Raul and Cuba: My Best Friend travels back to his birthplace, Placetas, Cuba, Part I.

I met Raul when I was 13 in 1979.  It was brief and we really didn't say much to each other, but over the years, after being in each other's company, we became very close.  Which is funny because we always joke about how he didn't like me at first. We still are very close and I consider Raul to be like a brother to me.  

Raul came to America with his younger sister, Mother and Father in 1970 when he was 10 years old.  After the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro was in power, his family applied for visas to leave Placetas, Cuba.  Citizens that didn't want to be part of the new Communistic Regime,  could leave, but would have to lose all of their belongings, property and money plus while waiting for the visas to be approved, you had to work in a concentration camp before your application was approved.
Raul  as a child in Cuba. He is on the right, Standing.  His Sister is
in the front kneeling and the rest of these cute kids are cousins
Raul's father had to do this and would leave the home for 15 days straight then return for a short visit then go back.  This took about 7 years until all visas came back so they all could leave.  Like most Cubans that fled to America, they either landed in Miami, Florida or they went to Union City, NJ.  

Raul's family went to Miami for 2 days and then flew into Newark where his family would settle in  Union City, NJ.  It was a snowy night, which was Raul's and his family's first experience with snow.  His grandfather's cousin took him to Bergenline Avenue to El Waterloo to buy goulashes.  Union City is located just outside Manhattan in Hudson County which lies along the Hudson River, on the Jersey side.  His father had a job waiting for him and he started the next day in a Fun Fur factory.  He obtained this job through his grandfather's cousins son in-law that was a manager at this factory.      
A Picture of the Hudson River from
New Jersey - Raul's new home in America 

by Mark Montalbano

Raul finished grammar school and High School in West New York, NJ (neighboring city of Union City) and then went to College at Rutgers in Newark, later to NYU in New York City where received his Masters Degree in Social Work.  He had the option to participate in the Doctor's program for a Phd in Social work, but decided to really lean teqnique and that is when Raul went to the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies  and graduated in 2008. 

He had most of his family here along with a lot of Aunts and Uncles and plenty of cousins.  Of course, there are other family members that remained in Cuba and he was able to go back in March of 2012 after 42 years have gone by.  

I sat down with Raul (while he was knitting, a hobby he learned from his Aunt Lola) and interviewed him about his experience since I wanted to know so much about this country and so many other people were intrigued about his trip.  Everyone asked him so many questions.  After all, living in the Union City, West New York, North Bergen, Guttenberg, Weehawken area (if you know the area, it is pretty much all one in the same) we all have grown up with kids originally from Cuba. We heard the stories and embarrassed the culture (food and Music) but never really got all the details.  I can speak for myself, that I am proud to come from this area.  A place of immigrants, my family was from Italy and settled here.  Immigrants from all over Europe came before them and the Puerto Ricans and Cubans after, which I had the privileged of knowing all of these cultures.  It is a very rich place and I am lucky to be a part of.    

Originally, I asked him to take photos of anything Vintage!  I sell vintage items and knowing that Cuba was set in a time, I figured he would come across some beautiful objects.  I wanted him to take many photos of the architectural designs and anything ornate or with style. But, while he was there, and I was here, I started to think of what he was feeling.  If he was ok, in a secure sense and also if he was doing well with the the emotions he would be feeling while there.  My request for vintage turned into a thirst of knowing about what it would be like to travel back to your homeland.  How the people were doing in a communistic country and wondering what it would be like to go back to your birth place after watching your parents sacrifice everything material in order to achieve the ultimate goal of freedom.   Here it goes.     
My interview with Raul, April 18, 2012 - New Jersey

Q:What was the main reason for your family coming to America?  

A: Seeking political freedom, to prevent me from going into the Cuban Army that was mandatory for every male ages 15-27.  To create a better future for my sister and myself.     

Raul's Mother, Isabel and his Father, Raul in West New York, NJ
Circa 1980s
Q:Did you want to come to America?  

A:I was indoctrinated at an early age, so both my parents would tell me stories about everything we would have.  It kind of became their project that we would be better off.  Part of their fear was that if they were at the airport and if we ( meaning myself and my sister) said we didn't want to leave, that they wouldn't allow us all to go.          

Q:Once here, did you like it or hate it?

Raul's grammar school that is still in operation today.

A: I guess I liked it, I think I adapted easily, I remember being in awe of snow.  When growing up in Cuba, the principal would tell us that our ears would fall off from the cold and that you would be kidnapped because United States was a bad place.  Of course this principal was pro-Castro and was also a good friend of the family but those ties were severed after it became clear that we were anti-communist. 

Q;What made you decide to go back finally after 42 years?  

A: I felt that I would always be curious and I always felt that there was an emotional blockage as a result of leaving.   Also, it was a pilgrimage, not sure if that is the correct word, but I felt is was for my father, or in my father honor because before he died, he asked me to go.  So, when my cousin Maria father's was talking about going to Cuba and he asked if I was interested in going.  I was listening to my father's words and decided to go.  

