October 16, 2016 jennyperez

My Reflection on My First Trip to Cuba

Before arriving in Cuba I was always interested in this mysterious place and because I was born and raised in Miami I was already feeling such a strong connection to it despite not having ever gone. I somehow thought I knew exactly what to expect. I had played the movie in my head over and over again. It looked like a balmy afternoon at the beach while the faint smell of cigar smoke lingered in the air. It looked like a lot of dancing and good hearty food, it looked poor and heavy, but still rich in flavor.

Having some sort of infatuation with its essence and this idea essentially lead me to apply for CubaOne — it didn’t go much deeper than that at the time. I simply was feeding the curiosity and stepped into the application thinking “this could be fun” and “I can’t wait to try the food”. As an artist I was excited to buy paint in Cuba and interact on the streets of Havana through my art. I’m embarrassed to admit I was completely wrong and Cuba was the opposite of how I had envisioned it to be and that my experience on the island was not at all defined by the food or as a light and fun time, I didn’t even get to paint because there wasn’t any to buy- this experience was far more, far deeper, than just a dance or a classic car selfie.

Once arriving in Cuba, I immediately recall connecting my feelings to the ones I had as a teenager in high school- it felt awkward and uncomfortable at times, confusing, I felt completely disconnected while at the very same time feeling very connected because I was, for the first time ever, physically present. I also began to process all the ideas I was having about what it really meant to say “I am Cuban”, which turned out to be quite a big deal and topic of conversation amongst us all. I learned a lot, and spent a lot of time reflecting and enjoying all the stimulation to my heart and soul. This trip was the kind that provided the space to really dive into yourself, really truly know about your past and that of your ancestors; the kind of trip that can change your life if you let it, and in my case, it did.

I like to describe the experience similar to the popular MTV series the Real World. It’s a funny comparison but interestingly enough, that was my reference. I, alongside a group of 9 other strangers from around the country were “picked to go on a trip and have their lives taped and find out what happens when things stop being polite and start getting real” . We were all taken out of of comfort zones, tested emotionally and I couldn’t help but feel like we were all so lucky- the winners of a prize of a lifetime. Needless to say, seeing the way the people live, learning about the revolution, the struggles of our ancestors and that of our immediate family was a such a reality check! Secondly, it was so cool to be apart of something that epic with a group of strangers. The aspect of a group was one of the most beautiful parts. I fell in love with every person and we were truly like a mini family despite our differences and our backgrounds- we shared one very special thing and ultimately it created a space of zero judgement. I question had we all met under different circumstances if we would connect as well as we all did — and, because of that, I am eternally grateful.

There were moments I wanted to cry a lot — I finally did on our last dinner together right before the ballet. I would say now, after looking back on it all, that most of us probably did cry at some point on this adventure. We all felt so strongly about the things we were seeing and learning. My tears were driven by the beauty of the people, the humility that I saw within them, and the connection I made to my cousin’s whom I had just met. They actually walked me over to the restaurant that night — I remember seeing their faces when we arrived and realized this was ‘goodbye’. How could one love a stranger so quickly and so deeply? We were blood and I suppose that’s all the explanation we needed. A few minutes of long hugs and promises to write and keep in touch outside the restaurant, and I was moved enough to completely fall apart once it was all over and I was finally inside chewing on a croqueta. The group immediately embraced me and held space for me to cry — it was what I like to call an accumulation combination cry. Everything from the days and days of experiences and the combination of happy and sad feelings all piled into one good release. It felt safe and also really nice.

One night, we all hung out with some locals by el malecón and had some drinks — danced all night to the beat of a drum and a guitar that two men played — they weren’t soliciting or trying to make a quick buck out of us- the men were genuinely playing music for their enjoyment and ours as well. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be there that night.

There was an evening we went to dinner at a beautiful place called ‘Versus’, the manager greeted us all at the head of the table just before we ordered our food and humbly thanked us all for being there. What moved me most is that she wasn’t talking about the restaurant, she was thanking us all for being in Cuba and “for coming home”. I was so moved — I finally felt connected to the island — the validation from an actual Cuban made me feel strong, proud, honored even. I was processing the idea that I wasn’t actually “Cuban” for days because I was not born on the island and that revealed a huge identity crisis in me. When the woman spoke those words — those ideas shifted — although I am not technically Cuban, the blood runs strong within my veins and I did feel like I was finally ‘Home’.

I can go on and on really, there’s actually so much more to say. But to sum things up, I am so grateful to my sponsors and to everyone involved in making this trip happen. I met some of my best friends on this trip- I can finally connect to my family and understand them on a whole new level, in addition to that- this journey was a beautiful way to honor my grandfather who suddenly passed away just a week before the trip — he was like a father to me and was very passionate about his country. It felt bittersweet to be there and see the island just as he left it. My art has also been influenced and has grown a great deal. I matured a lot and I’m happy to see the work I do has as well as a result of this all. I am so inspired, so moved and so happy that CubaOne exists and continues to provide these experiences for others.

Gracias por todo familia,

Jenny Perez

Jenny initially wrote this article for Medium.com representing the Cuba One Foundation.

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