Cherie Cancio, a 28-year-old Cuban American living in Miami, was horseback riding in Pinar del Rio in February with some friends when she met a campesino on a tobacco farm.
When she introduced herself, she said she was American, but that her father was Cuban. The farmer insisted she was Cuban too.
“You look Cuban, you sound Cuban, your father’s Cuban – you’re Cuban,” he said to her.
“That’s the first time someone on the island really embraced that,” she told The New Tropic, noting that she’s been to Cuba once or twice a year for the past several years.
Now she’s set out to help other Cuban Americans have that same feeling of re-connection with their heritage.
Cancio, a community relations professional, founded the CubaOne Foundation with attorney Andrew Jimenez, former consultant Daniel Jimenez, and public relations professional Giancarlo Sopo. The nonprofit offers other young Cuban Americans a free trip to the island to build their own relationships, not filtered through the lens of their parents or grandparents. They see it as a kind of Birthright Israel, but for Cubans – the program that brings young Jewish-Americans on free 10-day trips to Israel has created new generations of Jews who feel a connection to Israelis.
The program is for Cuban Americans between the ages of 22 and 35 who haven’t been to Cuba recently. But this is no Carnival cruise. They’ll spend time with Cuban peers, particularly entrepreneurs, meet relatives, and visit the places their family members grew up.
“For so many young Cuban Americans, their point of reference with Cuba are the stories they’ve heard from their parents and grandparents and we believe its healthy and helpful for every generation to be able to reconnect with their culture and return to the island and build relationships with the Cuban people,” said Sopo.
There are many in the Cuban exile community who are far from convinced normalization is the right way to go, but Sopo says that they haven’t had much pushback.
“I think some of it has to do with the fact that we’re young. It’s clear we don’t have a touristic motive, which is what bothers older Cuban exiles,” he said. “We have a genuine mission to help young Cuban-Americans connect with their past… that’s a mission that finds broad appeal in the exile community. I’m sure there are some more conservative members in both Miami and Havana who may not like that, but we feel what we’re doing transcends politics.”
The idea clearly appeals. CubaOne got more than 400 applications for its few dozen spots in the first 72 hours.
“What we’re looking for in applications is Cuban Americans who have a compelling narrative,” Cancio said. “We’re looking for applicants who want to go and connect with peers on the island, who show some potential for bridging those connections, whether through projects or continuing the conversation.”
(Sound like you? Apply here. The deadline for the first trip is May 14.)
Obviously free trips aren’t sustainable in the long term. Sopo calls these first few trips a “proof of concept.” If the first few are a success, next year CubaOne will begin seeking financial support from outside organizers. But for now, it’s the four founders paying their way – a bold investment from a couple 20-something and 30-somethings, and a pretty clear sign that they thing the warming relations we’ve seen with Cuba are here to stay.