On the last day of Cuba Nostalgia’s quinceañera party, Carlos Rosario played dominoes with his son Enzo, Librada Caballero salsaed to Willy Chirino tunes, and Joe and Maria Elena Chambrot tried to find the addresses of their childhood homes on a gigantic floor map.
For the thousands of people who attended the three-day stroll down memory lane, the 15th annual tribute to pre-Castro Cuba at the Miami-Dade Fair Expo Center was a way of reliving happy childhoods and showing off their Cuban roots to children raised on this side of the Florida Straits.
“I came because I’m very nationalistic,” Enzo Rosario, 20, said Sunday. “I want to see a Cuba before revolutionary times.”
Enzo arrived in Miami from Cuba to join his father three years ago. He is now a seminarian at St. John Vianney, and Cuba Nostalgia, he adds, “helps me understand a Cuba before it was destroyed.”
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Though Carlos Rosario has visited his family on the island several times, the Miami businessman likes to scout out the displays of Cuban art and the replicas of island landmarks at the fair.
“In my case, I don’t feel nostalgia like some others may feel who haven’t gone back to Cuba,” he says. “I come here because I’m proud of being Cuban and I want to show it.”
Across the way, a band played the kind of music that Librada Caballero, 66, couldn’t resist. As her family and other onlookers watched, she shook and shimmied, lost in her own world. Caballero came to the fair with her husband because, after 40 years of exile, “this brings me happiness. It always helps to remember.”
She stopped to catch her breath and dab her eyes. “Oh, my lovely Cuba. My lovely, lovely Cuba.”
For Caballero’s daughter, Cecilia Cruz, 35, of Sunrise, a Sunday afternoon of time travel helps her understand her parents better. She and her older brother were born in the U.S., and Cuba is a mythical island a short plane ride away. But “when you come here,, it’s like I’m living a day in their lives. I think I understand them better. For sure sharing this with them makes us closer.”
At the Vicky Bakery booth, Jackie Chavez, 52, of Hialeah, stood in line with her aunt, Celerina Santana, 80, of Weston to sample the free pastelitos, one of the many popular freebies handed out Sunday afternoon. Attending Cuba Nostalgia is an annual family ritual that used to include Chavez’s mother, when she was alive.
Like Cecilia Cruz, Chavez believes that sharing stories about the past, about a country long lost but not forgotten, brings the generations together. But it does something much more, too. It nurtures genealogical roots. So Chavez, who came here 47 years ago, dresses the part with a black cowboy hat with CUBA embroidered on the front and a jean shirt with the Cuban flag on the pocket over her heart.
“For me this is my country,” she says. “I’m an American. But I also think you can’t forget where you come from.”
Santana agrees with her niece, pointing out that Cuba Nostalgia helps the older generation teach the next one about the history of the island. “It’s always been very important for me to teach my children about Cuba. What the next generation does is up to them,” she says.
Milagros Hernandez was 11 when she arrived in Miami in 1963, but she remembers the addresses of every house she lived in, even rattling off her Havana phone number with ease. She has come to Cuba Nostalgia every year with her husband, Rene Gil. “I’m very proud of my heritage,” she explains.
Her grandmother, Liduvina Castro Diaz, was featured in a Miami Herald display of Cuban quince celebrations. In a black and white photograph that dates back to 1905, Castro Diaz is in a high-collared linen and lace dress, flowers in her hair. “I remember her telling us stories of her quince and how much she enjoyed it and what a big deal it was.”
Perhaps one of the more popular Cuban Nostalgia displays is the massive pre-Castro map that covers the center floor where the Chambrots and dozens of others searched for their homes and schools. Joe Chambrot, who was 10 when he arrived in Miami 51 years ago, spotted the two intersecting streets in the Havana neighborhood of Marianao where he spent his early years. Then with the tip of his shoe he traced the train tracks that ran nearby.
“Look at that!” he told wife Maria Elena. “I used to walk up and down these train tracks all the time.”
Then after a long pause, one rife with both nostalgia and melancholy, he added, “Believe it or not, every time I stare down at this I get all choked up.”