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Homing Instincts

I had been in Havana less than three days, and already I was arousing suspicion. The taxi driver glanced over his shoulder at me as we rumbled along a crowded downtown street, wondering how such an obvious foreigner could sound so Cuban.

“Where did you learn your Spanish?” he asked. He had reason to wonder. My clothing was cleaner and newer, my skin smoother and paler, than those of any of the people my age milling about on the sidewalk.

“I was born here,” I explained. “This is my first time back since I was 3 years old.” The driver pondered this a moment. “You left when you were only 3? Ah,” he mused, “then you‘re hardly Cuban at all anymore.”

It was nearly dusk, and clouds of dust and diesel smoke tinted the air brown, making the crowds and the crumbling neoclassical mansions we passed seem fuzzy and surreal.

Through the dirty window I saw the faces of those who might have been my classmates, neighbors, boyfriends. I tried to picture myself among them as if I had never left, hustling home exhausted by the sheer difficulty of life with a few plantains and a bit of black-market pork.

“I’ve always liked to think I‘m Cuban,” I told him. “But I don’t know.”

I‘ve never known. Children of immigrants are really two people, the one who is and the one who would have been. Ten years after the revolution, complaining of long lines and little opportunity, my parents left their homeland. Like most immigrants, they wanted to give their progeny a comfortable life. So they came here, making me a different person in the process.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, Cuba was little more to me than a myth, a shadowy world of black and white that existed only in old photographs. There were photos of our house in Havana, of me playing with my first friend next door, of my grandmother -- a stranger who wrote saying she loved me -- cradling me against mildewed walls. None of these images seemed real, not even the gray baby everyone said was me.

I returned this summer, traveling from Tijuana because of a U.S. government ban on tourism to Cuba, bracing myself for an emotional impact when I arrived. The morning after I landed, I opened my hotel window and looked out past the weathered rooftops at the Caribbean, repeating, “I’m here, I‘m here” like an incantation. Nothing happened. I could have been anywhere.

So tonight in the taxi I carried a few old photos, determined to breathe life into them. A few miles from downtown, we turned off the main thoroughfare onto a narrow street lined with decaying colonial houses, all of them huddled close, as if for comfort. Relics of a more prosperous time, some looked as if they had not seen paint in decades, their once stately faces pocked with crumbling plaster, their graceful iron gates rusted through. The driver stopped in front of one that was painted a faded green. I had seen this house in pictures a million times, but no one had ever told me it was green. “Calle Lacret, number 65,” the driver announced.

Old women stared from their front porches as I got out. Maybe they had watched me as a baby, but now I was a stranger, someone to eye with suspicion. I stood in front of our old house a long time, holding a faded photo of my family posing outside, all of us gray. No one seemed to be home. But there were lights on next door, and I recognized this house, too, from photographs. I knocked on a heavy door flanked by dirty marble columns and it soon creaked open, revealing a heavy older woman, her hair in curlers.

“Buenas noches,” I started uneasily. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I lived next door when I was little. My name is Leslie. My family moved to the United States.”

The woman stared at me intently. “Leslita? You‘re Leslita?”

I nodded, producing a photo of her daughter and me as toddlers on a seesaw.

The woman covered her mouth. She began crying. “Ay, dios mio! Leslita!” With that she flung her big arms around me. A younger woman rushed out to see what the commotion was. She was chubby, with long black hair and a cherubic face the color of nutmeg.

“Lolita,” her mother cried, flopping me around like a doll. “Do you remember your first friend? Leslita, from next door?”

Lolita looked dumbfounded. “Is it true?” I nodded. Her mother kept sobbing.

“Can you believe it?” her mother cried. “After all these years, she has come home!”

These last words settled on me like magic dust. I noticed the bright-yellow tile of the front porch where we had played as babies, the lush green of the tropical plants surrounding us, the warm, brown glow of Lolita’s face, smiling at me for the first time since early childhood. A lifetime‘s worth of gray myth was coming alive in vivid color all around me. Perhaps Cuba was no longer mine, but it was real.


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