The roads in El Cerro, like the roads in much of Havana, are pricked with potholes and bumps and are prone to flooding. They’re crisscrossed with tangled power lines, and they smell of rust and tobacco. El Cerro ranks among the poorest neighborhoods in a city full of them. But of all the stops I want to make in Cuba, this is the most important.
Our driver bobs over the uneven asphalt in a yellow Chinese taxi, looking for 405 San Pablo, between Mariano and Clavel. I know we’ve found it when, on a glass panel above the front door, I see the initials “JR” shining in the morning sun. They stand for Julio Robla, my great-grandfather. The “tap, tap, tap,” of a metal knocker on old wood echoes in my ears. I’ve been sent to Cuba to understand the role of faith and religious freedom in a country long thought opposed to such liberties. But I’ve also waited my whole life to come here, to stand and knock, to find some part of myself.
Fifty-six years, two months and 23 days earlier, my mom, my uncle and my grandparents left Cuba for Miami. They were among the final departures of the Camarioca boatlift of 1965, which brought some 3,000 Cubans to the United States. Now, I’m the first among them and their descendants to return. The others have refused to venture here as long as the revolutionary regime remains unchanged. As my mom puts it, “Why would I want to go back when they never wanted me there?” I’d always vaguely understood that position. But I thought my own detachment from their firsthand experience might insulate me.
My family had been hopeful that Fidel Castro and his rebel army would restore the Cuban constitution that had been abandoned by dictator Fulgencio Batista when he took over the country via coup d’état in 1952, but they quickly grew concerned about the authoritarian nature of the new regime. They refused to join the Communist Party, which led my grandfather to resign his post as a captain in the Cuban navy and my mom’s classmates to call her “gusano” — literally “worm,” but contextually akin to “traitor” — for not wearing the red beret and neckerchief available only to children whose parents acquiesced. Perhaps because I never experienced those consequences directly I harbored a lifelong curiosity about the island a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida, yet as seemingly impenetrable as any place on Earth.
Growing up as I did, eating pastelitos de queso at birthday parties, speaking Spanish with my grandma — who, at 91, still speaks not one word of English — and taking salsa dance classes, you can’t help but feel more Cuban than American. My favorite food is a Cuban hamburger called a frita. My tan, linen wedding suit was made by a company named Cubavera. In Miami, when you come from a Cuban family (or even a half-Cuban family, like me) you’re surrounded at all times by Cuban culture — or, at least, what Cuban culture once was.
Yet Cuba itself remains mysterious. A sort of forbidden mirror of the Cuban exile community. I always thought I was missing something. Like to understand what it really means to be Cuban, I had to get past the distorted reflection in Miami; to see Cuba itself. My suspicions grew when, upon landing in Havana, the entire plane inexplicably burst into spontaneous applause, myself included. I wanted to understand why. And that, I figured, started with seeing what my family left behind.
No one answers when we knock the first time, so my guide and I knock again. This time, a woman’s voice calls back from inside. These meetings rarely go well. Today’s Cubans often feel threatened by people who return. They sense these visitors are there to claim land or property long abandoned and, for that reason, they slam the door. Or so I had been told, and so I’m thinking before the voice calls me over to a glassless window frame.
From behind rusted iron bars and frayed wooden blinds, the voice asks what we want. My guide and I do our best to explain something so imposing and strange — that I’m the grandchild of the family that used to live in this house, and I want to look inside.
The blinds pop open. A pair of brown eyes stare back at my blue ones.
Fidel Castro was well on his way to victory when my mom was born in September 1958. His rebels — including his brother, Raul, and a then-unknown Argentine doctor named Ernesto “Che” Guevara — had invaded Cuba’s southeastern shore in early December 1956 aboard a yacht called the Granma. They reached the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they recruited peasant farmers disgruntled by government corruption and American favoritism. The force kept growing, hidden from Batista’s army, until it was too big to stop. During the early morning of Jan. 1, 1959, Batista fled, and Castro’s troops marched into Havana. Castro himself arrived a week later, clad in rosaries, the liberator of Cuba.
