By Armanda Estrada
HAVANA — I was about to realize a lifelong dream of meeting the Cuban family I never knew, four days into a college study abroad trip.
After a nerve-racking taxi ride from the guesthouse where I was staying to the Luyano neighborhood, during which the driver struggled to find the address I had memorized, we found the street where my relatives in the States said my great-aunt lived.
All I had was that address and hope in my heart.
I got out of the taxi and walked down the narrow alley, looking into each open door along the way, accompanied by a professor. Four doors down, I felt the urge to stop. I poked my head in and said, “Hola. Estoy buscando Georgina Baez-Estrada?”
Standing in the doorway was a small 90-year-old woman drenched in sunlight. “Soy Georgina,” she replied. She smiled and invited me in.
I was nervous, scared and excited, but most of all, I was yearning for a connection with my past and my family.
Because she had no phone, I hadn’t been able to call ahead. I explained that I was the granddaughter of Oscar De La Rosa Estrada, her brother. It was enough for her to embrace me with her delicate arms. Tears flowed from my eyes.
I had always known my father had family in Cuba, and I had prayed that I would one day connect with them.
Having lost contact with my father at a young age, I had struggled my whole life to understand my identity. For years, I stared blankly in the mirror in search of myself. Now, meeting Georgina, I began to find answers.
I was born in the Bronx to a fair-skinned, straight-haired Creole woman from Baton Rouge, La., and a dark-skinned, coarse-haired, Afro-Cuban man from New York. My father, who was born in Havana, was a seaman and constantly traveled during my toddler years.
Things between my parents became rocky when my father stopped traveling. Over time, the relationship turned violent.
When I was 5, my mother and father had a terrible fight. My mother called the police but by the time they arrived my father had vanished. The officers searched the house but did not find him.
After they left, he emerged from a hallway closet with a gun, walked up to my mother, shot her and then disappeared. The bullet only struck her in the arm. After that, my mother moved with my older brother and me to Houston.
We were far away from both sides of my family. Despite the horrifying situation that led to the move, I missed my father. Without him, I was disconnected from a reflection of myself.
My older brother, fair-skinned like my mother, was my rock. However, as much as I loved him, I had mixed feelings about being around him in school. Whenever the kids saw us together, they would tease me and say I was adopted, or say he was my boyfriend to emphasize the stark contrast in color between us.
In Texas, you were black, white or Mexican. I felt lost. The black kids didn’t want me because I was too light-skinned and my last name was Estrada. The Mexican kids said my skin was too dark and my hair too kinky. The white kids, well, they just called me “Nigger.”
I wished for so long to fit in somewhere, anywhere. And so I found myself touring my great-aunt’s humble, two-room home.
Entering the house, there was a refrigerator immediately to the left, followed by three brown chairs and a short staircase that led to a small landing where she displayed a doll collection.
A rocking chair faced a small black-and-white television on a cast iron table. Next to the rocking chair was her twin-sized bed, and, behind it, a floor-to-ceiling altar dedicated to the saints of the Santeria religion. My aunt briefly shared the names of the saints.
We had to cut the visit short because the professor and I were scheduled to meet with the rest of the class that evening. I kissed my aunt on her forehead and made a plan to return the following Saturday to meet the rest of the family.
During the next visit, the tiny room was filled. My cousin Regla, Georgina’s daughter, brought her two sons and daughter. They were as curious about me as I was about them. We spent a couple of hours going back and forth with questions.
I was amazed by how similar our lives were, despite our separation. My cousin Madelaine, Regla’s daughter, was 32 like me, and our daughters were both 6. Madelaine is a government administrator who helps place people in homes. Similarly, I work in real estate.
As I took inventory of all the family members in the room with me, I felt as if I was finally surrounded by my own reflection. My eyes began to swell and tears flowed again. I told Georgina that this reunion was a dream come true.
Before leaving, I exchanged information with my younger cousins who had cell phones and social media accounts. We made plans to meet again, and I hope to bring my daughter with me when I return.