Revisiting Havana

Marlen Quintana, a Cuban-born Miami resident, feels strong ties to her homeland. She left Cuba when she was only 8 years old, but her memories of the childhood she left behind — marked by conflicting feelings of ideological repression and youthful freedom — remain vivid. I went to Havana with my camera in late November to retrace the places and events of Quintana’s childhood. These photos portray the Havana of her past as it is today. This is her story.

“I loved growing up in Cuba,” she recalled wistfully. “I got to explore on my own and play outside with other kids without being constantly monitored by my parents. I might have missed out on these experiences if I had grown up in the US.”

“I remember hot days in uniform at my elementary school when I was 7 years old,” she said. “We would have morning assembly where we would put up the Cuban flag, sing the national anthem, and listen to poems about Fidel Castro while his picture hung on the wall.”

Quintana also lived through the dark side of that kind of fervent nationalism. “My dad left Cuba when I was 4 years old. Back then, those who left the country were labeled gusanos [worms], and were harassed and humiliated,” she said. “My mom initially told me my father left to another province, but when she eventually told me he had gone to Miami, I had to keep it to myself. Because I knew my dad had left, I didn’t agree with communist ideals — but I also knew that I couldn’t voice my opinion publicly. I felt like I had to put on a show.”

But Quintana had plenty of memories of great times, as well. “When I was little, we would go to this little stretch of rocky coast called Playa de 16,” she said. “It wasn’t really a beach; it was more like a rocky coastline. We would put on old sneakers, jump in the water with my uncle’s snorkel gear, and navigate the rocks looking for fish, octopus, and sea urchins.”

Her family made do with what they had in the midst of crisis. “I had a garden with my grandmother in front of our house where we planted flowers, a rose garden, and fruit trees. We also planted vegetables for extra food, as it was the Special Period in Cuba, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a severe economic crisis and serious food shortages. We would get by on our small government rations, the food from our garden, and remittances from my dad in the US.”

She recalled, “I would go to my mom’s work after school, and they would have atomic bomb drills at a park called Parque de los Ahorcados [Park of the Hanged]. During the drill, we would walk to these bunkers in the park that were made during the Cold War, and just stand there — that was the drill.”

I went to this park and couldn’t find the bunkers — maybe they had been overgrown. What I did find were Greek-style columned walkways, friends just kickin’ it, and beautiful tall fig trees with hanging vines paying tribute to the park’s dark name.

“I remember going to my aunts house in Old Havana,” she said. “When we wanted to go up to her flat, we would yell out to her, and she would come out on the balcony and throw the keys down to us.”

In Old Havana today, this remains a common occurrence.

The Malecón, a long seawall running along the Havana coastline, is a cultural landmark in the city, and also a popular hang out spot. At night, the Malecón is alive with families, lovers, wine vendors, and the warm sounds of reggaeton and salsa.

“In 1994, when the Cuban government allowed people to leave the country freely, I remember going to the Malecón to see people leaving for the United States on rafts,” she recalled. “Not only because it was a spectacle, but because some of our family were pushing my mom to leave by sea and reunite with my dad.”

Quintana and her mother reunited with her father in Miami in 1995, 4 years after he left. They now live in Coral Gables.