Castro was a product of Catholic education, having attended the long-standing Colegio de Belén — a school run by Jesuit priests in Havana since 1854. Nevertheless, he declared Cuba an atheist state soon after taking power and feuded with the Catholic Church. On May 1, 1961, he announced a new law that would nationalize education, and on May 13, all the Jesuits at Belen were forced out. Many of them eventually settled in Miami, where they reestablished the school — the same school I graduated from in 2014, 69 years after Castro.
Many religious people fled Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. My family was among them, though they didn’t flee specifically for religious reasons. For them, the last straw came when my mom’s uncle, Julio, was jailed.
A string of bombings at the electric company, where he worked, swept him up. According to his daughter, Lourdes — my mom’s cousin — Julio was arrested for “contra poderes del estado”; basically, as an enemy of the state. His crime was, supposedly, aiding the counterrevolutionaries who carried out the bombings by acquiring supplies for them. The verifiable historical details get murky here, so let’s just say that according to family legend, he was sentenced to three years in prison (that part is definitely true) because he was found to have not provided the aid, while his co-workers who did got 30 years, and the actual bombers were executed. He served part of his sentence, carried out between 1965 and 1968, slicing sugar cane in the fields near Santiago, and part of it at La Cabaña — the Spanish fortress-turned-prison where Guevara spent five months as Castro’s commander in charge of revolutionary justice. Upon Julio’s release, he’d tell stories of guards rounding people up late at night and hearing them scream “Viva Cristo el rey!” — “Long live Christ the king”— before the sounds of gunfire and bodies falling on stone.
My mom once visited La Cabaña with my grandmother and great-grandmother. They brought Julio empanadas and clothes in shopping bags. Unbeknownst to my mom, this was her last chance to say goodbye. Soon, they’d pack up a suitcase with a single change of clothes each, and my mom’s Mariquita Perez doll. They drilled holes in the bottom of their bedroom door and stuffed them with bills, still entertaining the idea that they’d return some day. They spent several weeks at the small fishing town of Camarioca, awaiting word from government workers about when they could leave, all the while eating a daily serving of lentejas — lentils — from the communal cafeteria. “That is why,” my mom says, “I have a horrified aversion to lentejas.”
On Nov. 22, 1965, their ferry finally left Camarioca bound for Key West. Along the way, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel brought over some snack boxes with water, chewing gum, cookies, apples and sandwiches. “Nobody had seen a sandwich — or bread — in I don’t know how long,” my mom says. “It was a feast.”
Gone from my immediate family’s view, Cuba’s state atheism lasted decades. Over time, however, the government’s approach to religion evolved. That evolution offers a useful road map for understanding the evolution of Cuba itself. Because even as the country began accepting people of faith, that opening often came with a price.
A price my family knows well.
“Hijo de quien?” the woman in the window asks. “Son of who?” I tell her my mom’s name. I tell her that the “JR” above the door stands for Julio Robla, my great-grandfather. Suddenly, this faceless woman becomes my family’s personal historian. How’s Valladares? she asks about my grandfather. Hectico, Lourdes, Julito — she knows all their names, all the uncles and cousins long since gone. She invites me inside.
Her name is Tania. She has black hair streaked with gray, held in a ponytail by a lime-green scrunchy. My family doesn’t know her, I would later learn, but they know her aunt, Josefita, who lived on the bottom floor when my family was here. Tania would have been very young in 1965, and she would have lived in the countryside. But she knows my mom very well, it turns out. Because when my family left, she inherited my mom’s toys. Cuban property rarely changes hands, so eventually, Tania moved to her aunt Josefita’s home with her mother, Pascuala, and the two of them still live there today.
