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"I don’t think anyone has ever hugged me that tightly before."

Hanny Rivera

I had grown up avidly listening to stories about life in Cuba. Stories about what it was like to get up early in the morning in order to have a chance at catching the bus to go to work; stories about the block-long lines to pick up bread and milk; stories about children that would flock around the streets and play in the parks instead of with computers or video game consoles like I was used to. In short, stories about all aspects of life, from infancy to old age; but they were just that to me: stories. Despite the fact that it lay ninety miles from my closest shore, they seemed like stories of a seemingly far away and almost mystical, unreachable place. I grew up by the ocean and as a child, I would sometimes try to squint into the distance, trying to find a glimpse of that island that to me held so much mystery, not to mention so many of my family members. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all of whom I only knew through wrinkled photographs and static-ridden phone calls.

A few months ago I was finally able to stop squinting into the distance and make my way onto the island that had been the protagonist of all my childhood tales. The plane ride took a little over a half hour; it would have taken me longer than that to drive to airport in heavy traffic. It seemed incredible that all this time I had been longing to visit a place that was so close, yet so far. The first image that greeted from the plane window was the familiar palm trees that also greeted me anytime I flew into Miami, but these were somehow different. They weren’t surrounded by vast expanses of roads and towering buildings of concrete and glass, they were growing on the sides of mountains and vast valleys, encircled in even more lush tropical vegetation. At once I realized what everyone meant when they said Cuba was one of the most beautiful places they had ever seen – I agree.

Getting out of the airport after landing was not a particularly speedy process. Between the half a dozen heavy bags, luggage inspections, fees, and other bureaucratic hurdles it was enough to give you a headache, but it was all more than worth once I got outside and saw the large huddle of excited Cubans waiting for their family members. I had always heard that my uncle was extraordinarily tall, and when I saw one backlight shadow that rose high above the rest, I could not help but hold my breath, hoping that was him. I finally made my way through the crowd and came up next to him. I don’t think anyone has ever hugged me that tightly before. I spent the next ten days in similar embraces, with my cousins, my aunts, my great uncles and aunts, and numerous friends of the family; all of whom I had heard of at some point or another or seen in a corner of a picture from the family album, but who were at last real people in my eyes. I had known them, as one knows the characters of a favorite show or book, but regardless of how much you read or re-watch entire seasons, it can never be the same as having them in front of you – of being able to look up at that tall uncle and see the striking shade of green in his eyes or holding your 2-year-old cousin’s hands as she dances away to a salsa song even though she’s still wearing diapers.

- Hanny Rivera
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