On the occasion of President Obama’s historic and contentious visit to Cuba, we asked Cuban Americans to tell us what mementos they or their families had been able to bring with them from the island. Many Cuban exiles had their valuables confiscated and faced severe restrictions on what personal effects they could bring when they emigrated. But the objects that did manage to make it out of the country have acquired enormous personal value not only to their owners, but to their descendants living in America as well.
Our readers shared photos of beautiful rings, vintage photos and even a beloved book. Along with them came stories of loss, freedom and starting over.
“You can pick a Cuban off the streets and they’ll have an amazing story to tell,” said Gerardo Gonzalez, who left Cuba in 1962.
Here are just a few of those incredible stories.
Oriel Almeida, 33, was born in Havana and left Cuba in 2005. When he met his wife, Gretel, she was waiting to join her father in the United States, where he had immigrated in the 1990s. If they married in Cuba, it would change her exit status and add two years to the seven that she had already been waiting to leave. Almeida decided to immigrate to the United States through Mexico around the same time as Gretel so they could meet in Miami and eventually wed. The couple celebrate the anniversary of their arrival every year.
"I discovered Jorge Luis Borges after reading that Umberto Eco used him as an inspiration for one of the characters in the novel "The Name of the Rose." I was 14 or 15 when I found the book ("Paginas Escogidas" by Jorge Luis Borges); [it] was the only Borges work published in Cuba at the time. It is a collection of poems, essays and short stories. I wrote a lot of stories back then, and I adopted Borges as my hero."
"I had just started high school and that was a difficult process because at the time in Cuba all schools were in the [countryside] away from home. I was alone and far, and had to work in the fields and could go home only on the weekends. [The book] represents a part of my past and my aspirations at that age. His stories always let [me] slip [into] the enormity of the universe, either through a sleeping man dreaming imaginary worlds, or an infinite library with infinite number of books that just differ among each other by one letter."
"When I made my backpack to travel, I had to bring one book, so this was it. I repeated to myself a line of one of the poems [from] the book to calm my fears during the trip: 'Si hemos de entrar en el desierto, ya estoy en el desierto.'"
The Washington Post callout led Almeida to look for his old Borges book. In it, he found an old, pressed eucalyptus leaf from a tree on his block in Havana that he used as a bookmark and had forgotten about.
Vicky del Rio left Cuba as part of the Peter Pan program in June 1962, days shy of her 11th birthday. Her mother insisted that she sneak a pair of gold earrings with her; they were inconspicuous enough not to be confiscated by authorities. In the United States, del Rio was placed with a family named the Johnsons for a year until her father, stepmother and half-sister joined her in America. Her mother remained in Cuba. Because of the difficulty of sending letters or making calls between the United States and Cuba, their communication was infrequent to nonexistent for years.
"I kept [the earrings] all these years because they were a tangible link to my mom. And I thought, my goodness, if I ever have a granddaughter, I would like to give it to her. I have a lot more beautiful jewelry I can get, but that’s not the point.”
“In the late 70s, I started to feel the need to connect with her. I made a phone call, and that started the thawing process, if you will. It was maybe 10-15 years in the making. The first time I went to Cuba was in 1983. I was shocked, because I didn’t recognize her when I was finally able to see her. She looked like an 85-year-old woman, it was shocking to see the devastation and the hurt that I saw in her eyes. I took her to a beautician, I did her hair, I did her makeup, and after 48 hours she seemed like a new person. That was the beginning of the rapprochement. She has such regrets, and I had a lot of hurt that needed to heal."
Over the next few years, the two were able to correspond more via letters and phone calls. Vicky’s mother came to the United States for the first time in 1992. Vicky and her mother visited each other a handful of times over the next two decades. Vicky most recently went to Cuba in 2015 and hopes that the thawing relationship between the United States and Cuba will make it easier to visit her mother.
Palmira Camargo, 43, lives in Mexico City. Her mother is Mexican and her father is Cuban. Her father was part of the Bay of Pigs invasion and was later imprisoned. In October 1961, her parents were married in a jail with the guards laughing at them. Camargo’s mother left Cuba a few weeks after the marriage, with her husband joining her in Miami in December of 1962. They later moved to Mexico, where their daughter was born. Camargo shares the story of her grandmother’s engagement ring.
“When she went to Mexico, my grandmother took my mother’s dresses and sewed in the hem the jewelry, pearl necklaces and gold necklaces. My mother had the [engagement] ring all this time, and when I got married, she gave me my grandmother’s engagement ring. It’s the ring that I wear every day since I got married 11 years ago. I see the ring and think of my grandmother.”
“I would love to go back to Cuba sometime and see where my grandmother lived and get back to our roots someday. But that will need to be sometime soon when my father decides to go back again. Once Castro falls, I think."
