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Return to Cuba: A trail of faith

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Me outside the church of Jesus de Miramar in Havana, where I was baptized.

Photographer: COURTESY | Mary Soto

Me outside the church of Jesus de Miramar in Havana, where I was baptized.

When Cubans talk about the things they left behind on the island, most — especially those from the first waves of exile — will tell you of homes and land, perhaps a business. It dawned on me this month, however, that what my parents left behind was a trail of faith.

I traveled to Cuba Sept. 18-21 along with nearly 200 other archdiocesan pilgrims — incredibly, my fourth trip to the island since 1998, and the third since 2011. I never imagined I would return so many times after leaving for Spain as a 2-year-old toddler, along with my parents and 1-year-old sister.

But three popes have visited Cuba since St. John Paul II made the first historic trip there in 1998, and I have been privileged to cover each of their visits for the archdiocesan newspaper.

The 2011 trip did not involve a pope but proved quite special: It was a pilgrimage, from Havana to Santiago, with Archbishop Thomas Wenski and the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta. Along the way we stopped at churches where the Knights’ donations help provide food to the elderly.

My daughter and I posing in front of a gorgeous Cuban sunset - the one thing that was truly taken away from my parents when they left the island.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

My daughter and I posing in front of a gorgeous Cuban sunset - the one thing that was truly taken away from my parents when they left the island.

On this my fourth trip, I had the privilege of being accompanied by my daughter, an ABC — that is, an American Born Cuban, as we found out from the press conducting interviews at Miami International Airport.

We didn’t know there was such a thing (or person, I guess) but upon reflection the term really does apply: Like many others her age, my daughter grew up in Miami “feeling” her Cuban roots even though she had never set foot on the island; with parents who barely remembered their homeland but never forgot their exile.

The fact that she wasn’t the only “ABC” on this trip proves that Cuban roots run much deeper than café cubano and frijoles negros.

My daughter wanted to go to Cuba to visit the places she had heard about in her grandmother’s tales of family history. The ideal, of course, would have been for my mother/her grandmother to go with us — and she would have if she had been physically able. But walking is difficult at 85, and just getting on and off the bus would have proved a painful daily challenge.

Which means that we had to rely on her road map — written out and emailed beforehand — to take us where we wanted to go. I realized later that the “pins” on that road map were not merely places — she only lived in one house in El Vedado until she got married — but a sacramental story of her life:

  • las Catalinas, the church and cloister across the street from the humble rented house where she was born and grew up, the place where she “crossed the street and went to Mass” each morning;
  • San Juan de Letran, the church where she and my dad got married;
  • la iglesia del Carmen, where her parents (my grandparents) got married and she was baptized; 
  • and of course Jesus de Miramar, where my sister and I were baptized and where, by sheer coincidence, Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated Mass Sept. 19 for the archdiocesan pilgrims.

My mother also listed, as places to go, Havana’s cathedral, the parish of El Vedado, the churches of La Merced and San Francisco in Old Havana and the church of San Angel in central Havana.

All these stops she laid before us in a route fashioned from memory: “Leaving the Plaza de la Revolución try to head toward el malecón via Paseo, turn right at Calle 25 … then take Calle 23 to Calle G (Ave de los Presidentes) and turning right …”

Yes, she also mentioned the movie theater (formerly Radio Centro, now Yara), the Havana Hilton (now Habana Libre) and the University of Havana, “the places I frequented in my youth.”

But the vast majority of the stops were churches, because her youth had revolved around her faith and her involvement with la Juventud Catolica (Catholic Action’s youth movement).

It was that faith that sustained her, my dad and grandparents through the hardships of exile, initially in Spain and then in the U.S. It was that faith they passed on to us, sacrificing things — new furniture, new cars — to send all three of us (my brother was born in Spain) to Catholic schools. It was that faith I hope to have passed on to my children.

So in a way it is fitting — in that God-incidence sort of way — that all my trips to Cuba have been prompted by journeys of faith: the visits of three popes, the tour with the Knights of Malta.

No, my parents lost no real estate in Cuba. The only thing they lost to exile were the gorgeous sunsets off Havana’s Malecon and the incomparable blue of Cuba’s waters.

They brought along their memories and handed them down even to the third generation. They kept their faith and passed it on as well. And from early on they taught us a most important lesson: material possessions can be taken away but memories and faith sustain you forever.

