Cuba——Going Back

[ Latin American Studies ]

Cuba——Going Back

By Tony Mendoza

Photographs and stories from an exile's visit to Cuba.


Imagine being unable to return to your homeland for thirty-six years. What would you do if you finally got a chance to go back?

In 1996, after travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba were relaxed, Cuban exile Tony Mendoza answered that question. Taking his cameras, notebooks, and an unquenchable curiosity, he returned for his first visit to Cuba since summer of 1960, when he emigrated with his family at age eighteen. In this book he presents over eighty evocative photographs accompanied by a beautifully written text that mingles the voices of many Cubans with his own to offer a compelling portrait of a resilient people awaiting the inevitable passing of the socialist system that has failed them.

His photographs and interviews bear striking witness to the hardships and inequalities that exist in this workers' "paradise," where the daily struggle to make ends meet on an average income of eight dollars a month has created a longing for change even in formerly ardent revolutionaries. At the same time, Cuba—Going Back is an eloquent record of a personal journey back in time and memory that will resonate with viewers and readers both within and beyond the Cuban American community. It belongs on the shelves of anyone who values excellent photography and well-crafted prose.

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During thirty-seven years of exile (and thirty-seven years of American winters), I had increasingly remembered Cuba as paradise. What I remembered and what I missed was the weather, ocean, sky, breeze, vegetation, Havana, Varadero, and the warmth and wit of the Cuban people. In August 1996 I flew to Havana, my first trip back, to confirm my memory and to satisfy my curiosity about life in socialist Cuba.

My family left Cuba during the first wave of immigration, in the summer of 1960, when Fidel Castro began the process of nationalizing all privately owned land, industries, and businesses, thus making it clear that he intended to create a socialist state. As I recall, my family was allowed to take only fifty dollars in cash and the jewelry my mother wore, while everything left behind became the property of the state. Many Cubans left that summer and during the second half of 1960—around sixty thousand. Between 1960 and 1962, two hundred thousand Cubans decided that socialism was not for them and left the island.

I turned eighteen during the summer of 1960. I had just graduated from the Choate School, a private school in Connecticut, and from my somewhat warped adolescent perspective, leaving Cuba was an excellent move. American girls appealed to me immeasurably more than Cuban girls, who not only didn't drink or neck on dates but also brought along a chaperone. I liked just about everything about American culture, and I was lucky. I went directly from Cuba to a freshman year at Yale, and in 1964 I enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. By the time I graduated in 1968 with an architectural degree, I was a different person, seduced by Cambridge and the exuberance and open-mindedness of the times: the hippies, the antiwar movement, communal living, pot, acid, Rolfing, Primal Scream. I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but I still think of the sixties and early seventies as a truly wonderful period, another paradise. I expected an adventure every day.

In 1970 I joined a commune in Sommerville, a working-class community next to Cambridge, with twelve men and women. Our minimal living expenses allowed many of us to drop regular jobs and pursue other interests, mostly in the arts, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The year we decided not to have our traditional New Year's bash, seventy-five people still showed up. I lived in the commune throughout the 1970s, and along the way I quit architecture and became an artist/photographer. During all this time, Cuba felt like a distant and not very relevant past.

That started to change when I moved to New York in 1980, hoping to give my art career a boost. The eighties weren't as interesting as the sixties and seventies, so I had more time to think and reminisce. My romantic life also needed a boost. After many failed relationships with American women, I met a Cuban woman with a background very similar to my own—Carmen had studied art history in Boston and was also a veteran of the sixties in the United States. It was the first time in exile that either of us had dated another Cuban, and we were both surprised to feel so attracted, comfortable, and compatible. We moved in together. After speaking mostly English for twenty years, we rediscovered the pleasures of our native language. We purchased an alarming quantity of cassettes and CDs of old Cuban music and danced in our living room to the rhythms of Cuban boleros and danzones. Black beans and fried plantains reappeared in our kitchen, and I started wearing a guayabera, the traditional Cuban shirt.

After living in Brooklyn for a few years, we wondered what it would be like to live in a Cuban community, and in the tropics, so we moved to Miami and liked it, with reservations. We missed the museums, the art shows, the endless choice of movies and concerts we had become accustomed to in Boston and New York. We also were not used to living in the same city with a very large group of relatives, many of whom would start conversations by asking: "When are you two going to get married?"

Still, we liked our relatives, we loved the climate, the ocean, the wild parrots in our garden, and our late-afternoon cheese and wine picnics in Key Biscayne—where we eventually got married in a ceremony by the sea. We would have stayed in Miami had it not been very difficult for an artist to earn a living there, and, more to the point, we needed health insurance; Carmen had a boy from her first marriage, and we both wanted another child. In 1987 I was offered a job teaching photography at Ohio State University, so our family moved to Columbus. To the tundra.

