Amargi; ancient Sumerian word for “freedom” and “return to the mother”
My grandmother, Julia Suarez Gonzalez, is otherwise known as “Mima” by her children and grandbabies, “Villa” by her parents and brothers, and “La Caballa de Batalla” by anyone who knows her hope and resilience. Thoughts of her conjure thick clouds of garlicky steam to rise out of deep cauldrons of memory, the black sea of regret and image of our island, the big, lost bean floating smack in middle of the Americas. Growing up we’d drive nineteen hours from Chicago to San Antonio to see her and find a powerful patch of Cuban soil in the lone star state. Her dingy one bedroom served as our lifeline to a culture and family off-limits, floating a-world-away. Much was lost in the process, but Mima delivered us to freedom. With the help of the Cuba One foundation, I was able to return to her motherland and discover the family we lost.
Her Alzheimer’s began to drastically intensify around the time the Obama administration began to normalize relations with Cuba in 2014. It got so bad that she forgot who we all were and what we mean to her. She could no longer take care of herself, so my father regretfully packed her things and moved her into hospice care. It completely rocked the family, especially my father. We suffered our own dementia as divisions emerged and our unity declined along with our Caballa. A new bridge burgeoned between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in fifty-six years, yet Mima’s legacy of hope, resilience, and unity through hardship was melting away with the memory of our matriarch.
My father and I visit her, and like any Cuban of her era, she always reminds us where she is from and rattles off the names of her grandparents, parents, and brothers; her pride and identity still clear in her memory. She remembers lyrics to her favorite songs and conversations she had with her brothers as a little girl, singing and re-living them before our eyes. Her mind is stuck in the past. Often she calls out for her mother. Mostly, she misses her Lolo, the handsome little brother she raised and looked after, but had to leave in Havana. Although she left Cuba, the motherland never left her.
I started the application process for Cuba One and began writing about my experience and relationship with my Cuban roots. I interviewed my father and asked him questions about the past, a painful topic sometimes avoided in our family. He started coming over and we’d listen to Mima’s records, cook her recipes, and remember our legacy and heritage. Slowly, through re-engaging and opening a dialogue, some of the heaviness and contention in the family began to feel a bit lighter. Then in October I was accepted by Cuba One and became the first member of my family to re-visit the island since fleeing in ’68. My father gave me Lolo’s address in Havana, and I boarded a very short flight with nine of my Cuban-American peers.
Cuba was a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s an island of contradictions. I’ve tried to fully understand it, but it’s an exercise in futility. The only constant I can see is pain, loss, and regret. So many families have been broken up and so many divisions still reign. But, despite the hardship that has beset the island, Cubans around the world made sense of their pain and loss by hanging on to hope and staying resilient. When you’ve fallen out of grace before, you know how to claw your way back up into freedom again.
Meeting Lolo and my cousins, aunts, and uncles changed my life and opened me to a past that I didn’t know much about. I learned they had lost contact with Mima a few years before her Alzheimer’s began. Her brothers worried about her and longed to speak to her. When they face-timed, I realized my purpose in going to Cuba was to re-unite my grandmother and her brothers one last time before she passes. After almost eight years of no contact, she recognized their voices immediately and was overjoyed.
As sons and daughters of exiles and immigrants, we’re responsible for digging up the past, digesting the good and bad from our heritage, and cultivating a new cultural identity and vision for the future from the ground up. How can we truly appreciate the refuge we’ve found in America if we don’t remember what our mother’s fled? Although, our ancestors don’t define us, we’re inextricably tied to them. Their remembrance can help us avoid repeating mistakes. Returning to the motherland helped ground me in my identity as a Cuban. By re-discovering my past, I became firmly rooted in my present and found a deep responsibility and motivation to help my two nations prosper and move forward. I hope more Cuban-Americans like myself have the opportunity to return and continue the dialogue between our two nations. In a world of increasing complexity and interconnectedness, we must return to our mothers, the magic of our ancient lands, our only hope.