Cubans generally struggle to pronounce my name. Most settle on “EH-than” or “EH- tan.” Curiously, Tania is the first Cuban I meet who pronounces it exactly like my grandma — “EE-ssen.” “Que sorpresa,” she adds, smiling at me from behind her white COVID-19 mask. “What a surprise.”
I’m similarly surprised to find the house in excellent condition. My great-grandfather built the bottom floor in 1928 and added the top floor around ’45. Outside, chipped sections of paint and groupings of dirt draw all the attention — as you’d expect for a building nearing 100 years in a place where paint and pressure cleaners are nearly impossible to find. But inside, the teal walls and floral tile look almost new, if a tad dusty. A small chandelier dangles from the living room ceiling. The place hasn’t changed much, she tells me, and she’s trying to keep it in the best shape she can.
That’s the story of homes across the island: People trying to maintain or rebuild with scarce resources. Many buildings fester in full decay, with supportive beams of wood bending beneath the weight of crumbling concrete. Tourists like me often don’t see that, as I’d learned a few days earlier.
I’d set out for Varadero with my guide and a driver. The famed beach, about two hours east of Havana along the well-maintained (aside from wandering cows and horses) Villa Blanca highway, extends north into the Gulf of Mexico on a narrow peninsula. It’s often ranked among the best in the world, with turquoise water, powder sand and open space. My mom has a picture of herself there when she was 10 months old. My grandma talks about it like nothing else compares. I had to see it for myself.
I already figured I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. Not fully. Cuba’s economy functions on a sort of tourism apartheid, where folks like me have access to things regular Cubans don’t. In one meal, I ate three things — shrimp, beef and fish — that average Cubans can’t afford. So while I wanted to see one of the most treasured parts of Cuba, I also wondered whether I’d be able to escape my own privilege, my own guilt.
On the way, our driver spotted a new-looking Ford F-250. It was white, and its bumper sticker suggested it came from a dealership near Washington, D.C. That’s rare in Cuba, where the U.S. embargo makes new American cars pretty much impossible to find, much less afford. “That has to be the relative of a general,” my guide said. He and the driver went back and forth expressing disbelief.
Indeed, I hadn’t seen any newish American cars in Cuba until that moment. How it got in was a mystery to all of us, though as they said, it must have involved some major favors. My guide had already brought up George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which is unofficially banned in Cuba. “I don’t know how that guy saw into the future,” he’d told me, “but it’s like he was writing about Cuba.” Upon speeding past the shiny truck, he cited it once again. “All animals are equal,” he told me, “but some animals are more equal than others.”
As we approached Villa Blanca, he suggested we make a stop. His aunt, uncle and cousin lived right off the road. If I wanted to see the real Cuba, he told me — the kind that would be forbidden if he were working as an official state tour guide, as he once did — then I should stop in. So I did. I hopped a small metal barrier onto the front porch, where a friendly little dog jumped on my leg. Cinder blocks painted white formed the spine of the home, which we entered through a rusted metal door. Two box-shaped TVs rested in a corner of the living room. A frayed red curtain served as a bedroom door. His aunt offered us coffee and scrambled into the kitchen to put it on the stove. His uncle sat in a wheelchair at a small table, sipping from a plastic yellow coffee cup. He offered to tell me anything I wanted to know — about the revolution, the “special period,” the current situation, all of it. Only when he turned toward me did I realize he didn’t have either of his legs. When he talked, he squinted, and I could hardly see his eyes.
He was a big fan of the revolution when it triumphed, he told me. He was just 12 then, and for many years the island’s Soviet relations ensured relative material stability. Plenty of food, everything was affordable. Then the Soviet Union fell, and Cuba felt the full force of the U.S. embargo; he almost winced at remembering the shortages and suffering. He helped many people build makeshift boats, he said, in an efforts to flee to the U.S. during the 1990s and early 2000s, when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the seas aboard homemade rafts to escape. And he lectured at length on how the embargo makes life miserable. “No ha ayudado a nadie. Es terrible,” he said. “It hasn’t helped anyone. It’s terrible.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was a big fan of Barack Obama, and his new era of relations with Cuba. Perhaps just as unsurprisingly, he wasn’t a fan of Donald Trump, and his policies that undid much of what Obama had done. Trump screwed everything up, he told me — in less- kind language.
