My Cuba, Then and Now

By Juan José Valdés, The Geographer at National Geographic, and the Director of Editorial and Research at National Geographic Maps

Some of the world’s most historic and picturesque cities are instantly identified by their nicknames — The Big Easy, The City of Light, The Windy City, to name a few. Then, there are those cities whose monikers are more closely held. La Ciudad de las Columnas (The City of Columns), the name eminent Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier gave to Havana, is among them.

The Valdes home, taken the year Juan left Havana at age 7.

Just last month (and more than a half century since my parents put me on a plane to escape the tumult of the revolution in 1961), I helped lead a National Geographic Expeditions trip to Cuba. Though I had returned to my homeland once before (on an Expeditions trip about a decade ago), this time I promised myself that I would experience and savor the Havana of now instead of focusing on the La Habana of my past.

Carpentier did the city justice with his choice of words. In Havana, columns abound. But the more I photographed them, the more I began to notice the doors behind the columns. Here was another universe indeed. Shapes, colors, functions each with its own story. Which Spanish marquis had crossed these thresholds? Did Hemingway admire the wooden portals that lure passersby into the cool inner sanctums of these stately homes?

As the days passed, I became increasingly captivated by Havana’s doors. And, despite the promise I had made to myself, I began thinking about the door to my childhood home. Life has been kind to me since I left the island unescorted at 7 years old — one of thousands of Cuban children who make up the so-called “1.5 generation” in the U.S. — but my past still lingers there, unfulfilled.

Was the house still there? Did it look as I remembered it? And so, in wink of eye I hailed a taxi and told the driver, Eduardo, of my quest. When we arrived at #20 Continental, Sevillano, it took me a few moments to recognize it. I walked to the front door, the very one I had run out of countless time as a child, to ask permission to photograph my long-ago home.

Valdes at his childhood home, 50 years after leaving Cuba.

After a few knocks, an elderly gentleman opened the door. After I introduced myself and explained my purpose for being there, he graciously beckoned me to come inside — a step I was not yet prepared to take.

As I was backing up to photograph the exterior of the house, I heard the man call out to his neighbor, “There’s a bald man with a white beard at my front door who says he once lived in this house. Do you know who he is?” The next thing I heard was a collective shout from the doorway of the house next door: “Juan José!…Where have you been for the last 50 years?”

Fifty years indeed.

On our flight out back to Washington, D.C., where I have since made my home, I saw the city grow smaller and smaller as we climbed high into the air. I sat there in my seat looking out the window at miles and miles of blue ocean below and thought, Havana might be known as La Ciudad de las Columnas to some, but for me, it will forever be La Ciudad de las Puertas (The City of Doors).

Last year, under Juan’s leadership, National Geographic produced a new map of Cuba, its first comprehensive rendering of the Caribbean island nation since 1906. Learn more about his story.

Comments

  1. John McAuliff
    United States
    May 3, 2012, 6:10 pm

    A lovely story. Confirmation that President Obama has taken important first steps on travel.

    Now if he could just open the door a bit more so that all Americans could travel freely for non-tourist purposes, by granting the same kind of self-attested general license for people to people travel that he gave to Cuban Americans.

    The group trips are great. They are a good introduction and provide unusual access to Cuban institutions. However, they are more expensive and confining than independent travel which would allow families and backpackers to use the public bus and train, rent cars and pick up hitchhikers, and stay in privately owned bed and breakfasts.

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  2. thebhunter
    USA
    May 3, 2012, 11:03 pm
  3. Humberto Capiro
    Los Angeles, California
    May 4, 2012, 7:36 pm

    I TOOK A SIMILAR TRIP, BUT 30 YEARS AFTER I LEFT CUBA IN 1969 AS A CHILD! I VISITED MY OLD HOUSE, SAW MANY OF MY EXTENDED FAMILY THERE! WE SHOULD NOT BE HYPOCRITICAL AND ONLY ASK PRESIDENT OBAMA FOR EASIER TRAVEL TO CUBA (you can go easily legally & even illegally) BUT ALSO THINK OF THE CUBAN PEOPLE TOO WHO ARE PRISONERS AT THE WHIM OF THE CASTROFASCIST OLIGARCHY AND ALSO ASK FOR THEIR FREEDOM OF TRAVEL! HAS THERE EVER BEEN A LEADER OF CUBA NOT FROM THE CASTRO CLAN? JUST THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A MINUTE!

    HAVANA TIMES : The (Non) Right of Cubans to Travel -Haroldo Dilla Alfonso-February 1, 2010-

    The situation in Cuba concerning the freedom to travel is unfortunate. What I’m describing here is not for Cuban readers (who are all too familiar with this issue), but for those who are unaware of the matter and are forced to accept the information of those who close their eyes to this flagrant civil rights violation, a veritable wedge driven between the Cuban nation made up of both émigrés and those residing on the island.

    Above all, travel for Cubans is not a right, but a legal privilege. It is a condition that can be granted or rescinded. It is a revocable concession by an unappealable power and is without a defined judicial framework.

    In all cases, the departures of these people imply considerable fees that can end up in well excess of US $500, an immense sum for a population with exceedingly depressed wages that average $20 a month. In short, to leave, each person must be able to pay for a letter of invitation, a passport and an exit permit.

    On top of this, once in the destination country, the traveler must make payments to the Cuban embassy in that country a sum that varies each month they remain in that country, which is a highly uncustomary practice. This sum fluctuates between $40 and $150 a month.

    There are no laws or clearly written regulations covering these processes; rather, there are arbitrary and discretionary practices that mix starkly fascist reins of political control with mercurial motivations of the worst kind. In this way, the Cuban government denies a right that it alternately sells to those who can afford it.

    But we must pay them, and pay them well, so they can continue reproducing their power with the same parasitic style they’ve displayed over the last fifty years.

    CLICK LINK FOR ENTIRE ARTICLE!

    http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=18972

  4. Manny Cabrera
    Miami
    May 7, 2012, 11:13 am

    Beautiful story, yet painful!…..A whole people divided by an evil ideology (Communism) and a tyrannic regime! I too yearn for the day I can see the house when I grew up in a FREE CUBA!!!!

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