By Connie (Salas) Gholson
At the beginning of 2008 my husband Jim and I were planning a driving trip back home to Illinois where Jim and my son Lee were born. Jim and Lee were in the kitchen talking about the trip and I was next sitting in the family room hearing them plan and talk. All of a sudden I began to sob and rock uncontrollably. The guys came rushing and asked: Why are you crying? And I responded: You both are going home. I have no home to go to.
Both Jim and Lee recommended for me to make an appointment with a psychotherapist with Kaiser, my HMO. I worked for 3 months with Dr Kristina Artist who diagnosed that I had been suffering with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress) for close to 47 years as a result of the trauma experienced when I left Cuba in July of 1961 when I was only 18 years old. My memory in self protection had blocked anything related to Cuba: the sites, the buildings, my home, and the people left behind.
In 2009, my daughter-in-law Donna and my niece Liana talked me into joining Facebook so we could exchange family pictures regularly. With curiosity I began searching in Facebook many people long gone from my life and through them I found out about a Facebook site called Cuba en Fotos. This site is the creation of Roberto Suarez, photoreporter for Juventud Rebelde and now has over 155,000 followers. I began looking at photos trying to remember what they were and also making comments under the pictures being uploaded. The comments in this site can be malicious and negative but one also finds positive and beautiful remarks. Roberto picked on my comments and began to chat with me and we have become gran amigos. He is the instrumental one for me planning and deciding to go back once I could legally make the trip. He also was persistent in helping me to remember what I had blocked from my mind regarding Cuba.
In 2012 I found out about the People to People tours to Cuba and began my search on the ones that were available for me to sign up and go. My niece Liana wanted to join me. Her husband and my husband told us that this trip was one that we needed to go without them as it was a trip of Going Home after 52 years of absence and a healing journey.
As it turned out my niece Liana could not make the trip to Cuba in September 2013 as she had to have foot surgery. I decided that I would go ahead and go without her. My trip to Cuba was short and packed with cultural exchanges. Our tour with Grand Circle Foundation included 4 nights in Habana and 3 nights in Vinales/Soroa. We were 20 participating in this tour and I was the only bilingual one, which was an advantage as I was able to take off while the guide was talking and I mingled with the cubanos on the streets and at the small stores that are now very prevalent around Cuba due to Raul Castro encouraging people to open their own businesses. What I observed with my own eyes is what I thought I would see, completely different of what some in Florida and New Jersey are saying. The cubanos were friendly, warm and receptive. They were curious to know where I came from and where I was born. When they heard me talk then they knew I was cubana like them and we talked with frankness. Nowhere at the cultural events or on the streets there were rehearsed talks at all as what they felt is what they said. There was no odio, rencor or bad mouthing at me. They were very happy to see that I had returned. I was called “la cubanita” by many. After being gone for over 52 years I felt good. It is a feeling of joy, happiness and of at last being able to see and begin to remember all those sites blocked for so many years deep down in my mind. I finally was able to live Cuban, to breath Cuban and to remind me of my roots and where I came from. Finally I found that inner peace needed by those of us that left Cuba during our youth and are now returning home for a visit.
Besides of what I experienced with the sites that I saw and the meetings with so many cubanos, the highlights of my trip were three and very personal. The first highlight was walking through the streets of el Vedado, where I was born with two members of the tour who had asked me to visit with them the synagogue at Calle 17 and E. I told them, I would go if they in turn would go with me to my old neighborhood to find my home, which I did. The present owners let us come in after I described the interior of the home to them. They had heard about my family and the family that lived upstairs. The house was in very good condition. The windows and doors were no longer painted white. They had taken it down to its original wood and varnished them. The kitchen had been remodeled and so had the patio. It was a very good feeling to see that home where I had lived since I was 10 to the time I left Cuba at 18.
Through Facebook and a site called Cuban Genealogy I found out shortly before I left for Cuba that there were Salas cousins living in el Vedado, la Habana. These cousins were descendants of my great uncle Mambi Colonel Indalecio Salas y Zamora from Sancti Spiritus. We connected through Facebook and they told me that they wanted to meet. Getting together with Teresita, granddaughter of tio Lecito and with her two daughters was a treat that I never imagined. I brought for them our computerized genealogy tree of the Salas and there on top of their dining room table we spread it out and we covered each branch of that great, famous family, many branches that they did not know of their existence.
Andres Ruiz, member of CAFÉ, had connected me with his mother Marta who was an alumni of Ruston Academy, Habana, the school I graduated in 1959 from High School. Marta and her husband Yepe live in the reparto Playa. Andres asked them to get together a group of Ruston alumni that live in Cuba so I could see them. There are 25 Ruston alumni living in la Habana. At the reunion we were a total of 9 people and some were spouses not from Ruston. The highlight for me was seeing my friend Lillian after 54 years of not seeing each other. Last time we saw each other was on our graduation night. From there we took different paths. Lillian was one of the daughters of a very prominent journalist that supported Fidel Castro, the Revolution and who later became Ambassador to the United Nations. Lillian stayed behind while I left with my family to the United States. When we saw each other that night it was like time had never passed us by. We hugged each other so hard not letting go for a while. We felt good. The fuerte abrazo that we gave each other was not only for our friendship, it was very symbolic, as my husband said, of two friends grown apart by the Revolution now seeing each other again and giving to others an example of reconciliation.