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Cubans Drawn to Their Spanish Roots

A new law allows individuals with at least one parent born in Spain to become citizens, which could translate into a pension.

March 23, 2003|Mar Roman | Associated Press Writer

HAVANA — The gray-haired stranger in glasses opening the door of the modest ground-floor apartment looked almost exactly like my Spanish grandfather Matias, except for the loose-fitting tropical dress shirt called a guayabera.

The man was my grandfather's cousin, Manuel Grande. The two last saw each other more than six decades ago in Spain when they were both just 7 years old and the Cuban family came to visit.

As a Spanish citizen visiting Cuba for the first time, I had never seen this man with almost the same face as my grandfather -- even the same gestures.

"eforeQue tremenda sorpresa!" -- "What a tremendous surprise!" -- my newly discovered Cuban cousin cried out with tears in his eyes as we hugged. "Tell me, tell me about Spain."

Sharing 7-year-old Cuban rum and a typical dinner of pork, black beans and rice, Manuel told of how his father immigrated to the island from Spain in 1912.

Born and reared in Cuba, Manuel announced that he was becoming a Spaniard under a new Spanish law that allows people of all ages to seek Spanish nationality if at least one parent was born in the motherland.

"Now people want to be Spanish by all means," he said.

Under the new law, many Cubans are eligible for Spanish nationality. Before the law took effect Jan. 9, only people under age 20 could apply if at least one parent was born in Spain.

The new law also offers citizenship to those with a Spanish-born grandparent if the applicants get visas and live in Spain for a year.

Even 76-year-old President Fidel Castro is eligible for Spanish nationality under the new law. His father, who was born in Spain's western region of Galicia, came to Cuba at the end of the 19th century.

Cousin Manuel's father -- my grandfather's uncle, also named Manuel -- came to the island in the last wave of Spanish immigrants after the Spanish-American War of 1898. About one-third of the 3.5 million Spaniards who left their homeland between the late 1800s and 1930 went to Cuba.

"Spaniards, like my dad, were attracted to this place for the Spanish connection," Manuel said, settling back into his rocking chair.

His father arrived in Cuba with virtually nothing and survived by cutting sugar cane. Later, he earned enough to buy several elegant stores in the Old Havana and Vedado neighborhoods.

Although cousin Manuel traveled to Spain just once as a boy, he talks constantly about the family's small village in northern Spain as if he lived there all his life, said his Cuban wife, Lilia.

Manuel's father lost his riches after the 1959 triumph of the Cuban revolution led by Castro and died from a heart attack three years later.

The family split up, with many relatives immigrating to the United States in the 1960s. But cousin Manuel stayed -- without regrets -- working many years at the Jose Marti National Library in Havana.

"Here in Cuba, you live without problems," he said of Cuba's communist system. "We have free education and health care. We don't have to worry."

Still, he said, he always hoped to see his cousin Matias -- my grandfather -- at least once more. The two cousins have shared their lives over the years through letters and photographs; Manuel does not have a telephone.

"I would like for my cousin in Spain to have the chance to come visit us," Manuel said. "But for now, your visit here is a proof that he has had a good life. That gives me peace."

Manuel shook with laughter remembering the old Cuban television show "Chicharito y Sopeira," which poked fun at early immigrants who fled Spain's economic depression to prove themselves on the island.

Now, Spain is the beacon, with Cubans sifting through old family papers in a search for birth certificates or anything else proving a direct connection to Spain.

At his age, Manuel has no illusions of setting foot in Spain again.

"If I could travel to Spain, I probably would. But it's unlikely now," he mused while standing in a line of people outside f the Spanish Embassy.

"I wanted to be a Spaniard for sentimental reasons," he added.

Spanish nationality would mean a better standard of living because Spain pays pensions to citizens over age 65 living in foreign countries. In Cuba, that can mean up to $200 a year in a country where monthly salaries average $10.

Mostly because of pensions, the number of people seeking Spanish nationality has increased with the new law, said a Spanish consul.

He estimated that in Cuba, 80,000 people are eligible for Spanish nationality, the highest number in Latin America after Argentina.

People are also lining up at Spanish embassies in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela in hopes of traveling to Spain and leaving their economic problems behind.

In Havana these days, hundreds of people snake down the sidewalk outside the Spanish Embassy.

I last saw cousin Manuel as he was about to enter the embassy. He flashed a smile, no longer a mere mirror image of grandfather Matias. He was my Manuel, my cousin, a man I now like to think of as my Cuban grandfather. And soon, perhaps, a Spaniard as well.

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