“When I’m not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it.”
There was tremendous pressure riding on my trip to Cuba. It was my first time traveling internationally, and I had high hopes for it. The invitation came over lunch one Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, from two friends that I didn’t know terribly well, Justin and Derrick. They were planning the trip to celebrate Derrick’s birthday and invited me to tag along. I had been looking for a reason to travel internationally with my best friend Ayo, and this felt like the perfect vehicle. Unfortunately, after paying for his flight and his share of the Airbnb, Ayo’s passport was delayed, and he was unable to go.
There was a lot of anxiety in me about some of the semantics. For one, none of us spoke more than a handful of words in Spanish, so I immediately began to imagine my pristine organs being sold on the imaginary Cuban Black market. I was also a bit worried about how accepting the Cuban people would be of femme gay men. Websites offered me reassurance that Cuba was gay-friendly, but that might’ve been for white gay men with money. I was worried about our personalities clashing. I can be a bitch. As an INFJ, an artist, and a certified complainer, I kept imagining the ways this trip could go wrong. In these scenarios, I would get too hot and overheat. Since I’m fat, the walking would become too much, and I would collapse.
When I pictured my ideal outcome for the trip, I wanted to accomplish a few things. I wanted to experience “authentic” Cuba. I had visions of eating real Cuban food and drinking tiny cups of homemade café con leche. I wanted to see the inside of someone’s home, and I wanted to learn a few words in Spanish. I wanted to make great images that stayed true to my sensibilities as a photographer. As the trip approached, I was anxious about how I could pull all of this off.
After a comfortable and brief flight, we landed. The air was hot and still, hardly a breeze to be felt. It was another world entirely. My first world privileges exited the plane before I did. I began complaining about the heat and the rain instantly. I was annoyed having to walk from the plane to the tarmac and on to the airport which took no more than two minutes. After a grueling journey through the dank airport, we met our driver who overcharged us substantially (Fifty CUCS) to drive us to our Airbnb. But as soon as we got settled I was able to take it all in.
We decided to take a walk around the neighborhood, after washing the pools of sweat and jet lag from our bodies. Many of the cliché’s of Cuba were present. The vibrant yet dilapidated buildings, the 1950’s era cars in all of the brightest colors, and an excess of dogs wandering aimlessly through the partially eroded streets. I’m usually turned off by things that have been done to death, but I couldn’t deny the charm of Cuba. As we sauntered through the streets, it was very clear that we were foreigners. The locals were staring at us as if we’d just stepped off of a spacecraft. However, the looks appeared to be from a place of curiosity, not critique.
We had walked as far down the streets of Calle as we felt comfortable and decided to head back. A man was having a conversation on the sidewalk, and as I passed him, he couldn’t stop staring at the 19 lb. camera dangling from my neck. He exclaimed, “120? 120!?” which is the film that this camera takes. I gleefully responded, “yes, 120 film!” His face lit up with approval, “I love the film! I miss the film!” Apparently, I’d stumbled upon a photographer, Ernesto Mastrascusa.
His face, round and jubilant, his voice light and brittle. His skin was lighter than any Cuban I’d seen, so light that I initially believed him to be white. He constantly said that his English was terrible. However, I thought it was remarkable. After about two minutes of conversation, he invited us into his home. I froze, imagining my organs again, making their way down the black market. Being invited into a stranger’s home that quickly didn’t sit right with the Baltimore in me. But we collectively agreed to check it out.
Ernesto’s home was gorgeous. Compared to most of the houses we’d passed it was decadent. He stayed with his wife, his son Angelo, and his mother and father-in-law. When I was inside the home, I kept thinking, right off the street like this? This would never happen back home. His wife didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow we bonded through smiles and kind gestures. She too was fair skinned; in fact, everyone in the family was remarkably light. She offered to make us café con leche, and I was elated. The tiny floral cup made my hands gargantuan. Ernesto’s mother-in-law was kind and slow moving. Angelo, Ernesto’s eleven-year-old son was amazing. His English was far better than his father’s, but he would get easily frustrated whenever he couldn’t think of a word, staring at the ceiling and snapping his fingers arhythmically. It was interesting seeing a kid who was completely present, without him being preoccupied with some piece of technology. I would often catch glimpses of Angelo staring off into nowhere, clearly deep in thought.
As I drank my café and Derrick and Justin sipped their Cuban rum, a deluge began. The rain fell loud upon the leaves. The air was thick and tropic. I was expecting my phone to buzz with a flash flood warning, but then I remembered I had no service. As the rain got more aggressive, Derrick and Justin mixed their tipsiness with jet lag and decided to depart. I was nowhere near ready to go. My conversation with Ernesto was completely enthralling, and I felt safe sitting on his porch, fist fighting the mosquitoes. They were apprehensive about leaving me, but I assured them I was fine.
For about two more hours Ernesto, Angelo and I conversed. Ernesto was a professional freelance photographer. He’d spent the last 30+ years telling stories. He has worked with EPA, Getty, and many more. He’s photographed everyone from Fidel Castro, Barack Obama, to Beyonce. He was certainly no hobbyist. I felt it far more than coincidental that I would stumble across him while walking down the street. Days before my trip I had just been fired from another non-profit job and I was working up the courage to become a freelance photographer. Meeting him felt more like fate than serendipity.