Q: Once the plane tickets were purchased, from the travel agency on Park Avenue in Weehawken,  were you anxious to get there and excited or were you filled with anxiety and fear?  

Rations showing how much a person is allowed per month. 

A:  I guess I was anxious and Excited but apprehensive as well because I also felt I didn't know what I was getting into. 
Maternity Hospital in Placetas, Cuba.
Q: You made arrangements to stay with a cousin that is about your age and that you haven't seen in so many years, were you afraid that you were going to get along knowing that you were coming from a different world or was there still a strong connection?  

A: No, they were strangers to me, like, would we get along?  Where they Homophobic? Would we have anything in common? Could I be myself?    

Q: Once you touched down on Cuban Soil, can you explain how you felt?  Meaning emotions? 

A: I cried, just overwhelming sense of disbelief and it was reality. 

Q: What was the first thing you wanted to do or see once you were off the plane? 

A: Defiantly wanted to reach my destination, meaning go to the town I was born in (Placetas) and see my family.   Little did I know it was a 2 hour ride.  
Taxi Stand in Placetas, Cuba.
Q:What was the first thing you did do?

A:  Well, I had to deal with Customs and I was afraid that what I was bringing with me would be taken away from me.  

Q: What where those things you brought? 

A: I brought a hard drive for my cousin which he had purchased a laptop that broke 2 years ago and since there is no access to repair in Cuba.  I thought that they would take it away. I was a bit anxious to get away from being interagated because I didn't know what to expect and a bit fearful.  I had a fantasy that I would be interagated by men in uniforms because of my youth and because of stories I have heard.  Part of Communism is to induce paranoia and every community had a neighborhood watch person that report to a head of power. 
Bodega in Placetas, notice the variety?
Q: When did you notice that it was or wasn't the same as when you left Cuba?  Meaning was being back like riding a bike or did you feel apprehensive knowing you were in a Communist country?
A house at the end of Raul's street that someone lives in-Placetas, Cuba
A: I really didn't think of that, for me it was more about the emotion than the social political climate. I felt that the draw was being foreign but also so familiar.  I knew I was in a diffent place but yet I knew I wouldn't get lost.  I was only 10 when I left this place but knew how to get around.  When I got to Havana at night, I didn't know addresses but I knew how to get to my aunt's house and it was dark and no street lights, but I knew how to get there.  It never left me, it was a real awakening of a certain part of my brain that has been dormant for so many years.  The flood of memories of being back there was quite amazing.  
A decaying building in Placetas, Cuba.

A street with no pavement left in Placetas, Cuba

Q: I know you went to your home in town of Placetas, tell me, was it what you remembered?  

Raul's house is on the right and Aunt Lola's on the left. 

Raul's living room, just the way he left it.

The light switch that is still working
in Raul's house
A: To some extent, yes, but it was a lot smaller than I remembered but, everything was intact but not everything.  I remember my bedroom was not there and my parents bedroom set had been replaced but everything else was the same.  The parlor furniture, the rocker chairs, the side tables, the coffee tables and record player. The light switch in my bedroom where still the same and it made me cry which I totally forget about.  I would wake up my father so he could put the light on and walk me to the bathroom because I was always a chicken shit.  
Oh my, those light switches are a fire hazard by to today's standards. 
The stove that Raul's mother once cooked on.
It is still in use today.
The dinning room set that is still there.
Some pieces missing.
Raul's Grandmothers hutch when Married-1930s

El Corral
The Storage shed at Raul's house in Placetas, Cuba.
Where Raul's mother washed clothes after their
Machine broke and no way to repair it.
The water tower out back of Raul's house in Placetas.
Here he would play with his sister.
Q: Who lives in your house now and are you ok with your immediate family not owning it any longer? 

Gladys, the lady that now lives in Raul's home standing next
to Raul's mother's Sewing machine that still works. 

A shot of the Antique Singer Sewing Machine.

A: Now is a wife of a grand uncle who always lived with my grandparents.  He died and she stayed with the house.  She made my parents life miserable.  I guess it is better that she is there than having the government take it over which the government would have destroyed it.     

Raul on the left with Family members in Placetas, Cuba

A Beautiful flower in Placetas, Cuba. 
Could this be a poinsettia?
This concludes Part I of 3 of my interview.  Please leave a comment if you like. 

To Read Part II, click this link.  We talk about Homosexuality and Havana.  Thank you for reading and have a Fab Day! ~ Gina (and Raul) 





  1. Very interesting and moving... both the personal story and the changes to, or lack of changes, to Raul's old home and homeland...

  2. Thank you for your comments, I will pass these along to Raul. ~ Gina

  3. Excellent information & photos. It is amazing that Raul remembered how to navigate his way through the city after so many years.

  4. Thank you S W.....I will pass your message to him, yeah, it is amazing after 42 years!!!! ~ Gina

  5. Cannot wait for the next installment. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Oh goody,,,glad to hear that, Anonymous on April 30th. We should rap it up in a few days. You are welcome. ~ Gina


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