May 26, 2002

Cuba From the Porch

By Daisy Hernández
Daisy Hernández is co-editor of the forthcoming book, "Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism."

Watching former President Jimmy Carter tour Cuba recently reminded me of my first time on the island two years ago. Of course, we went under different
circumstances. I wasn't invited or followed by the media. And although Carter's been around longer (I was in preschool when he had the White House), I already
knew many of the things he presumably went to learn. As the American-born child of a Cuban exile, I grew up knowing what Carter said in Cuba: "It is time for us to
change our relationship and the way we think and talk about each other."

Such a change, however, won't happen by just having political leaders visit the island. It will have to occur through conversations between ordinary people in both
countries. It was by living among my Cuban relatives and talking with them that I got to really know Cuba. But the U.S. embargo, with its travel restrictions, makes
such direct contact difficult for most people. While Carter was well-intentioned, his visit still keeps the dialogue stuck between heads of states that have been arguing
for decades.

Unlike Carter, I had a personal agenda in visiting Cuba. I wanted to see for myself where my father grew up. He had left the island in 1961 and returned only once in
the 1970s after marrying my Colombian mother. He had worked for years in American factories and become a thin man with a small beer belly beneath his white
guayabera. Insisting that Cuba has only poverty, he refused to travel with me. "You can't understand," my father tells me now. "Neither can that Jimmy Carter. You're
not Cuban."

But I was Cuban enough for the State Department, which allowed me to board the direct flights from New York to Havana. It's been more than 40 years of
bitterness, but takes only three hours to reach the island from New York. The flights leave at three in the morning and are restricted to those with family in Cuba or
permission from the U.S. government.

I was the youngest adult passenger. Everyone else on the flight had grown up in Cuba, was over 50 and was either visiting a mother or new grandchildren. Next to
me, a woman in her 60s with blond-dyed hair was carrying a bag of adult diapers for her ailing mother in Havana and "this good sausage from that Jewish deli in

Once in Cuba, I was privileged because I could pass for native in a place sharply segregated between locals and tourists. In Havana, with my dark hair and eyes, I
rode the Cameo, a long pink bus attached to the front section of an 18-wheeler and I got my hair cut at a shop without a state license. These black-market
businesses, prevalent in Cuba, are spots Carter couldn't have on his itinerary but that showed me how many people struggle to earn a living.

And while Carter enjoyed great banquets with Castro, I had another experience with food. Early one morning, my cousin said, "C'mon, I heard egg on the street."
We took her ration card and ran to the shop where eggs, bread and beans were distributed. But there were no eggs, even though she was sure she'd heard a
neighbor shouting that eggs had arrived. There was a striking similarity to me between people eating on rations or earning a living on the black market in Havana and
working three minimum-wage jobs in New York to feed their families.

I also saw where my father was raised in the countryside, the hills and sugar cane fields, the mango trees and one-room houses without running water. While Carter
had more than 150 reporters taping his every word, I had no phone to use with Tío Lucas, the uncle who raised my dad. So I pressed my Walkman close to Tío
Lucas' good ear and he heard my father's taped message from New York. "I'm sending you my daughter," my dad said. "And a white cowboy hat." I flipped the tape
over and recorded Tío's words back to my father: "You're bald in the picture she brought. You're getting old."

Sitting on his front porch, I told Tío how my father still smoked cigars, and he told me how my dad had hid cigarettes as a teenager. We talked about the revolution,
communism and blue-collar jobs in the States. Our countries have been trapped in an ideological war, but Tío Lucas, who was in his 90s, and I were at ease. We
wanted to hear each other's stories.

Trips like mine won't be common any time soon, given President Bush's vow last Monday to tighten the U.S. embargo. Limiting visits to leaders like Carter or
humanitarian-aid groups just makes it easier for both sides to not change. It's not the same as letting ordinary Americans and Cuban Americans travel there. U.S.
officials expressed fear of Cuba's possible bioterrorism while Carter was away, but their biggest worry has to be that ordinary people in both countries, if they ever
met, might have things in common.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.