20-year-old reconnects with Cuban roots
By Bill Maxwell
Since the United States initiated an economic embargo on Cuba in the 1960s, more than a million people have fled their homeland. Many have settled in Florida, leaving behind property and relatives.
Bitter divisions developed over time between those supporting the embargo aimed at bringing down Fidel Castro and those opposing the embargo on the belief that normalizing commerce and travel between the countries would end communist rule.
Today, a young generation of American-born Cubans is poised to chart the future of the country. Michelle Morenza, a 20-year-old political science major at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is a member of this generation.
Born in Miami's Little Havana, Michelle has never known a day free of Cuban influence. But it was not until April, when she traveled to Cuba with her 72-year-old grandmother, that she experienced what she calls her "Cuban-ness."
Her grandmother was born in Cuba and immigrated to Florida when she was 20, but she returned to her homeland every year to maintain ties with relatives. As Michelle matured, the grandmother wanted her granddaughter to accompany her to Cuba.
Michelle's parents had objected until this year, when she convinced them that the trip would be educational. The honors program director and her professor had approved her proposal to write a research paper about communism in Cuba today if she went.
"Now, I would be able to meet my Cuban family and learn about one of the last and longest-surviving communist regimes," she said. "I knew that this trip would be politically and culturally eye-opening. The first two days were the most difficult. I was definitely in culture shock."
For the first time, she had to express herself only in Spanish. A bucket of water was heated for her on a stove so she could bathe, and her bedroom had only a fan for cooling. She shared a bed with her grandmother.
"I had to forget my American comforts," she said. "I had a month ahead of me, and the days were already feeling long."
During the first week, she played the tourist with an uncle and other relatives, visiting waterfalls, bathing in rivers, swimming in hotel pools and eating in fine restaurants.
As the novelty of sightseeing wore off, she felt the brunt of life in the island nation. Her grandmother was seriously ill, and the effort to get decent medical treatment for her gave Michelle an intimate view of the country's universal health care system.
In Miami, her grandmother received dialysis three times a week at a nearby center. On the trip to Cuba, she traveled a long distance for treatment twice a week. The family had hoped to get the grandmother treated at the local hospital, but the dialysis machines were broken, and there was a backlog of patients. They wound up going to the hospital in Santiago, an hour's drive.
Michelle's American independent side showed when she had "a heated discussion" with a hospital director about conditions.
"Hygiene was nowhere near the level it is in the United States, and many people were on waiting lists despite the seriousness of their illnesses," she said. "There is a lack of distribution of resources in Cuba. Knowing that Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez receive medical treatment there, it's obvious that a higher quality is possible. Although everyone is promised health care and receives it, the government isn't concerned with quality."
Michelle believes the dismal conditions in Cuban hospitals, along with problems in many other areas, are partly the result of the embargo.
"The embargo is an outdated grudge," she said. "At first, the embargo made sense. America didn't want the Soviet Union aiding a nation 90 miles offshore. Now, the embargo doesn't make sense. Economically, the United States would benefit greatly from trade to Cuba. Politically, once Americans can freely travel to Cuba, Cubans will begin to understand the meaning of democracy because they will have more opportunities to interact with American citizens."
Through her grandmother, Michelle learned to appreciate the love and nostalgia so many older refugees in Miami have for their homeland, and she learned to appreciate her own Cuban identity.
On April 6, Michelle, her grandmother and other relatives were driving to Santiago for an outing. As they entered the town of Contramastre, the grandmother had a heart attack and died in the car. Contramastre was her birthplace.
Michelle learned that her grandmother had told her sister-in-law that she was going to Cuba to die.
"She wanted to be in the land she was born in," Michelle said. "She actually never left Cuba. I understand it now. I understand myself better now, too. In learning about my Cuban family, I learned about that half of me. I learned how to actually live in the moment, how to have fun and how to be fun.
"I woke up with a rooster's call and lived without a cellphone and connectivity. I learned how to live happily with a bucket of water."
Michelle is back in Miami. Her dream job is to be a diplomat or an ambassador. One of her goals is to help resolve the half-century-old conflict between Cuba and the United States.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. For more stories, visit Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).