My daughter and I stop for a photo in front of the plane after our arrival in Havana Sept. 18.

Photographer: ROCÍO GRANADOS | LVC

My daughter and I stop for a photo in front of the plane after our arrival in Havana Sept. 18.

Comments from readers

Nelson Araque - 10/02/2015 07:10 PM
Thank you for your reflection Ana....
Sister Karla Maria Icaza, SCTJM - 10/01/2015 02:43 PM
Ana,thank you for sharing such a beautiful article with everyone. I am so happy you were able to go with your daughter in this unforgettable experience. And, eventhough your mother was not able to go with you, I am sure she was there in spirit, rejoicing with both of you. Your mom passed on to you the greatest gift a parent can ever give to their children, our Catholic faith. May Our Lady always guide and protect you, Sister Karla Maria, SCTJM
Cristina Fernandez - 10/01/2015 09:24 AM
What a beautiful blog entry, Ana. I love how you described everything and about finding out what they call so many of us who were born here but feel very much "Cuban" through our blood and soul, which includes me in the mix, as an ABC-er! May God continue to bless you and your family. Thanks for sharing.
Emilio Alonso-Mendoza - 09/30/2015 10:37 PM
Ana, Sitting next to you at mass in Jesus de Miramar I could tell how happy you were to be there . I can hear your voice as I read the beautifully written article -- insightful , loving and truthful. As a Cuban would say -- Te la comiste !
Sr. Vivian M. Gomez, R.F. - 09/29/2015 10:24 AM
Thank you Ana for the beautiful article. You provided a clear vision of the most important lesson, we all learned from our Cuban parents. They taught us that they can take many things from you but what no body will be able to take away is your faith in God and what you learned from your teachers. I am a Pedro Pan, who arrived in Miami in 1961. I grew up in Santa Fe Beach in Havana, I studied in Baldor en el Vedado and then entered the University of Havana to study Chemical Engineering. Entering Miami, August 30, 1961 change my career as I met the Sisters of St. Philip Neri. From becoming an engineer I decided to become an educator. I entered the convent and studied in Barcelona, Spain. Back to USA in 1967 I taught Mathematics and Religion from 1967-1986 at St. Jerome Catholic School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1986, I became the Principal of the school till 2015 that I became the Development Director of the school. Last year, I was honored to receive an award from one of my students, Dr. Richard Childs, who was the director of the U.S. Commissioned Corps, Monrovia Medical Unit Team 2 in Africa. Dr. Childs was the director of the team of 65 doctors who worked in Africa from Nov. 2014 to February 2015 to eradicate the Ebola virus from that region. Also, I want to share with you that more than ten years ago, Dr. Gisselle Barreau Ghurani discovered my cancer and operated me and presently I have Mrs. Mary Murray, another former student, who is my physical therapist at Broward Hospital. Our lives are challenged many times by the events of life. But our faith in God and the lessons from our parents and teachers help us to create a new paradigm for others. Our journey becomes a journey of faith where God brings fulfillment to every thing you tried to do for Him. Again, thank you Ana for sharing your traveling experience with us. With gratitude, Sr. Vivian M. Gomez, R.F.
Marcia C. Perez - 09/29/2015 09:11 AM
Anna: Gracias por compartir tan lindas memorias de tu mami y ensenarnos que la Fe es lo unico que llevamos en nuestras vidas. Bendiciones.
Sharon Utterback - 09/28/2015 09:44 PM
What a blessing for you, your mother and your daughter! Thank you so much for sharing.
Lilly Rangel-Diaz - 09/28/2015 07:02 PM
Dear Ana, What a beautiful message you are sharing with us! I have never thought of my six sons as ABCs but indeed they are! I have never returned to Cuba and I hope and pray that one day I will be able to visit those Catholic churches that were also very special to me as a child, some of those mentioned by you, such as La Catedral, La Iglesia de La Merced, El Angel, San Francisco. I was born in La Habana Vieja and left for Spain with my parents and younger sister when I was 14. I am very impressed by the specific details that your mother provided. May God bless her memory! I don't think that I could find my way around after all these years! May God continue to bless you and your family abundantly. Thank you!
Margarita menendez - 09/28/2015 04:29 PM
