By Miguel Perez
Think of the house of your childhood, the one that you haven’t seen in many years but still brings back very good memories. And then consider that it has been turned into a police station and that the bedroom you once shared with your brother is now the cell. There are bars on your bedroom door!
Think of the other house, the one on the farm where you were born, and then consider that it has been turned into a secret military school. Nowadays, no one knows what really happens inside the gates of a farm you remember as a picture-perfect place to grow up—paradise on earth!
Would you like to go home to see that again? I would. It sounds like a good plot for fiction, perhaps a good movie, right?
Wrong. It’s my life story. I was born in La Salud, a small town in the Havana province of Cuba. The house is real. I saw it again on a video just the other day.
What is known now as the Maximo Gomez School is what I remember as La Finca Gladys (The Gladys Farm), named by my grandfather after one of his three daughters, my aunt Gladys. I remember it as the land confiscated by Fidel Castro’s Communist regime after my family was forced to flee from Cuba in the early 1960s. After supporting Castro’s rise to power, my grandfather had been jailed for opposing the regime’s march toward communism.
I was only 11 years old when I left the house and the farm that have since become a police station and a military installation, and I never have returned. As a way to honor the sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents when they brought me to the United States and saved my life from decades of Communist repression, I have vowed to stay out of Cuba until my homeland is free.
But for the past 46 years, with each passing second, I have longed to see La Salud again. There is no other place I rather would visit than that very poor agricultural community in the heartland of Cuba.
Yet every time I get a glimpse—whenever someone visits Cuba and comes back with a videotape of my birthplace—I get terribly depressed.
The failure of the Castro dictatorship is nowhere more evident than in those sad images.
While the rest of the world has progressed tremendously in the past five decades, my hometown has regressed at least a century. You see widespread poverty. You see more horse-drawn carriages than cars. You see streets that never have been repaved and homes that have turned into shacks. You see people who have lost their fighting, entrepreneurial spirit. Gone are most of the bodegas, pharmacies, bar-restaurants and many other businesses. You see a once-thriving community now on the verge of becoming a ghost town.
The images are too painful to watch, yet I keep reaching out for more glimpses of my birthplace. It is human nature: When you can’t have something, you want it even more. And so I keep hoping to see more videos of La Salud, especially if they show images of the police station that was once my home and the military school that was once a beautiful farm and my childhood playground.
Unfortunately, fearing a repressive reaction from regime officials, most of the Cuban-Americans who have visited my town have been reluctant to videotape even the exteriors of government installations—except for the fellow who recently managed to shoot video of some of the farm from the bell tower of the Catholic Church, the tallest structure in town, which gave me the opportunity to see the farm again.
Think of a fenced and very safe jungle of trees bearing all sorts of tropical birds and fruit, a magical place that brings you wonderful memories. That’s how a portion of the farm where I grew up in the 1950s was, but it was leveled and replaced with dorms for military students.
I know. It sounds like fiction too far-fetched even for a movie. But it’s my life story, and among Cuban-Americans, it’s not unique.
When they return from visiting Cuba, most Cuban-Americans say they have been through very traumatic and depressing experiences. And the rest of us share the feeling just by watching their videos.
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