Kezia McKeague was born in the United States and lives in Washington. Her mother left Cuba along with her family in August 1961, and they were able to bring a few family treasures later on thanks to the help of some Swiss diplomats. McKeague used one such item at her wedding.
"These 13 coins are called 'arras' in Spanish. The exchange of the arras between bride and groom is a tradition in many Cuban weddings, symbolizing the sharing of material and emotional support and commitment to caring for each other and their family. These 13 coins in a small treasure box were exchanged by my maternal grandparents at their wedding in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 15, 1953. When they left Cuba with my mother and my aunt in August 1961, they were not allowed to bring any valuables of any kind — nothing other than one small suitcase of clothes. The coins came later, along with some family jewelry and photographs smuggled out by employees at the Swiss Embassy in Cuba. They are of sentimental value to my family, and I used them for the same tradition at my wedding at Georgetown University's Dahlgren Chapel on March 28, 2015."
"I love that they are a link to the female line of my family — my grandmother passed away two years ago, but the fact that I could, at my own wedding, use the very same coins that she passed from her hands to the hands of her groom and back and forth and her ceremony in a different era in a different country, it has a lot of sentimental value."
Gerardo Gonzalez, 65, was born in Placetas, Las Villas, Cuba. He is writing a memoir based on his experiences as a refugee, which led him to an old briefcase in his parents’ home in Miami full of original documents from their journey.
"[Once you petitioned for exit visas] the government would come in and take inventory of everything you owned. I mean everything, from your pots and pans to your mattresses and in the case of my father, who was a mechanic, his tools, everything. And then you would wait."
He remembers vividly how the wait ended. Pedaling home on his bicycle to find his mother standing outside their duplex, waving a paper in her hand, running to his father’s garage, then to his grandmother’s to share the news.
"It was the telegram that changed our lives. The whole family went into panic of all sorts."
Before boarding their Pan Am flight in February 1962, his father, Elio Angel, made one final purchase in his country.
"On the way out to immigration, he purchased two bottles of Cuban rum, which, even in those days, was coveted in the world. We were processed through the Cuban refugee system in Miami and sent to the Tamiami Hotel. And as we’re walking into the hotel, the doorman there saw that my father was carrying these two bottles of Cuban rum and said, 'Do you want to sell those?' And my father just turned to him and said, 'Yes,' and gave him both bottles for five dollars. That’s how we started in this country."
"I understand the pain of people who lost everything and in some cases even lost family members and the resentment and the hate that they would harbor toward the communist regime. But we live in a different world, and for more than half a century, Cubans have longed to go back and been waiting for the fall of the Castros and communism and it’s never happened. I think the people in Cuba are ready for change."
Gonzalez has since returned to the island three times as a special adviser for Cuban initiatives at Indiana University with a delegation that sets out to inspire partnerships and collaboration between U.S. and Cuban universities.
Maria Cristina Garcia, 55, was born in Havana and lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where she is a professor at Cornell University. She has written a book on Cuban migration called "Havana USA." Garcia left Cuba as a baby in 1961 along with her grandmother, parents and brother. She shared a photograph of her grandparents, taken on their wedding day in Cuba in 1931.
“[My grandmother] knew that she couldn’t take anything of material value with her, but what she chose to take with her were the photographs that were most meaningful to her and the love letters that my grandfather had written her when they were courting. I never got to meet my grandfather because he died shortly before my birth. When I went to Cuba for the first time in 1991, one of the first places that I went was his grave in the historic Cementerio Colón. He was so alive in my imagination because of the stories that my grandmother told me about him. So many people, when I grew up in Miami, would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Octavio’s granddaughter, he was such a wonderful man.’ So I have this image of what he must have been like and the man he was. It was my grandmother’s stories about him, and about Cuba, that really sparked my imagination. I think my interest in all things Cuban, the reason I wrote my first book on Cuban migration to the United States, was because of that experience. I became a historian, a historian of migration.”
Carlos Argueta, 25, was born and raised in California and has a pair of gold cuff links that were passed down from his Cuban great-grandfather. Argueta’s grandfather worked in a labor camp in Cuba for years before he and his family were able to leave the country for the United States in May 1970. The gold cuff links were smuggled out along with a handful of other important items.
“They have a lot of meaning to me. My grandmother was always telling me stories about when she was growing up with her father. I look at the cuff links and I see what my family has done — they’re hardworking, they were able to get ahead, be successful. It reminds me that living here in America, I’m grateful for the freedom that I have, the sacrifices my family made to continue living and to make sure that the rest of the family is safe. It’s hard to leave everything that you have behind and just pick up and leave.”
“It reminds me to be grateful. That’s what it really comes down to.”