Me gusto mucho su artculo y de corazn me alegro que su experiencia haya sido tan buena. Yo soy una CBA, Cuban born American, y siento muy poca conexin con ellos. Lo que perd, perdido esta. No son cosas tangibles. Perd de vivir mi vida en mi pas de origen y eso ningn gobierno me lo puede devolver. Le deseo a Cuba lo mejor y al pueblo de Cuba paz y progreso, pero para mi ya es demasiado tarde. Que Dios la bendiga.
Maria Meneses, Chaplain - 09/28/2015 03:58 PM
Ana, sounds like you and your daughter found a piece of history everywhere you went. What an exciting time to visit. Felt like I was right there with you. Excellent coverage and story. Thank you for sharing!
Vivian mannerud - 09/28/2015 02:53 PM
Ana What a great testament of faith passed on to generations. In glad you shared this trip with your daughter. It was a difficult trip to organize with such short notice. But God wanted us there.
Isabel Cristina Negron - 09/28/2015 02:30 PM
Ana, thank you for this beautiful article. In a way I felt very identify with your words. I left Cuba with my parents and brother when I was only 2 years, 54 years ago, first we went to Venezuela and then to USA (with my husband) 25 years ago. I have no memories from Cuba, but my parents always kept the memories, the hope and faith alive to help us feel close and identify with our roots. That is why like you very well wrote: material possessions can be taken away but memories and faith sustain you forever." May God allow me some day, to visit Cuba, with my own family to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the "tinajones" in my dear Camaguey!!
Vilma Angulo - 09/28/2015 01:22 PM
Ana, what an amazing article. It comes across crystal clear that when your mom wanted to remember, she went to the memories in her heart....and isn't that where faith lives? Thank you!
Yelva M. Berry - 09/28/2015 12:59 PM
Anita, What a beutiful articule. Thank you! I will never forget our trip to Washington. It was an honor to meet You. God bless you today and always.
Ana Rodriguez-Soto - 09/28/2015 12:46 PM
Thank you all for the comments! Father Vigoa, I especially want to thank you (and Maria and Vivian and her staff) for all your hard work in planning this trip and making it possible for so many to return - for the first or fourth time! Antonio, yes, my mother asked me to look specifically for the statue of St. Ann holding the child Mary, which was unique to that church, and perhaps to many others since it is a rare image. A beautiful statue, a beautiful church. My mother also noted that my sister and I used to love its long aisles for running up and down as toddlers - I can totally see how that would have happened!
Antonio Fernandez - 09/28/2015 12:06 PM
Ana, I guess you are well aware that the Church of Jesus de Miramar... shown in your picture... was the main shrine for the devotion of St. Ana in Cuba! No wonder you're baptized there.
Antonio Fernandez - 09/28/2015 12:03 PM
Ana, thanks for this message... I actually was following the route your mother described... she named so many places so dear to me... I am another Cuban that was not "siquitrillado" but lost some much more valuable things... those sunsets at "el Malecn", those churches mentioned by your mother...the friends, the streets of la Habana Vieja, the parks, the buildings, the smells, the flavors, la cubania, the memories alive, our Church, the scenario of our history... Gracias
Mark Landia - 09/28/2015 12:03 PM
Marvelous, thoughtful testimony, Ana, a human interest story with feeling, depth and... faith.
Carlota E. Morales - 09/28/2015 09:21 AM
Ana, What a beautiful article! It brought memories and nostalgia. I see that you enjoyed the trip in the company of your daughter. I am sure that you made memories together and that both of you have a lot to share with your mother. Thank you for sharing your trip with us. Carlota E. Morales, Ed. D.
Claudio - 09/28/2015 08:56 AM
Same thing still happens in Brazil: the Catholic Churches are references to family memories. Now that I moved my mother back to Recife, she showed me the church where she got married, the church where my grandmother liked to go, the church where my cousins go, the Cathedral in old Olinda, etc...
J. Rayburn - 09/28/2015 08:52 AM
Ana, thank you for this personal glimpse of your trips to Cuba. How wonderful to this time follow your Mother's map and in essence come full circle--the circle of life--rooted firmly in faith. I am sure it held tremendous meaning to your daughter as well.
Fr Richard Vigoa - 09/28/2015 08:51 AM
Beautiful reflection! So glad you were able to go with your daughter.

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