Sometimes you can go home again.
Even if home is Cuba.
Maite Hernandez was born in Puerto Rico. She and her husband, Roy Marmelo — he’s Portuguese — have lived in Westport for nearly a decade. But her parents are Cuban, and many relatives still live there.
In 1997 Maite and Roy visited Cuba. They traveled the back way — through Mexico.
But recently, over Christmas break, Maite and Roy and their 4 children enjoyed a family reunion in Havana. They went the new way — on a Delta charter from Miami. Other relatives came from Los Angeles and Barcelona.
Americans can now visit Cuba for religious, educational and family reasons. And what better family event than seeing long-lost relatives — and introducing the Marmelo kids Andres, Claudia, Júlia and Lucas to cousins they’ve never met?
Maite’s aunt Lucy has visited Westport before. (She’s allowed out of the country because, with 5 children of her own, she’s not considered a flight risk.) She and her other relatives still in Cuba live better than many in that country, Roy says. They’re well educated, and serve in prestigious professions like medicine and government. They live in Miramar, a Havana suburb filled with embassy homes.
One of Lucy’s daughters is a famous TV soap opera actress. A son, who serves in the Army, accompanied Fidel Castro on a trip to Mexico. He drove the Marmelos around in his van — just as he did Peter Frampton, on the singer’s visit to Cuba.
Lucy’s neighbor is Aleida March — Che Guevara’s widow. Andres Marmelo must be the only Bedford Middle School 8th grader to have met that connection to history.
Cuba is a study in contrasts, Roy says. Propoganda is everywhere — you can’t avoid seeing signs promoting 53 years of revolution — and so are the 1950s-era American cars that Cubans take pride in maintaining. But there are BMWs too.
The Marmelos visited a military museum (where they saw the American-made boat that brought Fidel back home from Mexico), as well as the Hemingway museum with his boat.
But recent changes allow Cubans to buy permits to sell items in front of their homes. They can open up bakeries. A Hernandez cousin says “80 to 90 percent” of citizens no longer believe much of the propoganda.
“In 1997, when we talked about politics we were told to lower our voices,” Roy says. “This time, that didn’t happen.” Cubans were even dancing to Gloria Estefan’s song, “Cuba Libre” (“Free Cuba”).
There is plenty of food — but it’s very expensive. The Hernandez family went all out to show their far-flung relatives a good time. Still, there was plenty of white rice, black beans and pork. “It was a good lesson for the kids,” Roy says.
“Everything in Westport is perfect and beautiful,” Maite adds. “Everyone is well dressed. It’s a bubble. You don’t see poverty. Cuba was an eye-opener.”
The sheets are so rough, they scratch. Maite’s relatives requested linens from America and Spain.
It was an eye-opener in other ways too. Cubans with connections have flat screen TVs. They hide illegal satellite dishes in water towers, and watch ESPN.
Maite’s cousin pays someone for internet access. The cousins have Facebook — “but they get on at like 3 a.m., with a dial-up modem,” Maite says.
There is plenty of night life in Havana. Young people go to bars — one is called the Yellow Submarine — and the famous Tropicana night club is still around. It looks good, Roy says.
The Marmelos spent most of their time in and around Havana. Each relative spent time entertaining them. They did take a side trip to Maite’s mother’s old beach house, and drove by Fidel and Raúl Castro’s ranches. (Photos were forbidden.)
The Marmelos are back now in Westport. The kids are sorting out everything they saw and did. Their parents thoroughly enjoyed the family reunion. They’ve got hundreds of photos, and souvenirs like a couple of paintings.
No Cuban cigars, though. Roy says getting them through customs is too much of a hassle.