Ernesto shared his love for New York City, telling me about the time when he was able to visit. He boasted about an image of him in front of an NYPD car with a shirt that read, “Respect The Hustle.” Angelo shared his love for outdated Rock music; his favorite bands were Metallica, Bon Jovi, and Kiss. Ernesto’s mother loved making fun of my Spanish. She would ask me to say random words then laugh loudly into the humid night at how ridiculous I sounded, all in good fun. Being with them made me long for something I couldn’t quite articulate, something deeper than homesickness.
As the rain let up, Ernesto invited me to photograph a boxing match with him. He lent me one of his telephoto lenses, and we hopped in his car. We sped off into the darkness. There were no seat belts in his car, very few street lights along the way, and the puddles of rainwater were more like small rivers. I was mortified, but I was completely present. It was the first time in my life that I felt like a real photojournalist.
The trip immediately became wrapped in spending time with Ernesto and his family. This was the Cuba that I wanted to see. Ernesto and Angelo drove us around on most days. They took us shopping, to fancy restaurants, and offered up small bits of history along the way. They did this from a place of sincerity and kindness. Ernesto never wanted money, even though we constantly offered.
When we were away from Ernesto and his family, Justin, Derrick, and I were connecting on a deeper level. Every morning we had breakfast together, a temporary ritual but it was healing in ways we didn’t expect. Over fresh melon, flavorless eggs, and delicious café con leche we discussed our family trauma, relationship baggage, differing worldviews, and of course God-King Beyonce Knowles. We argued, we cried, and we restored each other. Our time in Cuba together sealed and cemented our friendship, and we were aware of it.
On our final evening in Cuba Justin, Derrick, and I had dinner plans at a restaurant with impossibly dim lights and overly salted fish. Ernesto had done me the final kindness of driving me to the restaurant, but first I had to say my goodbyes to his family. From the moment I met them I dreaded this. I felt embraced by this family in a way that felt somehow familiar and foreign. Ernesto’s mother-in-law began to cry in my arms almost immediately. I began to cry as I said my goodbyes to Ernesto’s wife. Saying goodbye to Angelo was particularly jarring. He wanted to ride with us to the restaurant to say goodbye to Justin and Derrick, but his father thought it was far too late.
At the restaurant we said our goodbyes to Ernesto, this was the hardest part of the trip. Our final supper was somber. Every time we changed the subject we invariably came back to Ernesto and the kindness with which he’d treated us and cried. I felt it even more special that Justin and Derrick hadn’t spent nearly as much time with Ernesto as I had, but they felt the weight of his presence just the same. The next day we headed home, hot, quiet, and deep in thought. It was clear that we’d left something very special behind.
I spent a lot of time alone in Cuba. I ate meals alone, I took walks alone, and I caught cabs alone. During those moments I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t afraid, but there was fear. I felt a strange combination of splendor, longing, and loneliness. For some reason, I wanted to make that feeling last. When I returned home, sat my bags down, and stretched out on my bed, I missed Cuba. I felt its pull in the pit of me. I felt its lessons on love, trust, and decency swelling behind my eyes.
In this country, it seems that the older we get the further we stray from believing that people are genuinely good and deserving of trust from the onset. Questioning everyone’s intentions has become a survival strategy. So much of my time in Cuba was spent in disbelief that Ernesto could be this good in real life. I spent so many moments weary of setting my backpack down in his house or leaving my phone unattended on the charger. Why?
Throughout my experience with Ernesto’s family, I kept saying “this would never happen back home” but what made me think this way? Why did it seem so foreign to me that Ernesto’s wife cooked me dinner? That Ernesto’s mother-in-law always made me café? Why did it feel so strange to be invited into his home within two minutes of meeting him? Isn’t that what my mother always did? Did she not feed the neighborhood? Did she not allow my friends to live with us when their families had struggles or when they’d been ousted for being gay? Was she not chef, saint, and sanctuary for so many in our community? How many times did the mother figures in my life take pity on me? How many times over the years have Black women shown me love and kindness and Black men protection and softness? And why was all of this so easy to forget?
Last week in Brooklyn something very similar happened. My two friends and I were walking to a restaurant in Bedstuy. This particular Saturday evening everyone in this neighborhood was having a cookout, taking in the last deep breaths of summer. I was made flush by all of the Black beauty. The elders sitting wisely on their brownstone stoops. The kids rushing loudly along the sidewalks and out into the closed off street. Being around such harmonious, unencumbered blackness made my skin sing. As we passed by a house in the middle of the block, an older Trinidadian man pulled up on a bike. He asked if we’d eaten yet and we were confused. The familiarity of this stranger was off putting. After a second of apprehension, we spoke of our hunger, and they offered us food. We sat with the elders and talked long into the night. He invited us into his space and embraced us on the streets. I felt the swelling again, the foreign, the familiar. In a moment so emotionally taxing, so vibrant, I couldn’t help but think of Cuba.
I felt a great sense of loss thinking of how much time I wasted on fear and suspicion while I was there. This was time that I could have spent taking in the love of this family and basking in the intense pride and beauty of the Cuban people. I could have spent this time hugging Ernesto’s mother-in-law and making jokes in my broken Spanish with Angelo. I could have spent this time laughing my throat sore with Justin and Derrick. I could have spent this time in silence, watching the rain from the aging metal chairs on the porch. This was the American in me, only thinking of the loss.