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Exile Reclaims Childhood in Visit Home

Cuba: Mother, sister join reporter in emotional homecoming. She finds family, understanding and a time capsule that yields a key link to her past.


HAVANA — The yellowed family photograph of my grandmother holding a rag doll brings childhood memories flooding back. I see myself as a frightened 5-year-old, lying in bed, clutching that doll in the dark.

My parents are whispering again, whispering about leaving Cuba. Their voices are tinged with sadness.

I remember saying goodbye to my beloved abuela, the Spanish word for grandmother. We are among the lemon and mango trees behind her little stucco home in "El Rosario," a poor barrio on the outskirts of Havana.

I bravely assure her we will be back soon. A few months, maybe a year or two at most. Castro will be gone soon, Papa says, and we can come back home.

My abuela hugs me tightly. I squirm away and thrust my favorite doll at her. I have an important task for her.

"This is for you to take care of now," I tell her.

The look of surprise on her face comes back to me now. She insists I take the doll to America. I can carry it with me on the airplane, she says.

"I'll be back to get it," I promise her. I turn and run, leaving my rag doll in her arms.


Today, I am a 41-year-old woman married to a "gringo." We are raising three children in Abita Springs, La., a small community on the outskirts of New Orleans, where I work as a reporter for Associated Press.

My father, Orlando Perez, worked for a religious publishing business in El Paso, Texas, for many years. He died four years ago, never seeing his homeland again.

I have asked my mother, Josefa Perez, to return to Cuba with me. My 32-year-old sister, Judy Perez, who was born in America and lives in Palm Bay, Fla., says she will come with us.

I hope this journey together will help me understand my mother as well as recover my own past. I want to know what my mother and father lost when they left Cuba. I want to understand why every New Year's Eve, my parents solemnly vowed: "Next year in Havana."

For months, Mama vacillates about returning. I grow increasingly angry at her excuses: Maybe she would get sick, maybe the Cubans would shoot the plane out of the sky, maybe she couldn't get back out.

And then one day she blurts out the real reason: "I don't want the nightmares to start again."

During her first years in exile, she had nightmares every night, she tells me in a quaking voice. Nightmares that she was back in Communist Cuba and couldn't find a way out.

But the phone calls from family members still on the island tug at Mama. And she is haunted by photographs my grandmother and aunts have sent us over the years.

Among the oldest of the pictures is the one of my grandmother holding the doll, showing me she was still keeping it for me. But in recent pictures, the old women look like starving inmates of a concentration camp. Finally, even Mama cannot resist their pull.

My maternal grandfather, Francisco Mari, a poor fisherman, died in 1975. But as we start the long process of getting permission for our visit from the Cuban government, I am happy that Mama will see her mother one last time.

The political fallout from Cuba's downing of two refugee planes slows the visa approval. For five months, we wait.

My grandmother--already frail from malnutrition and the lack of scarce medicines--dies in late March before the visas finally come.


Two haggard old women rush out of the family home in El Rosario. It is the house my grandfather built, the home of my earliest childhood memories.

The old women are strangers to me, but Mama kisses and hugs her sisters joyfully. My sister Judy and I hang back, waiting to be introduced.

"This is Roxanita?" Mercedes Cao Mari asks in Spanish as she holds me at arms' length and slowly looks me over. I feel like a shy little girl again when she crushes me to her chest and kisses me on the cheek.

It is hard to believe this wrinkled woman is just two years older than my own 66-year-old mother. Mercedes weighs about 100 pounds. The hot Cuban sun has turned her thin arms a deep brown. Deep creases mark the passage of time on her long face. Her gnarled, arthritic hands, two fingernails black with infection, tell of years of hard work.

Her 74-year-old sister is even more frail. The years have turned Antonia Aguilar Mari's hair nearly white. She is even thinner than her sister and speaks little, seemingly overwhelmed by all the people. Antonia, I am told, hasn't left the house for years.

It is Mama who first asks about the doll: "It would make Roxana very happy if it is still around."

I am embarrassed.

Here I am--a grown woman with a home and children of my own--and my mother is asking my poor relations if they still have my rag doll.

The Communist revolution has torn families apart. The fleeing refugees left behind homes and businesses. Corporations have lost millions. And I want my doll.

Nobody can remember ever seeing the doll. It doesn't really matter, I mumble.

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