Cuba was a romantic image in my mind. It is the place my grandparents grew up, and I wanted to go to connect with my Cuban roots—a part of me that always felt like a big question mark.

Return To Havana

By Arielle Aquino
Mar 11, 2019

I’ve traveled extensively, but there was one stamp noticeably missing from my passport. Cuba was a romantic image in my mind. It is the place my grandparents grew up, and I wanted to go to connect with my Cuban roots—a part of me that always felt like a big question mark.

I imagined a family reunion filled with dancing and music and food, and my grandparents telling us about the old Cuba. But for my family, the emotions that are tied up in Cuba are complicated in ways I can’t begin to understand. My grandparents left a glamorous, cosmopolitan Havana in 1958 and never returned.

I wanted to travel with my family to their home country, but few were interested. Cuba was too painful. No one wanted to go except for my grandmother and brother. It was supposed to be a trip for the three of us, but then, of course, everyone realized the significance of it and wanted to join as well. In the end, it was to be 16 of us, most of whom had never been.

As it got closer, my grandparents’ visas kept getting delayed. My grandfather’s arrived the day before we were departing, but my grandmother’s visa never came. When we got home, my grandmother said what hurt her the most was that she missed my face as I saw Cuba for the first time—“I wanted to see it through your eyes.”

Cuba is vintage cars and cigar factories, but it is also decaying buildings and scarcity. Cuba left me feeling incomplete; there was so much information and history I felt I was missing as I walked the crumbling streets. Cuba is tragically beautiful. It is also warm and kind and hopeful. I wanted to know everything, but in 5 short days, I barely scratched the surface.

This year I’ll return with just my grandmother, the way the trip was supposed to be. I need to see her Cuba. 

Photography by: Brian David Smith