from screaming at Diaz to slow down. "¡Coño!" cries Tony. "Did you see him back there?" Diaz is unmoved by Tony's complaints. "Just trying to keep up," he shrugs.

After nine people eat a thin slab of pork steak, moros, several plates of tostones with mojo, and a salad of lettuce and tomato and pay the $27 bill, the journey continues. As the cars whip past roadside cheese vendors and vegetable stands, through fields of caña, around covered buggies and motor scooters, by pictures of Che Guevara, through Las Tunas and into the hills of Granma province, Tony recalls his grandmother. "She always wanted me to come back," he says later. "She used to say, 'Do I have to die to get you to come home?'"


Located at the southeastern end of the island, Bayamo is far off the track of most visitors to Cuba. A provincial center of sugar and rice production, it is a town rich in history: battleground of the rebel Indian chief Hatuey, where in 1868 Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his plantation slaves and declared Cuba independent from Spain, not far from where patriot José Martí was slain. In 1953 Castro and his rebels staged in Bayamo one of two attacks on army barracks that launched the revolution.

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?

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.

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.

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 Times reporter; 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.

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.

"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."

Tony removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. His face is deeply tanned from long hours working in the sun. "My wife warned me when I went back that my expectations were too high," he continues. "I had an idea, but it was a little kid's idea. I have to realize that we're not kids anymore."

A few minutes later, when Tony is called to the back of the house by one of his sisters, his mother Lesbia takes a break from frying yuca and sits at the dining-room table. A handsome, dignified, no-nonsense woman, she is accustomed to being the composed center of a swirling family. And she is not tempted to second-guess decisions, especially ones that no parent should ever have to make. "I know he is searching for something," she says of her eldest child. "When he left Cuba it was hard for everyone. But that's over. We are here now."

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