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Retracing Cuban heritage in Old Havana

Restored structures abut crumbling buildings in historic city center


In her café-con-leche-flavored memories, she knew she was of Cuban heritage, but she knew nothing of Cuba.

My wife, Eileen Santa Cruz Osinski, grew up in Ybor City, the Cuban-American enclave of Tampa, Florida. Her ethnic identity had none of the bitterness of ideology or revolution, just the sweet, milky mixture of family, food, music and faith.

To her, being Cuban meant eating Tio Roque’s bollitos (fried balls of ground chick peas), roast pork, black beans and rice, platanos (plantains), or savoring Mama Gloria’s croquetas de hivas (crab croquettes) and flan.

Even though her family name goes back nearly four centuries in Cuba, Eileen never bothered to attach historical weight to it. She never spent much time wondering what her ancestral homeland might be like. She couldn’t go there anyway.

But things have changed. Restrictions on travel to Cuba have been relaxed. And a recent trip to see family in Boston piqued her interest in family history. When a cousin proposed a family trip to Cuba late last year, we both said yes.

A frosty piña colada can do wonders for dissolving the rigors of travel. We made this welcome discovery upon our arrival, when we were served the fruity cocktail amidst the palms and bougainvillea in the garden of our host, Adis Pereira Diez. She operates the casa particular, La Lore, where we stayed, in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Casas particulares are government-licensed homes, where foreign tourists can stay.

Dinner followed at Rio Mar — chauffeured there in a vintage ’47 Chevy — where we had a table overlooking the bay. We relished a fine meal of lobster, red snapper, carpaccio and malanga fritters. We went home fortified for the next day’s activities.

Old Havana, Havana Vieja, was our first stop, as it is for nearly everyone who comes to Cuba. This part of the city is 497 years old. At one corner of a cobblestone square, we found La Catedral de la Virgen Maria, (Cathedral de Havana) the church where Pedro Santa Cruz, the first of the Santa Cruz line in Cuba, was married in 1631. The church has been extensively rebuilt since Pedro’s day, but it is still an impressive symbol of the faith imported to Cuba by the Spaniards.

The home built by these early Santa Cruzes still exists. Down a side street from the Plaza Vieja, a large plaque on an otherwise unremarkable wall marks the entrance to the Hotel Beltran de Santa Cruz. The place may have qualified as a mansion in early centuries, but it has been restored as a boutique tourist hotel today.

Habana Vieja was declared part of “the cultural heritage of humanity” by the United Nations in 1982. Intensive preservation and restoration efforts have been under way since then. Some blocks are delightfully walkable, while others have pockets of rubble and neglected streets. The Cuban government does not have the funds to do all that is needed, according to our walking tour guide, architect Universo Garcia Lorenzo. “Every week, two or three walls collapse in these buildings,” he said.

Our next destination was in a Havana suburb, a marvelous place with nearly 54,000 residents, all deceased. The 135-acre Cemeterio Colon was established in the 19th century, the last throes of the Colonial period. It appears as though the wealthy Cuban families tried to outdo each other in paying tribute to their departed loved ones. Sculpted angels, madonnas and Christs form a skyline of stone stretching toward heaven. There we found the last resting place of some of Eileen’s relatives, whose remains had been unceremoniously relocated to unmarked graves to make way for more recent inhabitants.

A highlight of our visit to Havana was a tour of the Partagas Tobacco Factory. We watched workers patiently roll some of the 300 or so cigars they would make that day. As we sniffed the aromatic wrapper leaves that had been marinated in water, we were reminded of Eileen’s family member’s cigar factory in Tampa.

Havana may be the capital of Cuba, but Cienfuegos, located on a bay on the southeastern side of the island, is the “Paris of Cuba.” After a three-hour drive past fields of sugar cane and villages where horses were a predominate mode of transportation, we arrived to find Moorish mansions along the bay and a clean, open central square so different from Havana’s closed-in plazas. The facades of the buildings surrounding the square were highlighted by fresh plaster and bright paint. Even drivers of the vintage taxis took delight in their rides; the owner of a pristine pink Plymouth convertible popped the hood to show off the car’s original engine.

As we traveled around Havana, we were acutely aware that we were floating in a layer of comfort superimposed over the poverty of most of the Cuban people. At the restaurants where we dined, the food was uniformly excellent, the ambience memorable and the prices slightly below the rates of good restaurants in the States. But they mostly served tourists, not Cubans.

Cuba needs foreign currency, and for now, almost all tourists must change their currency into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs). The exchange rate while we were there was 1 CUC for $1. But in terms of the local currency, one CUC is roughly equivalent to 25 pesos, the basic currency of the country. To give you an idea of how far that goes, a chateaubriand for two cost $30 at one place we ate, which translates into about 750 pesos for locals. So, people with pesos in their pockets simply don’t eat at fancy restaurants.

The Cuban government supplies health care and education to all, but salaries are uniformly low. We met municipal court judges and university teachers who earn the equivalent of only $40 per month. Most people we met said they wanted to stay in Cuba and be part of its future, but among the younger professionals, there was a what-has-the-Revolucíon-done-for-me-lately feeling.

“Cubans will sacrifice for many things – for their families, especially,” said Anna Leyva, a former magazine editor. “But for Big Brother? No.” Finding the basics of life can be hard, she said. “People don’t eat well, because they can’t afford it. It’s cheaper to smoke and drink than it is to eat.”

My lasting memory of Cuba is the malecón, the seven-mile long seawall along Havana’s north shore. It has been pounded for centuries by the ocean – just as the Cuban people have been pounded by colonial overlords, dictators and revolutions – yet it still stands, as does Cuba.

For Eileen, the impact has been much more personal.

“I saw my personality reflected in the spirit of Cuba,” she said. “I’ve been touched deep within to discover more of who I am.”

If you go

A passport that is valid for at least six months after date of travel and a Cuban visa or tourist card are required for entry into Cuba. The visa can be obtained through a Cuban-licensed travel agency as part of a tour package, or at the airport before departure. Be aware that travel regulations and prices in Cuba are changing rapidly. For example, recent relaxation of travel restrictions from the U.S. has caused some travel agencies to cut prices, while in Cuba, some hotels have recently raised prices dramatically.

How to get there

Southwest and Delta both offer regular flights to Havana from Atlanta.

Tour groups

Cuba Cultural Travel. “People to People” tours focused on cultural highlights of Havana, but can be customized on request. Cubaculturaltravel.com.

Center for Cuban Studies. Cultural and sociopolitical tours, specializing in art and architecture. Cubaupdate.org, 212-242-0559.

Accommodations

La Lore. Casa Particular, a home licensed for tourist visits. 6605 Ave. GNA, Miramar district. $50-75 per night. www.havanacasaparticular.com

Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Calle 21 at Calle O, Vedado district, Landmark luxury hotel, hotelnacionaldecuba.com, 537-836-3663, $330 and up.

Restaurants

Rio Mar. #11 La Puntilla, Miramar, Caribbean, seafood, marvelous ambience, entrees $18-28. 537-209-4838

Justo Al Carbon. Aguacate #9, Old Havana. Entrees $15-35. 537-863-9697

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