Back in the car, I asked my guide what he made of his uncle’s view of Obama, Trump and Cuban-American relations. He disagreed. Echoing the very same arguments that rage in American political circles, he said the root of the problem is not the embargo, but the Cuban government. If he was an American politician, he added, he would favor the same iron-fisted approach; he simply doesn’t trust Cuban assurances that foreign investments and trade with the U.S. would trickle down to the people. Cooperation, therefore, entrenches government power without tangible benefit. The changes Obama brought, in his view, were largely artificial. We passed a crowd of dozens waiting at a bus stop. “The Cuban way,” he called it.
We eventually made it to Varadero, which felt like a slice of Miami. A new resort grew near the entrance. Homes featured fresh paint and up-to-date maintenance. We even came across a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rally. It was a beautiful place — one that I could visit and appreciate, while most Cubans can’t. My guide said that if he ever managed to buy a car, the first thing he’d do is pile in his family and bring them there. But for now, that remains a far-off dream. “Esto es otro mundo, chico,” he said as we drove past the strip of restaurants along the coast.
“This is another world, man.”
Back at 405 San Pablo, Tania offers a tour of the downstairs dwelling. She leads me to the back, where a concrete courtyard opens up. She has a few potted purple flowers and crotons growing in one corner, which she hopes to expand into a full garden. Beside the door leading back inside, she’s assembled scaffolding out of stripped tree trunks and two-by-fours. I follow her through the bedrooms, through the living rooms, which feature some familiar artifacts: A pendulum clock; green leather chairs with ovular red armrests; a mahogany cabinet, all dating from the days my family lived here. As Tania moves toward the cabinet to retrieve something she wants to show me, I notice something that isn’t here: Religious artifacts.
My family was never too religious back then. Though my grandfather had grown up across Havana harbor in Regla, home to one of the most unique churches in the world: Nuestra Señora de Regla — Our Lady of Regla. It’s officially Catholic, but many, if not most, of the people who go there to worship are not Catholic. They practice a religion officially known as the Regla de Ocha, commonly called Santeria. It originated with African slaves, who disguised their faith by adapting their beliefs into a Catholic framework, resulting in a syncretism where Catholic symbols represent Yoruba gods. Our Lady of Regla — a depiction of the Virgin Mary with a Black face and a blue robe — represents Yemayá, the god of rivers and water. So this Catholic church, located steps from the harbor, is actually a functional shrine to Yemayá.
Perhaps living near this place is why my grandfather made regular reference to a Santero phenomenon known as “el sereno” — a vague, superstitious phrase that basically translates to condensation or mist in the air, especially at night; avoiding it meant avoiding ill health effects or even death. All that, despite the fact that he was Catholic. Though he left too early to really feel the consequences of that affiliation.
Indeed, family members that stayed in Cuba after my mom and grandparents left, like cousin Lourdes and uncle Julio, bore the brunt of the overt religious discrimination that accompanied the early revolution. After the Jesuits and other religious leaders were forced out, many believers were driven into hiding. Lourdes told me about her family’s quest to worship covertly. “We used to hide to go to church at the beginning,” she says. “We decided that we had to go, so we did. ... But we were not in a good place. Because the thing was, if you were going to church, then you weren’t communist.” And if you weren’t communist, you were an enemy of the revolution — or so the thinking went.
Over time, that approach changed. Petra Kuivala, a scholar of history, religious studies and Cuban studies at Harvard, says churches were working behind the scenes to undo their tense relationship with the Cuban government for decades before they saw results. Protestant churches, according to one longtime minister I spoke with, led the way.
