by Izzy Kings
My grandmother came to America from Cuba when she was 19. Growing up, she’d always tell me stories about a Caribbean getaway, about a life dictated by dance, food, and vibrancy. “You could pick fruit straight from the trees and eat it.” she’d say. “Bananas, papayas, mangoes…” The beaches were beautiful, the people were friendly, the weather was calm, peaceful, and sunny.
My grandma came to America with the hopes of going back home, but due to the rise of Castro and American policies against communism, she was unable to ever return. As a result, my grandma hasn’t had contact with her family for over 50 years. Whenever the pain of not knowing her family gets brought up, she succumbs to the sadness.
My relationship with my Cuban side feels kind of like an itch I can’t scratch. It’s a part of my identity, yet I know relatively nothing about it other than the stories I’ve been told. Sometimes I feel frustrated that I don’t embody the cultural characteristics that other Cuban Americans do. I always blamed this on the fact that I never knew my extended family and sometimes imagined what life might be like if I did. Still, I have a love for Cuba that I’ve never been able to place in anything tangible. Nowadays it’s just become jamming out to Havana on the radio.
Recently my sister went to Cuba for her honeymoon. When she told my grandma about her plans, my grandmother mentioned that anybody who lived in her hometown of Santa Clara and had her last name was probably her relative. So, my sister and her husband packed their bags and left. We were eager for pictures, but nothing more.
With the help of Facebook, my sister managed to get in contact with my grandmother’s cousin’s son. My grandmother was right. Everyone in Santa Clara with her last name was a relative.
Since then, we have heard the news that some of my grandmother’s siblings are still alive and have children of their own. She’s gotten their phone numbers and has been able to contact them. One of their sons actually moved to Pennsylvania, so my mother has a cousin on the east coast.
The news had me bubbling enough to tell anyone who’d listen. I spoke with my story partner, Chloe Krammel, about what she thought about working on a piece about my family’s reunion. I was surprised to find out that these types of stories aren’t as sensational as I originally thought. Chloe had one too! Families are constantly being torn apart and brought back together by the power of the Internet.
Chloe’s mother was ‘black market’ adopted and her birth certificate was doctored. She was told little to nothing about her biological family so she never felt the need to find them.
About a year ago, however, her mother sent her DNA to ancestry.com and was able to find her biological family. Chloe’s mother was raised Jewish and is originally from New Jersey but later moved to South Florida. Prior to discovering the truth, Chloe’s mother had always been told that her biological mother was from the South and, as Chloe puts it, “thought Jews had horns.” Apparently, though, Chloe’s mothers’ biological mother is not only also from New Jersey and now lives in North Florida, but she’s also Jewish. So, the disconnect between Chloe’s mother’s biological and adopted family isn’t as far off as she’d originally thought. What’s even crazier is that Chloe’s mother lived on Bleeker Street in New York City at the same time as her biological mother. This whole time they’d been right under each other’s noses and didn’t even know it.
Before all of this, the only thing Chloe knew was that she was of German descent. But since then, she’s discovered that she’s actually Italian and biologically Jewish. 50% of Chloe’s cultural identity remained unknown to her up until this point, but when I asked if this affected her she said she’d “never really thought about it.” Knowing it now, however, is “really exciting” to her and “makes more sense in a way.” Finding a family you never knew you had before (or even lost) really opens your eyes to how alienating living in the unknown can feel.
This experience has made me find peace within myself, but not in the way I had always expected it would. At first, I was bubbling with excitement. I called my grandmother, cried with her, and urged her (begged her!) to plan a trip to Cuba with me soon. But after a few days I began to realize that in the grand scheme of things, I have no connection to these lives other than some distant bloodlines. At the end of the day, this is the ending to her story, not mine. I began to see family differently, as something created by the marriages, births, and the choices of strangers that I’ve never even met before. I began to consider strangers on the train and random people I walked by on the street as being as significant to me as some of my distant relatives might be. Like Chloe alluded to when discovering the other 50% of her background, it’s not necessarily something that needs to be thought about, but uncovering the unknown always “makes more sense in a way.”