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Dear Mr. President:
Your trip to Cuba is a dream, a miracle, a revolution to me. Never did I dare to fantasize that in my lifetime a sitting U.S. president would be shaking hands with Cuban officials at José Martí Airport — the airport my family used to escape Fidel Castro. Yes, Mr. President, I am a child of refugees. Although my Cuban mother came here just before Cuba’s iron curtain clanked shut, the same desperate, fierce homesickness that claimed my refugee relatives overtook her as well.
As a teenager, my uncle left Cuba two months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Although on the older side, he was part of the Pedro Pan rescue operation — a CIA undertaking that arranged to airlift children out of Cuba. Many of them were placed with American families. My uncle was lucky. He had an older sister, my mother, waiting for him.
But he almost didn’t make it to America. He was on a Pan Am flight that was suddenly grounded by the Cuban military who claimed there was a draft dodger on the airplane. We’ll never know if it was my 19-year-old uncle they were after, because the pilot declared the aircraft sovereign American territory and took off without permission from the tower. My uncle shakes each time he tells the story.
Never did I dare to fantasize that in my lifetime a sitting U.S. president would be shaking hands with Cuban officials at ... the airport my family used to escape Fidel Castro.
I was born in my American father’s hometown in Connecticut in December of 1960 as diplomatic relations with Cuba were deteriorating. My grandmother, my Abuela, arrived from Havana to care for my mother and me. She adjusted to the Connecticut winter mostly by rocking me and singing me lullabies in Spanish and her native Greek. (Yes, Mr. President we are a family who hopscotched its way to the United States, but Cuba is where we left our hearts). After three months, she decided it was time to go back to Cuba. My mother pleaded with her to stay, and family lore has it that she took the last Cubana Airlines flight out of Idlewild Airport.
I can’t begin to tell you how often I heard my mother softly cry, Hay Cuba, como te estrañò -- Oh Cuba, how I miss you, how I long for you. That longing for Havana, for its sea wall along the Malecón — it colored my childhood. I finally walked the Malecón four years ago.
I was overwhelmed with emotion when I arrived at José Martí Airport. The ghosts of my grandparents, who finally left Cuba for good two years after I was born with one small suitcase between them, haunted me. I thought about how they shut the door of their home on almost three decades of life and set out for yet another migration. I went to their house in old Havana. I finally saw the marble stairs I had heard so much about. I saw the heavy wooden door my grandfather still had the keys to in his last exile. He carried those keys until the day he died, believing he was going back to Cuba. The current occupants were kind enough to let me in for a look. They wouldn’t take the money I offered them for their hospitality. They told me this was my home too, and I broke down and cried in front of them. Hay Cuba, como te estrañe -- Oh Cuba, how I missed you.
Mr. President, you will undoubtedly notice that Havana is like an aging beauty queen. So is my mother who is now marooned in a nursing home wheelchair. When she calls me to tell me that you are in her city, she can barely contain her excitement. Wistfully, she asks me if she will again see a Havana without a Castro in power before she dies. All I can tell her is that you made a return to her country feasible. No matter how remote the possibility that her health will allow her to go back, you have given her hope. Se lo agradezco, and I thank you with all my heart and soul that you have opened up prospects for peace with Cuba for my children.