“There is a process of 25, 30 years of finding new common ground,” Kuivala explains, “from religious institutions to state institutions to deciding the terms and parameters for a shared coexistence.” Those talks bore fruit in the ’90s, during what Fidel Castro dubbed Cuba’s special period. After the fall of the Soviet Union, which Cuba relied on for trade, an epidemic of poverty and material scarcity overtook the island, leading to various reforms. In 1992, Cuba amended its constitution to declare itself a secular state, rather than an atheist state. A 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II signaled a new phase of the revolution’s approach to religion. For the first time since the early ’60s, even the Catholic majority was free to worship.
“The before-and-after moment for religion in Cuba is Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998,” says Michelle Maldonado, a former professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. “Folks trace that as the moment when we saw a distinct opening, and a much more public opening.” But this opening was not a free-for-all. Today, barriers to religious liberty take a more covert form.
Before I flew from Miami to Cuba, I visited Colegio de Belén President Father Guillermo Garcia-Tuñon, known to most as Father Willie. He grew up in Miami and presides over the school, but he’s also of Cuban heritage. We met at his sports-themed office. His homilies when I was a student were known for references to the 1972 Miami Dolphins, so I’m not surprised to find football helmets and bobbleheads crowding his desk. It’s worth noting that the Cuban exile community in general has the sharpest of axes to grind against the Cuban government, and its hatred of anything the regime does can border on irrational. That said, from what I saw in Cuba, Father Willie sums up the religious freedom question perfectly.
There are basically two schools of thought, he said. One holds that maintaining dialogue with the Cuban government keeps certain doors open. “They may be limited,” he says, “but it gives them an opportunity to do something and be there and be of service.” The Catholic Church, since the Pope’s visit in 1998, has moved toward this position, as have most religious leaders on the island.
The other school believes in speaking out against the government as a core component of liberty — religious or otherwise — at the risk of retaliation. By now, many such believers have been pruned, usually by forced exile. “The one interesting thing about the Castro regime is there was never a severe, violent persecution of priests and nuns, like there may have been in places like China or the Soviet Union,” Father Willie told me. “I can’t think of any priests or nuns that were killed or incarcerated for long periods of time.”
China offers an interesting comparison point. According to Pew’s religious freedom index, which plots countries on axes of social hostilities and government restrictions, China is the worst country in the world in terms of state prohibition of religion. Cuba isn’t ranked well — it’s the lowest-rated country in the Americas — but it ranks far better than China, and above places like Israel, Russia and Singapore. In that sense, Cuba really has more religious freedom than it once did. But is “more freedom” synonymous with freedom itself?
I’m reminded of Paco Rodés, a Baptist pastor I met in the port city of Matanzas, about an hour and a half east of Havana. He’s 79, with short white hair and ears that stick out just enough to notice. He’s been at the First Baptist Church of Matanzas since 1965. These days, part of his strategy is to give the Cuban government credit when it does a good job — for example, with new laws or with hurricane preparedness — rather than insist on constant criticism. Therein lies the tension of religious freedom in Cuba, and indeed around the world: Is the church really free if it operates only at the will of the state?
“They know that if they speak up, life will become very hard for them,” says Carlos Eire, a Yale historian and religious studies professor, of the ecclesiastical leaders who take this more diplomatic route. “Their prime objective is to create a space where at least some people can be religious. But they’re all painfully aware of the fact that those people are going to be paying a price for it.”
Despite a crumbling roof in the sanctuary itself, Matanzas First Baptist still appears very much alive. Tapestries and watercolor paintings decorate the walls. The wellspring is even more obvious next door at the Kairos Center, founded in 1994 to bridge the gap between Protestant worship and Cuban culture. It serves as a sort of community center, with a purified water station available to anyone; a communal dining room; a proliferation of paintings from local artists; and a garden of flowers and medicinal plants.
“We have a place in this city, in relation to the arts,” Rodés told me. I followed him up an orange tile staircase to his small, beige office, where a portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a poster of Gandhi’s “Seven Deadly Social Sins” hung on the wall. This place, I thought, was exactly what religion could be in Cuba: a force for communal good.
