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Some said their exile parents avoided talking about their Cuban homeland when they were growing up or said it was too painful; a few said their parents weren’t happy when they found out they would be joining a small group of Cuban Americans intent on seeing for themselves the island that had always been a backdrop to their lives.
But for better or worse, a group of eight young Cuban-American creatives with careers in the arts, fashion, writing and marketing headed to Cuba April 21-27 on a trip organized by the Miami-based CubaOne Foundation. The nonprofit provides free 7-day, people-to-people trips to Cuba for next-generation Cuban Americans who are 22 to 35 years old.
Those in the most recent CubaOne group had their own intensely personal reasons for visiting an island that their parents left and that many of them had never seen firsthand.
For Ceci Fernández, an actress who grew up in Hialeah but now lives in New York, it was important to explore how her family’s memories had become her own. Straddling an ocean, she hoped, would help “put in a missing piece to my work that I’d struggled my whole life to find.”
Rebecca Carriero, who manages communications for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said at this point her family has lived longer in the United States than they did in Cuba. “We are getting farther and farther away from who we are,” she said. “Some of this is by choice; my grandma says thinking about Cuba is painful. Some of it is just what happens with assimilation.”
But one thing she’s sure of is that a Cuban American can’t be Cuban without any sense of the island. “If you don’t know who you are, anyone can define you,” said Carriero. “Identity is a complicated thing.”
“We don’t want Cuba to be black-and-white photos for young Cuban Americans; we want it to be names and faces of friends and family,” CubaOne says on its website. Participants are accepted by application only and must be committed to building relationships with the Cuban people.
Since its first trip in June 2016, CubaOne has sent more than 100 people to the island.
“We’ve been extremely transparent with both governments” about the trips, said Giancarlo Sopo, one of CubaOne’s founders and spokesman for the foundation. CubaOne doesn’t rely on the Cuban government to make contacts for its groups and participants stay in casas particulares, which are private bed and breakfasts.
Not only did the CubaOne travelers come back with a better understanding of themselves and their families’ reality, but they returned with contacts and ideas for collaboration and engagement with their Cuban peers, participants said.
“If anything, I came back more proud of who I am and where my family came from,” said Andrei Santalo, who lives in San Francisco. When he was growing up, he said his family hardly talked about Cuba and he never connected with his Cuban heritage in “any shape or form.”
During the trip, Santalo, who works on Instagram’s strategic partnerships team, gave a training session on the use of social media to about 70 private Cuban entrepreneurs. The seminar was his idea and had nothing to do with his employer.
He found the Cuban cuentapropistas (self-employed workers) eager to learn how they could better promote their businesses and grow their audiences. Some of their issues were technical. Given the limited bandwidth and other data issues in Cuba, they wanted to know how they could post more videos.
Danny Díaz, the public relations and marketing director for the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, also bonded with Cuban cuentapropistas. He found it was pretty typical for them to have a day job and maybe “three side hustles going,” he said. “I thought that was incredible.”
“I hope to connect the cuentapropistas with our membership here,” he said. And he’ll be seeing some of the Cuban entrepreneurs soon because they plan trips to the United States this spring.
Díaz, whose parents arrived in South Florida in 1969, says he’s usually pretty guarded when he travels and sticks with his group. But he said the “people were fantastic” in Cuba and made engaging easier.
He also made a few personal connections when he stopped by his mother’s old home in the Marianao section of Havana. All he had to go by was a business card from the 1960s for an outdoor furniture business that his grandfather used to run out of the house.
But the numbering system had changed since then and he initially went to the wrong home. Eventually he found the house and even met three people who remembered his mother.
At first the woman who currently lives in the house didn’t want to let him in, but she warmed to him and they struck up a friendship. Her daughter is autistic, and Díaz plans to send her information he has gathered on the condition.
When Díaz first told his parents he was going on the CubaOne trip, they were “not too thrilled,” he said. But once he came back and started talking about his visit to his mother’s old house, “it opened up a great conversation about the people of Cuba.”
“They still have no interest in going back. We’re lucky to have a great life here, but I think it is important for our younger family members to go,” Díaz said.
Now his plan is to return and visit his father’s old home. Díaz said he also might collaborate with some of his fellow CubaOne travelers to work on projects in Cuba.
The goal of this trip — which included stops in Viñales, the tobacco producing region of Pinar del Río, and Havana — was to meet as many cuentapropistas as possible and hook the Cuban Americans up with people in their own fields, said Sopo.
Future trips, Sopo said, will focus more on opportunities for Cuban Americans to share best practices with their Cuban counterparts. The next trip later this year will explore multiculturalism and religious traditions in Cuba.
The group visited small businesses, an organic farm, a private cultural center in Pinar del Río where kids learn to paint and dance, a painter, Clandestina — a private design and fashion workshop in Havana that now sells its products online in the United States, and the Fábrica de Arte Cubano — a Havana exposition and performance space.
Joe Jenovese met with the entrepreneur behind La Marca, a Havana tattoo parlor. Jenovese and his wife run Y.A. Bera Clothing, a company that focuses on the classic guayabera shirt but remixes it with modern touches such as snap-down collars, roll-up sleeves and hip decorations.
Jenovese, who is Miami born and raised, hopes to collaborate with La Marca to come up with a collection using tattoo-inspired designs and also work with other Cuban artists and designers on future projects.
After starting the trip in Viñales, which has an almost magical landscape of exotic limestone formations, caves and greenery, Jenovese said coming to Havana and seeing the poverty and decay was something of a shock. “Everyone told me it was a complicated place, difficult to understand,” he said. But he thinks Cuba can change and engaging with the Cuban people is “without a doubt” the way to go.
Before he left, Díaz said his parents warned him that people in Cuba wouldn’t want to talk about many things. “I thought people would be very censored. I found them to be very open,” he said.
That is except when the topic was Cuban politics.
Even though the group visited Cuba during a historic time — days after Raúl Castro retired from the presidency and Miguel Díaz-Canel replaced him — they found most Cubans weren’t eager to talk about the transition.
“For me it didn’t feel like it was a topic for the people of Cuba,” Jenovese said.
When the change in power infrequently came up, Fernández said, the usual reaction from Cubans the group encountered was “shrugs, eye rolls, then the conversation ended.”
But she said, “They had big opinions about opportunities.” She concluded that a major difference between herself and younger Cubans is that “I have options, choices.”
As an actress, she said, she’d like to work with Cuban actors and intends to call on theaters in New York to see if they would be interested in some type of collaboration. “I’m thinking Shakespeare,” said Fernández, whose mother left Cuba in 1962 on a Pedro Pan flight from Camagüey.
She said that prior to her first trip to Cuba, her memories of the island had come from fuzzy black-and-white photographs. “Suddenly those memories became mine,” said Fernández. “That was spectacular. It’s so worth everything.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi