MANCHESTER — Not only has the relationship between the United States and Cuba evolved over time, but so have the people who fled the country with intent to return, but didn't until now, or not at all.
Manchester resident Carmen French will share her special experience from a week-long trip to Cuba, at the Manchester Community Library on July 20 at 6:30 p.m. Growing up in Miami as the daughter of a Cuban exile, returning to her parents' homeland made for an emotional and powerful experience. Along with two neighbors and her son, French returned in January with eye-witness stories, videos, images, poems and unique artwork from Cuba.
One way to describe the differences, or similarities between Cuba and French's upbringing in Miami is the authenticity of the culture. It was pertinent in the Cuban communities in Florida and even more rich on the homeland when she took her first trip.
"The culture in Miami was of the era. They kept the language, food, etc," French said. "I was born in 1963 in Miami and my family came in 1961. The Cuban community in Miami has kept the culture alive. My first language is Spanish. People who spoke English in school came back and spoke Spanish. Going to Cuba, there's all the billboards that is propaganda and there's no advertising billboards like there are here."
Instead of traveling as tourists, French, her 23-year-old son and two neighbors lived with family friends "off the beaten path," rather than in a hotel. They also visited a tobacco farm in the country that's owned by a relative of one of French's friends. She said the owners treated them like family and that's how it was from the moment they got to the country.
"We experienced it more natively," she said. "I had no interest in going to the tourist places. I wanted to experience the people and the real Cuba. My intention (for the talk) is to give a flavor of how we experienced it What is my perspective, because it's more unique than anyone else that would go as part of a tour. You see it superficially, you don't get to the heart of Cuba."
French's mother — a Cuban exile — returned once after being allowed back to the country and decided to stay in America due to the emotional toll it took on her during the first trip back. At one point, only people with family there could travel back. French explained how hard it is to leave your family for a long time and return, and how some don't go back. A lot of children were sent to the United States by their parents in the early 1960s and 1970s — also known as Operation Peter Pan — ultimately tearing the family apart, she said.
"In Cuba they're very accepting. The culture, the environment, and the relationship has evolved in the 50 years. I had a lot of anxiety going back not knowing what to expect," she said. "Wondering how I would be treated as a daughter of a Cuban exile. Everyone treated us graciously and affectionately. Just warm, it was just wonderful. There was this kind of...propaganda that was in the background, but the people themselves, we didn't get that from them. Very inviting, very welcoming. There were people wanting the embargo to be lifted all over the island."
French said there are currently 150 flights to the island per day.
President Barack Obama met with Raul Castro on April 11, 2015, which marked the first meeting between the two countries since 1961. He visited Cuba this past March, the first presidential visit to occur in over 85 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The change in relationship resulted from a prisoner swap and Havana's release of a jailed U.S. subcontractor last December. However, a trade embargo still remains.
Turmoil between the two countries stems back to the Cold War under communist ruler Fidel Castro's regime to increase trade with the Soviet Union. This increased taxes for America and led to an economic retaliation toward Cuba — banning almost all exports to the island — under President John F. Kennedy. A failed effort to overthrow the Castro regime occurred in 1961, or the Bay of Pigs invasion. The economic and diplomatic isolation only grew, leaving a government estimated $1.126 trillion loss for more than 50 years of trade restrictions, backed by the U.S. government.
French still has family in Miami who never left, and also extended family and grandparents in Cuba. She left Florida after college and met her husband-to-be in Baltimore. Later they decided to move to Vermont as they formed a family because her husband had spent time in the state growing up.
French said her son never used to say he was Cuban until they returned from the trip. For the first two years of French's children's lives, she spoke Spanish to them. Even now, she said they understand it, but aren't confident enough to speak it fluently.
"Generationally, you grow up listening to the language and listen to people speaking and you learn it in school," she said. "When I was growing up, I was immersed in it so I'm bilingual."
— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.