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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Hughes

Before the Revolution: A Family Searches for Its Past in Cuba

Updated: Feb 12, 2019


Before the Revolution: A Family Searches for Its Past in Cuba

Updated Feb. 20, 2010 1201 a.m. ET

If you lost your home in a communist takeover, it's really difficult to go home again.

My husband Dan's family fled Cuba in September 1960, almost two years after Fidel Castro took power, leaving behind a beautiful, modern home and most of their possessions. His parents, Daniel and Delia Bethencourt, an engineer and architect, had designed and built the house in Havana.

I always found it odd and surprising that no one in the family seemed to know what had happened to their house. The revolution abolished private property, but who was living there? I wanted to visit Cuba, mostly out of curiosity, but learned the hard way that the subject was strictly off-limits. My father-in-law never saw his mother again after he left the country. His anger was relentless. It became clear that we couldn't visit Cuba without deeply offending him. We couldn't even talk about it.

But then a mixture of loss and politics opened the door. Dan's father passed away, and his mother now suffers from Alzheimer's. Last year, President Obama loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba, making it possible for Cuban-Americans to visit extended family. I discovered that my husband, age 56, still has an aunt and two cousins in Havana, though we knew nothing about them.

I began to e-mail his cousin Noyi, and last summer we applied for visas to visit Cuba, along with our two teenagers.

First Impressions

We arrived at the tiny Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, the scene of dozens of highly emotional reunions. Many Cuban-Americans haven't seen their close relatives for decades, and there were tears, screams and bear hugs. Dan's relatives had warned us that they wouldn't be able to meet us at the airport since they didn't own a car. Amid all the emotional reunions, that seemed just as well, since we didn't know them.

Late in the afternoon, we reached the rundown but charming pink home of Dan's aunt in the Vedado section of Havana. Our newly found relatives quickly embraced us, and we sat down in the spartan living room. Much to my relief, they were all extremely likeable. My husband's Aunt Noydee, now 82, turned out to have been a professor of biology. Her daughter Noyi studied engineering but now cleans the home of a priest. Her other daughter, Felymary, is an engineer who has taken up painting. Only Felymary's two children spoke English.

Two days later we set out by taxi to visit Dan's childhood home, led by Noyi. As we drove, Noyi explained that because Cubans don't own their homes, few maintain the exteriors, most of which seem to be crumbling. I had read in a travel guide that many Cubans worry that those who fled the country will one day return—and want their houses back. I wondered how the occupants of Dan's family home would react to our arrival.

Noyi turned out to have only a vague idea of the address. So we walked and walked, searching for the electric tower she and Dan vaguely remembered. Noyi told me that when my husband's parents fled the country, they hadn't told the rest of the family they were going. She used to ride her bike around their house, to see if they had returned.

"That's it!" Dan said suddenly. At one time, the split-level home must have been an impressive example of modern architecture, but it now seemed completely abandoned. The carport under the house had been closed off with a chain-link fence covered in rags. Noyi volunteered to go knock on the door while the rest of us watched from the street.

Flood of Memories

An elderly woman in a diagonally striped housedress opened the door, just a crack, and a long conversation followed. The woman peered out at us from time to time. Finally Noyi gestured for us to walk up the steps. The woman said she had lived there for almost 50 years and Dan didn't look familiar. She shook her head vigorously and said a child named Tati had lived there.

"That was my sister's nickname!" Dan said excitedly in Spanish. "I'm Danielito."

The door opened a bit wider. "Ahhhh, you were the maldito!" she exclaimed in Spanish, using the term for a little devil. The woman introduced herself as Maria Ordaz and explained that she and her husband had been very close friends of Dan's parents. Dan's father had entrusted them with the house, saying the family would return soon. The two men were as close as brothers. Ms. Ordaz's husband passed away several years ago.

As we entered the house, she explained that nothing had changed since Dan's family left in 1960. "These were your parents' chairs. This was your parents' table, everything is still here," she said. But the furniture, mostly midcentury modern in style, was now in tatters. The curtains were drawn, making the house very dark.

But to Dan, who had left Cuba at age 7, the house seemed to offer an endless series of illuminations. "Those were the three steps," he said. "I remember those three steps!" My husband's Spanish, his first language, was becoming more rapid.

We stayed for an hour, wandering from room to room. Our children, Daniel and Isabel, 18 and 16, were amazed to find a laptop and a poster for Slipknot, an American heavy-metal band, in a bedroom. "It's the only reminder that we're in the present," my son said.

When we were ready to go, Ms. Ordaz seemed shaken. "I always knew you would come back," she told Dan in Spanish, looking at him very directly. "This is your house. If you want this house, it's yours." This was both extremely touching and shocking. How many people would offer you a house they had lived in for almost 50 years? My husband assured her we were just visiting, and we thanked her profusely and left.

A Surreal Feeling

That night, Ms. Ordaz called our hotel to say she had found an old photograph. We returned the next day and she handed us a curled black-and-white picture she had found in the dining room. It shows the first birthday party of Dan's brother Carlos in 1958. Ms. Ordaz and her husband are among the gathering of family and friends, and they're all standing against the once- shimmering diamond-patterned wallpaper in the dining room. Dan's brother, Carlos, is at the center, blowing out the candle on his cake.

Throughout the trip, Dan had become more and more animated, but he never appeared shaken. He said it wasn't until we returned home and he found more photos of the way the home had looked in his childhood that he really felt his family's loss.

We placed the two sets of pictures, then and now, side by side. The old photos show a modern split-level house with chestnut trim and two gleaming cars in the carport. The house appears so pristine it could be a real-estate ad from the 1950s. Now, the wood has turned black. The grass has grown over the stone wall in front, hiding it completely.

The impact on my husband seemed more surreal than sentimental.

"I realized the physical being, the life of my parents, is still there. Even their bed is still there," he said. "It's as though my childhood history is a museum. That doesn't happen to people here."

—Kathleen A. Hughes —Ms. Hughes is a writer in Rolling Hills, Calif. She can be reached at

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