When I was twenty-two years old, I had the opportunity to go to Cuba for the very first time. Both sides of my family left the island in the sixties, at the dawn of the Revolution, and never returned. They were allowed to leave only with what they could carry. It had been more than 50 years since someone in my direct bloodline had stepped foot back on that island. And I would be the first one.
As a child, I distinctly remember being fascinated by the idea that the United States was built by people from many places. Everyone has ancestors, and so many of them sacrificed just to make it to this country, and then sacrificed even more to make this country their own. I was born and raised as a young girl in Miami, so my elementary school classrooms were filled with every shade of skin known to man. As early as I can remember, my family instilled a very healthy pride in me regarding both my citizenship and my heritage. I am American-born-and-raised, and this country is the one that gave me my future. But I also come from a long line of strong, smart, funny, hard-working Cubans, and that country is the one that fills in so much of my context – the one that gave me my past.
It was and always has been a gift to be both. But that gift has not come without its struggles.
Both sets of my grandparents fled Cuba as young adults, when my parents were still little children. When my maternal family left, the U.S. was only accepting Cuban immigrants that had spent at least one year in another Spanish-speaking country that agreed to receive Cuban refugees. At the time, it was Spain, so they lived in Spain for one year until they could make it over to the United States, where my grandfather had a brother who would receive them.
They arrived in Spain with nothing. So when I see the faces of Syrian immigrants strewn helplessly across Europe – sleeping lightly in train stations and rowing desperately across seas, captured in photos across the Internet – I see my own family. We are worlds away but somehow inches apart.
Moving to the United States changed everything for my family. It provided opportunities that we may never have experienced otherwise. It completely altered the direction of our generational line. Quite simply, it gave us a fighting chance – which is what I think all that anyone wants. Why else would anyone leave everything to start over?
My grandmother spent many years trying to explain to me what it takes for a person to pick up and leave their country with nothing but their children. There are countless stories that built the foundation on which my sisters and brothers and cousins and I now stand; stories of Not Enough that developed into Great Fear and resulted in Necessary Escape. Because at the time, the circumstances were not just “pretty bad.” They were severely threatening to their very survival.
Throughout my life, I have had access to good food, reliable healthcare, and a quality education. I grew up in the suburbs, was raised in a bilingual home. I did not have to work as a child. We’ve had clean water, in-door plumbing, a bed for each of us. There were always gifts at Christmas. I’ve had the opportunity to give back in places around the country and serve in different areas around the world. I was a first-generation university graduate.
Every relative I have that emigrated from Cuba worked hard to receive U.S. citizenship. Both of my grandfathers eventually came to own their own businesses. My grandmothers were able to raise their families in peace. My mother made careers in both the corporate world and the education system and my father is a U.S. veteran.
But most importantly, it was in the U.S. that my mom first heard the Gospel. At a Billy Graham crusade, she became the first Christian in our family at the age of 23. I think we often forget how accessible the Gospel is in our country. Can you believe that she had never fully heard it before? It changed everything. Decades later, I now live in Guatemala serving as a full-time Christian missionary.
Never in a million years did I think I’d get the chance to go to Cuba, much less to share Jesus with others, even less to return to the very place where my own grandparents lived. But that opportunity presented itself, and on a Friday morning last November, I found myself standing on the same ground where my mother played.
There is something perfectly wordless about that moment in my mind, like seeing in color for the very first time. When you are raised between two worlds, there is something almost holy about the chance to see for yourself where it all began.
When I see the Syrians, I see myself – one generation away. This is the truth: my family fled, too. I am a walking example of what the sacrifices for a better life look like. We must share the freedom we’ve been given. It’s our responsibility. It’s easy to become afraid and want to build taller walls, but what would happen if instead we built larger tables? It’s easy to want to shut them out, but what would happen if we let them in and listened?
Sharing the fruits of freedom with the hungry and the dying is what changes the world. I know, because it changed mine.