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Our authentic Cuban experience

Local Cuban-American reflects on pilgrimage to island

Miami pilgrim Manny Garcia-Tunon leads the singing during the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski in Havana's cathedral.


Miami pilgrim Manny Garcia-Tunon leads the singing during the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski in Havana's cathedral.

Manny García-Tuñón is a columnist for El Nuevo Herald and president of Lemartec, an international design-build firm headquartered in Miami. This column was originally published in Spanish in El Nuevo Herald.

My wife, Helin, and I share many cultural experiences. Both of us were born in Miami to Cuban parents who immigrated to the United States as teenagers after Castro forcibly took power and turned the idyllic island nation into a communist state. Neither of us have any family remaining in Cuba and we never considered traveling there so long as the Cuban people continued to suffer under communism.

But Helin and I also shared a painful doubt. Like so many of our generation born in exile, who never felt American enough to be American or Cuban enough to be Cuban, we always felt cheated out of the authentic Cuban experience and wondered, “Are we Cuban or are we American?” I grew up thinking I was a “Cuban American” – but does such a thing actually exist? Recently, we found our answer together.

On Monday, March 26, at approximately 10 a.m. local time, the second of two airplanes chartered by the Archdiocese of Miami filled with 310 pilgrims traveling to attend the papal Masses in Cuba touched down in Santiago de Cuba – that fabled land where Helin’s father, who passed away two years ago, was born. Helin and I were both on that plane. As the plane touched down, I held her hand while she just gazed out the window. Then, finally, she turned to me and said, “It really exists…”

“Yes,” I replied compassionately. Cuba, our generation’s “neverland,” really does exist.

For both of us, traveling as pilgrims for Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit, offered us a justifiable reason for making the trip. The emotions Helin and I experienced together in Cuba ran the gamut from happy to sad, and from anger to joy. We joined with the faithful as they cheered and chanted as the Holy Father arrived to celebrate the Masses – many of them knew every song and every response! We stood dumbfounded as many in the same crowds applauded upon the arrival of their dictator. We laughed. We cried. We prayed a lot. My cousin Bill Brown, who was also on the pilgrimage from Miami, told every person he met, “Remember that we are brothers.” They laughed. They cried. They prayed too.

We spoke with people we met on the street. We asked them questions, shared our testimony, and we learned a great deal. One thing we learned is that a great majority of Cubans on the island simply do not know how to be free. They believe that “rights” are something that a government grants to, and takes away from, its people. They have no notion that their rights are inalienable, given to them by God, and therefore no one can either give or take them away – especially their freedom. They don’t understand that they are free because they were born into a system that has taken away their “expression of freedom” – but not their freedom. And not their dignity as human beings. That’s theirs. They just don’t know it.

We learned that the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba is a true pastor to Cubans both on and off the island. In his message in the Plaza Antonio Maceo, the Primate Archbishop said, “The process of achieving these ideals will never end, and today we are committed to achieving justice and the common good for all. We are one people, but with different criteria as to which path to follow toward a better future. This is the desire longed for by all, and which we have sung daily in this Year of Jubilee: ‘All of your children, to you we cry, Virgen Mambisa, that we be brothers’.”

We learned that Cuba’s reality and ideological conflicts are as complicated today as they have ever been, and so are the memories of those who have suffered greatly. As a result of our trip, we learned to honor and respect, more profoundly than ever before, those memories and the sacrifices that our parents and grandparents made. We can never repay them for what they did in the past.

Perhaps the most important thing we learned was to be thankful for who we are and what we have. We’re thankful to our country, the United States of America, for affording us the expression of freedom that others are denied. We are thankful to our grandparents and parents because Helin and I realized that even though we missed out on Cuba, we did not miss out on the authentic Cuban experience – even in Miami.

Yes, like our fabled Cuba, we, the “Cuban-Americans,” do exist – and maybe, just maybe, we are the ones who are being called to help our Cuban brothers and sisters on the island start something new and attain that better future we all long for.

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