When Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to Havana last week for talks with Cuban officials, it was far more than just the latest step in the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.

The trip represented an emotional return to his birthplace for Mayorkas, who fled Fidel Castro’s regime with his parents when he was less than a year old and had never been back in the 55 years since.

Yet even as Mayorkas hailed his homeland as “a beautiful land, with warm people,” he also felt a sense of loss. His father, Charles, who grew up in Cuba and had one day hoped to return with his son, died three years ago.

“I went with a nervous heart,” Mayorkas said in an interview Tuesday. “My hope and my father’s hope and intention was always to return together, and that I would really have the opportunity to understand his youth and the places and experiences of his youth with him.”

A visibly emotional Mayorkas spoke before an awards ceremony in Washington, during which he and DHS secretary Jeh Johnson presented awards for meritorious service to more than 300 DHS employees.

Now, more than a half-century after fleeing Cuba as an infant, Mayorkas is the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Obama administration. Though it is unclear how many Cuban Americans serve in the administration, they have taken on an increasingly prominent role in U.S. politics with the rise of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — both Cuban Americans — in the Republican presidential race.

Mayorkas’s three-day trip came at a historic time in U.S.-Cuban relations. President Obama moved to normalize relations with Havana in December after more than a half-century of enmity, and Mayorkas was only the third administration official to visit since then.

The deputy secretary — accompanied by R. Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — met with leaders in the Cuban Ministries of Interior, Transportation and Foreign Relations. Issues discussed included aviation security, combating drug trafficking and cybersecurity, and Mayorkas said the two nations hope to develop memorandums of understanding to increase cooperation in those and other areas.

“The conversations went very well. They were very very productive,” Mayorkas said.

But it was the personal part of the trip that most touched Mayorkas’s heart. On his last afternoon, after the talks concluded, he found time to visit a family cemetery, where his grandmother, great aunt and great uncle are buried. He visited his father’s elementary school.

He drove by the steel wool factory his father once owned, a business he lost in the chaos of the Castro revolution. Mayorkas emigrated to Miami (he grew up mostly in Los Angeles) with his mother and sister in August 1960. His father followed a few months later.

“It was  quite a journey,” said Mayorkas, adding that his father “did not want to raise his family in a Communist regime.”

His Cuban hosts, Mayorkas said, were aware of his personal history and “could not have been more gracious and kind.” In perhaps the ultimate symbolism, they presented the top U.S. official with a gift: his family’s original Cuban government immigration file.

“I’m very happy that I went, both personally and professionally,” Mayorkas said.