Letter from a Cuban-American Millennial: Keep the doors to Cuba open.

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I do not speak on behalf of the Cuban exile community. How could I? Everyone has their own wounds and their own history.

All four of my grandparents are Cuban exiles. One was on the plane President John F. Kennedy sent back to the United States before landing in the Bay of Pigs. His cousin, who was on the plane that landed, spent seven years in prison. I will never understand what they went through; I have never been in a position to have to leave everything behind because of the fear of being imprisoned or worse.

Nothing can take this pain away. The cuts are too deep. All I can do is I carry their pain with me, which is why I feel so attached to an island they no longer call home. It is not my grudge to hold. I only hope to offer a different perspective- that of a 21 year old third generation Cuban American.

My passion for Latin American studies led me to pursue a semester exchange in Brazil and visit multiple Latin countries, none of which I could call my own. I took this inherited pain and turned to my university, where Prof. Lillian Guerra, a brilliant Cuban historian, helped me begin to foster my own Cuban identity.  I learned and read and wrote about Cuba’s history and the idea of this “stolen destiny,” but nothing could emotionally prepare me for my 10-day cross-country heritage trip, organized by Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope).

I was able to visit Jose Martí’s grave, walk down the street where Frank País was shot, and stroll the malecón where my grandparents fell in love over 50 years ago. These were the experiences I had mentally prepared for.

What I did not expect was to run into three teenagers on their walk home from the wi-fi park, blasting music from an open laptop in the dark streets of Santiago, laughing and dancing their entire way home. It was in this particular moment I realized how safe I was, and continued to feel this security at all hours of the night in every place we visited, something I thought was impossible for a young woman like myself.

I would have never expected to do the photoshoot of my dreams in Old Havana with an incredible 19-year-old photographer, Alejandra, and Lupe, one of only three Cuban models who walked the iconic Chanel catwalk on Prado. The most shocking experience of all, however, was one that happened to Kristian, who was part of our group. After tracking down the apartment his family used to own, Laura, his unknown cousin, answered the door. Just like that on a sunny Wednesday in Las Tunas, a family was reconnected.

Cuba is a country of contradictions, as beautiful as it is destroyed. One moment your heart is shattered by the aftermath of forced separations of families and the next you’re surrounded by so much love and laughter it’s overwhelming. I cried on the drive into Havana seeing the amount of garbage on the streets and the conditions of once stunning architecture. Prior to visiting I constantly spoke about how special it would be to go with my grandparents and wanted to push them to open their minds to going back.

Now that I have been, I understand their hesitation, and I will never push them to return unless they want to. The Cuba they left is gone and it will never return.

It’s 2017 now, and although Cuban-Americans and Cubans on the island have grown up under very different governments, I ran around Havana with two Cuban girls my age and we laughed about the same things and connected the way any Millennial would. It may be too late for my grandparents to reconnect, but the window has just opened for my generation.

We must separate the state from the people. They are two different entities and have existed separately for decades through their culture of Cuban ingenuity. Foreign travel to the island has created a middle class Cuba has not seen in decades.

According to Negolution’s latest issue on tourism, of the 613,000 US visitors to the island in 2016, 54 percent were Cuban Americans, and in the first two months of 2017,  there was a 125 percent increase in U.S. visitors. This presents an incredible opportunity for Cuba’s private sector. Doctors and lawyers who once made less than $20 a month are now making 150 times that amount as taxi drivers or by opening their homes as bed and breakfasts. No, this is not perfect, nor is it what these people deserve, but it’s a start.

It is time to take control of Cuba’s destiny, and we should do so on and off the island by promoting these connections. During my trip I was able to connect with young Cubans and some were shocked to learn I wasn’t from the island because we spoke and danced so similarly.

That is what travel to Cuba is all about – opening the dialogue to share each other’s stories and build relationships that can and will exist 90 miles apart. We cannot forget the past, but we must move forward and put the blame where it belongs, not on the people.

The doors are open in Cuba, literally and figuratively. Pa’lante.