In Cuba, searching for remnants of a long lost past and finding an unexpected family

I was born in the United States, but my family never let me forget that we're Cuban.

My mother cooked Cuban dishes like picadillo and ropa vieja. My grandparents spoke almost only Spanish.

But we never visited Cuba, had no contact with relatives there, no heirlooms besides a handful of black-and-white photographs.

My family left virtually everything behind when they fled Cuba in the early 1960s. They decided exile was preferable to communism and vowed never to return until Fidel Castro left power. They seldom spoke at length about the lives they once lived 90 miles from Miami, where my parents met and I was born.

Growing up, I longed for a link to the country that formed such a crucial part of our identity. I couldn't have imagined it would take more than a decade to begin to uncover my family's past.

In 2003, at age 20, I spent six months studying at the University of Havana. When I told people I was born to Cuban parents in Miami they said, "Welcome back." But when it came to links to the past, I came up empty-handed.

My father's family home in Havana had been turned into a school, its contents emptied. In Cienfuegos, the southern city where my mother was born, I found the house where relatives said my grandmother, Margarita, had buried her jewelry in the courtyard before she and my grandfather fled with my mother and her two siblings. It had been converted into a residence for port workers, the courtyard covered in cement.

I returned again this year as five decades of diplomatic animosity between the U.S. and Cuba began to close. I spent two weeks reporting on the island around Pope Francis' trip to the country. Armed with skills from 13 years as a reporter, I assembled a new list of old addresses and squeezed in trips to the homes where my family once lived.

When I got to San Lazaro Street, where my father once lived in Havana, a woman approached me and asked who I was looking for. I explained that my father and grandparents once lived in a house on the street.

"What was their last name?" she asked me.

"Armario," I said.

"The Armarios?" she said. "They live right there."

She pointed to an aqua-colored house across the street. A petite woman with white hair answered a knock on the door.

"Hi," I said. "My family used to live on this street and someone just told me you have the last name Armario."

"Yes," she said. "I am Sonia Armario."

"This will sound strange," I told her. "But my last name is Armario, too."

She looked just as confused as I did and invited me into her home. Bit by bit, we began connecting the dots of our fractured family.

She was the daughter of my great-grandfather's brother, a man I had never heard of named Francisco Armario Caro. Francisco and my great-grandfather, Manuel, were incredibly close, she said. They both worked on Havana's once elaborate system of street cars and were, "like one," she added, words that struck with a pang of sadness as I imagined what it must have been like for them to part.

Even sadder, their story had almost entirely been lost.

When my grandfather left Cuba, his father continued to live in the same house with his brother. When all his children were in Miami, my great-grandfather left, too. He and his brother never saw each other again.

"I don't understand how our families lost touch," I said.

"They couldn't stay in touch," one of my cousins, who was among those gathered in the living room of the old family home, told me. "People threw eggs, rocks at your house if you kept in close contact with people who fled."

Sonia took me through the house, a small, well-kept home which, she said, looked nothing like it did in the 1950s when my father and his family lived there. The furniture had been replaced, the rooms remodeled. The ceiling to the front living room collapsed in the 1970s, destroying almost all its red and gray tiled floor.

"The only thing left is us," she said.

Sonia took out a plastic bag filled with black-and-white photographs, some early shots of relatives I knew in Miami but had never seen in their youth, and others of family members I never knew existed. It was Francisco's face that haunted me the most. He does not smile in a single photo taken after his youth.

When I got back to Miami, I eagerly shared Sonia's story and all the photographs with my family. For my grandfather and relatives with memories of the island, the pictures matched — tattered mementoes of the neighborhood and homes they'd loved. Some had a faint recollection of Sonia and her sisters, but most had none. They were just as surprised as I was to know we still had relatives on the island.

I know now I'll never find all the pieces of my family's past. They are lost to more than five decades of strife and buried under layers of cement. But I do now know my family's story.

I can imagine my young father playing with his brother in front of the house on San Lazaro Street. I can imagine Manuel and Francisco embracing one last time. And I can imagine my grandfather running his eyes over Havana's tree-lined boulevards and the magnificent Malecon seawall lining miles of blue ocean as he drove to the airport, for a departure that had no return.

I can imagine the hurt my relatives must have felt to leave this country. And I can imagine the pain of those who stayed and watched everyone go away.

Ultimately, it will take more than renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba for a meaningful reconciliation within our divided community to occur. But I like to know that Sonia and her family are there, waiting, ready for that moment when the rest of my family returns.


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