People born on islands shouldn't move to the Midwest. Every winter I had memories of Cuba that seemed to revolve around the climate. I remembered Varadero Beach, where my entire family on my mother's side spent the three summer months at my grandfather's house. I especially remembered the porch overlooking the ocean. I ate breakfast there every morning, always on the lookout for the large fish—sharks, barracudas, tarpons—that glided close to the surf in the early morning to feed on sardines. After a morning of fishing and waterskiing, I would return to the porch. There was a comfortable, soft couch there, where I stretched out after lunch and napped. I can still feel the sea breeze on my face and hear the hypnotic sounds of the surf. I wanted to see that porch again and go swimming in front of the house.

When I turned fifty my Cuba nostalgia started to get out of hand. I wrote a series of coming-of-age fictional stories about a fourteen-year-old boy called Tony who lived in Havana in 1954. I would listen obsessively to CDs of Lucho Gatica and Rolando Laserie, the singers who were popular on the Cuban radio during the 1950s. Every time I saw pictures of Havana in photography books shot by European journalists, I would strain to see if I recognized the streets, the parks, the buildings in the background. I remembered Havana as an exceptionally beautiful city, but in my youth I had been unconcerned with beauty and had no frame of reference. Now I knew better, and I wanted to see Havana again. I especially wanted to see the house where I grew up and the huge mango trees in the garden, where I must have killed a thousand sparrows with my BB gun (which I regret now!).

In 1996 I asked the university for a sabbatical. In my academic position I'm expected to do research, so I proposed to go to Cuba, take pictures, and keep a diary. The United States allows Cuban exiles to return to visit relatives, for a maximum stay of twenty-one days. I found one distant relative still in Cuba and proposed to visit her. The Cuban government is more than happy to grant visas to visiting exiles—Cuba needs their dollars. In late August I flew to Miami and then boarded the Peruvian charter that flew us to Nassau and from there to Havana.


The flight was scheduled to leave at nine in the morning, but they asked us to be in the airport by five o'clock. I could see why. The plane was full, and everyone, except me, was bringing four or five huge bundles of supplies for relatives—food, medical supplies, clothes, shoes, toys. Cocoons, they called them, because a Nicaraguan with a portable machine, for three dollars a wrap, was kept busy wrapping many layers of cellophane around the suitcases and bundles. According to the veterans of this trip, the cocoons prevented the Cuban workers and officials at the José Marti airport from stealing everything.

On the plane the passengers milled around in a festive mood, told jokes, and exchanged stories about the current situation in Cuba. A group in the back had gathered around a man with a guitar and sang old Cuban songs throughout the trip. The elderly woman who sat next to me told me she goes back every summer—U.S. regulations allow Cuban Americans to visit their relatives once a year. "I can't help it," she said. "I feel excited every time I go back. Havana brings back so many memories." She was going back to see her sisters. When I asked about her family in Cuba, she kept saying: "Me dan tanta pena, los pobrecitos." (I feel so sorry for them, the poor dears.) She was bringing five fifty-pound bundles full of supplies. She also said, fiercely: "If the Cuban customs officer says something to you about your documentation being incomplete, don't believe him and don't pay him a thing. Tell him you'll call his superior."

I had no trouble at the Havana airport, although the customs official pointed out that my passport, which I had renewed recently, wasn't signed. I quickly pulled out a pen and signed it. I might have detected a certain look of displeasure on the official's face, but he let me through. Then I encountered the first example of the shortcomings of socialism. I went to the men's room, where a worker sat on a chair and for one peso gave me two sheets of toilet paper, four inches by four inches.

"You must be kidding!" I said. Apparently, I had to pay more for more sheets.

Every public toilet, including the one at the best-known hotel, the Habana Libre, has an employee dispensing toilet paper inside—either a telltale sign of socialist inefficiency or, more likely, an acknowledgment of the fact that if they put the toilet paper inside the toilet stall, it would be stolen.

A friend of my wife's family picked me up. I'll call him Mario. My wife was raised in La Esperanza, a small town in Las Villas province, now called Villa Clara. (The revolution changed everything, including the number and the names of the provinces. What used to be Oriente Province is now divided into four new provinces, including Granma Province, named after Castro's boat.) In the car Mario told me some wonderful stories about my wife's mother, a legendary beauty in La Esperanza during the old days, and had only horrible things to say about the current state of Cuban socialism, although, like most Cubans I met, he once supported the government and in the seventies went abroad on internationalist missions. He lives well—not on his retirement income, but by renting two bedrooms in his threebedroom apartment to tourists. All his bedrooms were already rented to Italian tourists, but he had arranged for me to rent another place, an apartment in El Vedado, for twenty-five dollars a day. It had a small kitchen, air conditioning, and a black-and-white TV. Apartments like this can be found everywhere in Havana, where an income of twenty-five dollars a day amounts to a small fortune. Most families will very gladly rent you their apartment, move out, and stay with relatives.