Yet when Rodés left his office to use the bathroom, I was once more reminded of what Father Willie, Eire and others have observed about such religious flourishing: Like the crumbling houses of Havana, such institutions can only stand as long as their support systems allow them to. Which is why, even here, a 20-something man with a short beard and a “California” T-shirt poked his head inside. “Communism is bad,” he told me. “Don’t let them fool you.”
Tania opens up the mahogany cabinet and pulls out a dusty old photo album. Most of it features pictures of her own family — of people I don’t recognize. But there! There it is! Nearly at the end of the album, on the top-left corner of the page, there’s my mom! She’s probably two or three years old, wearing a feather headdress for some reason, but that’s her! On the same page, I notice Hortencia and Julio Robla, my great-grandparents — the man who built the house where we now stand. I show Tania some pictures of my own, brought from Miami. Of my mom, grandmother and grandfather in this very same place. She covers her mouth with her hands and smiles behind her mask before leading me up the turquoise staircase, to the living quarters my mom once called home.
The only thing that’s changed up here is the kitchen. Even the bathroom, with its blue tiles trimmed with black and its white porcelain fixtures, is the same — and it shines like new, too. In what was once my mom’s bedroom, I walk past a black sewing machine that my grandmother once used to tailor dresses. In the living room, I try out the rocking chair that my mom’s cousin famously tumbled out of, and that my great-grandfather often took out onto the balcony. And on that balcony — where my mom recorded her earliest memory, sitting on her own little rocking chair — I look out at the neighborhood.
Some things, like the bodega half a block over where Tania tells me my family used to shop, remain intact. Some things, like the house across the street now reduced to random walls of cinder blocks, roosters running free in their midst, do not. I follow Tania back down the staircase, where a thin wire runs along the wall. That wire, I realize later, connects to the lock at the front door. My family installed that a lifetime ago so they wouldn’t have to go all the way down to let visitors in. And there it is — still here. This is why people — even people who have never been here — clap upon landing in Cuba.
Cousin Lourdes explained it well. She left Cuba when she was 20. So, unlike my mom, she spent most of her formative years on the island. She’s no fan of the government or the current situation, but when I ask her about the clapping, she surprises me with simplicity: They applauded “because they are happy to come back,” she says. “Most of them are homesick.” And if it wasn’t for the passport laws that make it difficult for people born in Cuba to visit, she would like to go back, too. Because when you’re Cuban — or Cuban American — Cuba still feels like home, like a part of yourself. Potholes and bumps and all.
I follow Tania up the street to the old Materva soda factory, which these days looks like a rust museum. My great-grandfather once worked here, helping make what was then sort of Cuba’s own Coca-Cola. The company still exists in Miami, but the product remains unavailable to most Cubans here. Staring up at the ex-factory, with its rusted white water tower and cracked concrete walls, Tania trips backward in a small asphalt crater. She tells me she remembers they used to have a slogan printed on all the cans: “If you drink, don’t drive. And if you drink, drink Materva.” I tell her they still print the same slogan. She laughs. She smiles. I laugh. I smile. I wish I had a can to give her.
We walk back toward the house, and outside we find Conchita, another woman who knew my grandparents. “Eran como familia,” she says. “They were like family.”
Before I get going, Tania has something to say. “Yo siento alegría. El bisnieto de Julio Robla está en la casa que él construyó,” she tells me. “I feel joy. The great-grandchild of Julio Robla is in the house that he built.” She smiles, and she pulls me in for a hug. She asks when I’m leaving. When I tell her the next morning, she pouts. Next time I’m in Havana, she assures me, I’m welcome to stay for free, to eat their food. I don’t know whether that day will ever come, though I’d sure like it to. Such is the paradox of exile: You want to go, but you know you shouldn’t. You want to enjoy it, but you can’t. As long as the tourism apartheid remains intact, it’s hard to justify journeying back.