As a freshman in college, I traveled to Cuba for the first time. It was a personal “pilgrimage,” a journey to rediscover my roots and reconcile my family. When I told my parents I wanted to go to the island, it was a difficult conversation to say the least. My mom was adamantly against it. Our family left thinking they wouldn’t go back until things changed. They left loved ones and memories behind that entangled them with pain and nostalgia for what once was … and what could have been. For these reasons, I felt I needed to better understand what this all meant to me and could only do so by going there.
That first trip was a transformational and bittersweet experience. I found Cuba to be just as beautiful as my grandparents had told me. I met incredibly resourceful, caring and welcoming people that received me with open arms. At the same time, I encountered countless young people in such a deep state of desperation that they would rather risk it all throwing themselves into the sea with the hope of coming to the U.S. — instead of staying on the island. For me, this despair and disillusionment struck close to home when I met my family that stayed behind.
When I returned to college, I felt I could not let this be a stand-alone experience and had to do something about it. Along with some daring, courageous and loving young leaders I’ve grown to call my dearest friends, we founded Roots of Hope to help empower youth in Cuba to become the authors of their own futures. Our fundamental belief is that no one should feel like they need to flee their homeland due to the lack of freedom and opportunities. As the sons and daughters of the Cuban diaspora, we believe our responsibility is to bridge the divides and we are deeply committed to garnering support for our counterparts to make a better life for themselves and their families in Cuba.
After a dozen trips and witnessing the impact we’ve made with thousands of young people on both sides of the Florida straits, my mom came around and became one of our most ardent supporters. With her example, she proved this is not just a generational issue. Several years ago, I made her a promise: to one day take her back to Cuba after almost 50 years. In 2014, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we decided to accelerate our plans. After the recent changes in U.S.-Cuba relations and Pope Francis’ announcement to visit the island, we felt it was the perfect opportunity to make this dream a reality.
Upon arriving in her homeland, my mother was interviewed by CNN on what this all meant to her. She shared a life lesson she taught me long ago: how to forgive — forgetting is hard, but forgiveness, it is liberating — it sets us free and empowers us to overcome adversity.
“I’ve come to a point in my life that we need to forgive,” she said. “My family… we had people in prison … hurt by the regime. I think it’s just time. It’s time to forgive, to forgive and to let these young people live.”
On September 29th, my mom and I returned from an unforgettable trip to Cuba. We arrived in Miami with a longing to go back again very soon. Two months later — on November 29th, my mom lost her long-fought battle with cancer. But her memory, her fighting-spirit, and her forgiving-soul continue to live in the seeds of hope she planted here — and there.
Listening to the Pope’s message of reconciliation, my mom and I felt there has been no better time for the Cuban people to come together and find a more inclusive way for moving forward. It is my personal belief that President Obama’s historic trip to the island is the next step in this journey. And for our family, this has been an opportunity to ensure a promise kept, a dream fulfilled.