Passengers on the flight had warned me that I was going to find a ruined Havana, but I was still surprised during the drive from the airport. Havana reminded me of the set for the movie Brazil; the same old factories that lined the airport road during the fifties were still there, rusting away in the tropical sun, and still in use. I could see people on bicycles everywhere, like an old newsreel of an Asian country. We drove by 1950-model cars, 1940-model cars—we were in a time warp. Then we entered the residential area where I used to live, El Vedado, an affluent neighborhood in pre-Castro days. The wonderful gardens I remembered were now wildly overgrown or barren, and the buildings were even more depressing. Havana's architecture is pseudo-Greek and -Roman, and after thirty-seven years of socialism, the buildings appeared to be exact copies of the ruined monuments I saw in Greece and Rome. Instant antiquity! The damage seems more serious than the need for paint and new windows, which most buildings need. What holds the buildings up—the concrete, the structure—seems to be chipping away, as if a new breed of concrete-eating vermin were loose in Havana. In 1960 the revolutionary government came up with the Urban Reform Law, wherein the ownership of most houses and apartments was passed on to the dwellers, who paid for the units in low monthly installments. The new owners did not suspect that they would never again have the funds, nor the materials, to maintain their homes.

The apartment Mario rented for me was half a block off G Street, also known in the old days as the Avenue of the Presidents. Coincidentally, Mario's apartment was on G Street, and my family's former house was also on this avenue. I asked Mario to drive by it—I just wanted to get out and take a quick look. I almost couldn't believe what I saw: the house looked exactly like the house I had left thirty-six years before. It had been perfectly maintained; nothing seemed out of place. As I looked in from the iron gates, I felt like an actor in one of those Back to the Future movies, returning to the life I lived during the fifties. All that was missing was the voice of my grandfather joking and laughing while he played dominoes with his friends on the side porch.

The other five houses on our block hadn't fared as well. They looked as if they had been bombed. The building next to our house, a Jewish synagogue in the fifties, was in ruins. The house on the corner, where I used to play with a boy my age, was crumbling. The other three houses on the block were standing, but in very sad shape. I was to see this throughout Havana: most dwellings, where the Cuban people live, are dilapidated, but suddenly you see a house in perfect condition. This invariably means that it's a government house—a party headquarters, a ministry, the headquarters of a mass organization. My family's former house is now a government function house. All they do there is give dinner parties.

A similar situation occurs with the cars in Havana. The majority of cars owned by Cubans, mostly 1950s American cars, are in terrible shape. You also see many Russian Ladas, dating from the 1970s and early 1980s, which were given as rewards to model workers or party militants. I was told that Ladas break down more than the older American cars. Then you see brand-new Italian Fiats in perfect condition. Whenever you see a brand-new Fiat, it belongs to a government agency or a government official. Socialist equality is at work in Cuba, but on two different levels.

After I dropped my bags, Mario invited me to his apartment for a drink. He lives on the eighth floor of a once elegant apartment building overlooking the ocean at the base of G Street. Going up in the elevator was my second experience of the shortcomings of daily life in Havana. The lights on the elevator were out. The door closed and we went up in total darkness. I was nervous going up in that pitch-black, slow, and incredibly creaky elevator—which, apparently, Otis Elevator hadn't serviced since 1960—and in a city with a reputation for sudden blackouts.

Over drinks, I asked Mario why they didn't fix the light.

"The manager of this building earns a miserable wage from the government. He won't fix anything unless we give him some money. Nobody minds the dark elevator that much; you get used to it."

"What happens if you're in the elevator and there's a blackout?"

"No problem. You can open the door by hand, and if you get caught between floors, you can go out through the roof."

That was reassuring.

Mario had three young Italian men staying in his apartment. They weren't in, but he said they were very polite fellows. They worked in the same office in Rome and had come to Cuba on a sex junket.

"Do they bring the jineteras to the apartment?" Jineteras is the new Cuban word for prostitutes.

"Of course. I don't interfere with the guests' private life. I'm not a moralist. Besides, the girls they bring here are very polite. They're educated. They are not like the hookers you have in the U.S. The men who stay here are regulars. They come back every year. I'm booked solid every summer. I make them a good breakfast, and my bedrooms have a great view of the ocean. We usually rent two bedrooms at twenty dollars a day per bedroom, but now we have all three rented. My wife moves out and stays with our daughter. I sleep on the porch. It's inconvenient, but here there is no tomorrow. If you can rent three today, you rent three today. Tomorrow the government will pass a law making this illegal."

(Mario was right. In July 1997, the government slapped restrictions and extremely stiff taxes on the practice of renting private rooms to foreign tourists.)

When I left, I told him his elevator scared me and I was going to walk down.

"Nonsense," Mario said. "I'll go with you." So I went down in the elevator from hell. There was a new twist. Just about everyone in Cuba smokes. Mario is a chain smoker, and he smoked on the ride down. He didn't even ask for permission. I'm an ex-smoker, and I'm horrified by smokers and cigarette smoke. Still, I was thankful for that little glow.

Photographer-writer Tony Mendoza is the author of four books, including the highly acclaimed Stories and Ernie: A Photographer's Memoir. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches photography at Ohio State University.

Excellence Award
Southern Books Competition