After a welcome thaw in US-Cuba relations, much about the island 90 miles from the Florida Keys is once again uncertain.
Hurricane Irma inflicted severe damage. Mysterious illnesses have afflicted American embassy personnel in Havana. President Trump has pledged to roll back President Obama’s policies of openness.
Which, says Maite Hernandez, makes this the perfect time to visit.
The Westporter’s parents were born in Cuba. When Fidel Castro took over, they fled to Miami. They soon moved to Puerto Rico, which reminded them of home.
Maite Hernandez and her father Tony.
Maite grew up among her parents’ Cuban friends. She learned to love their food, and heard stories about their homeland.
In 1997, she and her siblings visited Cuba for the first time. She felt like she was home. She met cousins who had never left the island. Immediately, it felt as if they’d grown up together.
She returned twice, in 2011 and 2013. Every time she leaves, she feels as if a piece of her heart remains.
Westporters are curious to learn more about Cuba. They’re fascinated by what they hear: the 1950s cars, the art nouveau and art deco architecture, the beautiful beaches.
Cuban architecture …
They tell Maite they want to visit before things change. Yet, she says, they don’t know how to go there, or have concerns about political implications.
She has an easy answer. Her brother Sixto is the founder of Cuba Travel & Scouting; she’s the Northeast representative. Utilizing family connections, the company offers tours that don’t adhere to government-imposed choices of sites, hotels and restaurants. Each tour focuses on Cuba’s rich history, natural beaaty and architectural wonders.
Westporters who have traveled to Cuba appreciate the experience. Emily Blaikie calls it “one of the most magical places I have ever been. The people are lovely. So are the sights and sounds. And the food is delicious.”
“06880”‘s tagline is “Where Westport meets the world.” Maite Hernandez wants her neighbors and friends here to know that — despite all the bad news recently — a wonderful world awaits them, just a short plane ride away.
“06880” is not in the business of promoting upcoming art exhibits. There are too many worthy ones — how can I single out any?
But rules are made to be broken. Two upcoming events are well worth your time. Both have local roots — and are also of global interest.
“Westport to Cuba: Building Bridges” takes place at the Saugatuck Congregational Church on Friday, January 6 (5 to 8 p.m.). Over 50 large photos will be displayed, from the church’s mission trip last June. This is a great way to see one of the world’s most fascinating and quickly changing countries, through the eyes of 25 Staples High School students and 15 adult chaperones.
A poster for the Saugatuck Church exhibit shows the 1970s-era, Partridge Family-style bus the Westporters used during their trip to Cuba last June.
The next day (Saturday, January 7, 12 to 4 p.m.), the Westport Historical Society hosts an “Art to the Max, Now or Never” sale and celebration. It’s the last day of their exhibit about Max’s Art Supplies, the iconic downtown store that drew together Westport’s artists’ community, which in turn influenced American illustration.
Original art — from some of the over 70 famous artists and cartoonists in the show — will be on sale.
(PS: If you haven’t yet seen the exhibit, go! There’s a recreation of owner Shirley Mellor’s classic corner of the store, a replica of the famous clock — and a sampling of the amazing art displayed in Max’s window during the store’s fantastic 4-decade run.)
“Shirley’s corner,” at the Westport Historical Society. (Photos/Miggs Burroughs)
The 24 teenagers and 15 adults did not do as much “work” as usual. This was more “cultural immersion,” says youth group coordinator Dana Johnson.
They visited an orphanage, churches and families whose children have disabilities. They did plant coffee, pick and peel “thousands” of mangoes, and moved bags of sand at a construction site.
…and moving bags of sand.
They also went to Varadero Beach, a favorite spot for Canadian and European tourists.
But mostly, they forged what they hope are lasting friendships.
The Saugatuck Church group rode around in an old school bus, emblazoned with “Pastors for Peace.”
…and a peek inside.
Wherever they went, Cubans waved. “They’re so happy to see Americans,” Johnson says. “We felt like rock stars.”
One woman excitedly handed her baby to the female travelers. She could tell everyone that Americans held her child.
At a seminary in Matanzas, a pastor asked them to pray for him, and his country. “He was excited that the blockade has been lifted,” Johnson explains. “But he’s worried about the future. Capitalism can be precarious. He’s concerned that income inequality will widen.”
The teens and adults spent only a couple of hours in Havana. Mostly they were in Matanzas, and outlying villages. Though Matanzas is a big city, Johnson says it felt like something from “a different era.” Horses and buggies roamed the streets; farmers sold eggs and bread from bicycles.
A dusty road.
Before the trip, Johnson says, the teenagers thought their task was to help people.
They realized quickly, though, the power of simply meeting other people, and hearing their stories.
“Our kids came away feeling that they’d been helped,” Johnson notes.
“When we debriefed each night, they talked about not judging people until you listened to them.”
Listening, and learning.
The Cubans do not need help, she adds. “They just need their stories to be heard and validated. The kids got that. I think they came home more willing to hear other people’s stories.”
Sharing food, and stories.
Rev. Alison Patton (2nd from right), with old and new friends.
Saugatuck Congregational Church mission members kick up their heels in Cuba. (All photos/Mark Mathias, Marion Yingling and Miggs Burroughs)
Skies were dark at 3:30 this morning, but Saugatuck Congregational Church was brightly lit.
Parents and religious leaders saw nearly 40 teenagers and adults off. They’re headed to Cuba, for a week of working with disabled youngsters, helping out on a pineapple plantation, and discovering Cuban history and culture.
Posted onAugust 23, 2015|Comments Off on Stephen Wilkes And MLB’s Cuban Connection
The thawing of relations with Cuba has led to many new opportunities, in that country and here.
Among them: a chance for a new generation of baseball players to make it to the Major Leagues.
Westport photographer Stephen Wilkes — who recently received a grant from the National Geographic Society to document national parks — decided to focus on the current crop of players. They defied tremendous odds to reach the big leagues.
Wilkes’ photo essay appears in today’s edition of the New York Times Magazine. Click here to read the story — and see the pros, through our neighbor’s eyes.
(Hat tip: Russell Smith)
Comments Off on Stephen Wilkes And MLB’s Cuban Connection
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.
The Marmelo family, in Cuba.
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.
A 1950's car, in 2012 Cuba.
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.
Andres Marmelo saw plenty of eye-opening sights in Cuba -- including Che Guevara's face on the Ministry of Interior in Havana. The building proclaims "Hasta la victoria siempre" -- "To victory always."
“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.
A toll plaza on the coast celebrates 53 years of revolution.
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