CALABAZAR DE LA HABANA, Cuba (CBS) — Many of us are still trying to figure out just what to get dad for Father’s day, but CBS 2’s Mai Martinez doesn’t have to worry about that. She’s already given her dad something close to his heart: a trip back to his native Cuba.
Her father became a U.S. citizen after serving in the Vietnam War, and later as a U.S. Army special agent.
Security concerns with both the U.S. and Cuban governments prevented him from returning to Cuba, but now that he’s retired, Mai convinced him that after nearly 50 years, it was time for him to return and for Mai and her brother to meet the family they’d never known.
Even as he stood in line at the Miami airport, Mai’s father, José Martinez, couldn’t believe he was going home.
“I will feel it once I’m on the plane,” he said. “I want to be on the plane.”
The flight from Miami to Havana is only half an hour, but for Mai’s father, it had been a lifetime. He was just 11 in 1962, when his parents sent him and his sister to live in Miami.
Their parents were supposed to follow later, with his brother, but they never made it out. José Martinez never saw his parents again, making his return to Cuba bittersweet.
Asked how it felt when he got back to Cuba, he laughed and said, “It feels very hot, muy caliente. A bit strange.”
The toll of those 50 years apart from friends and family was evident as he exited the airport, and collapsed into the warm embrace of a family friend.
But those tears turned to smiles as José and Mai loaded into a family car for the drive to his childhood home in Calabazar de La Habana. Before he could even get inside, a childhood friend rushed up to greet him.
At the house he lived in as a child, he reunited with family — including Marinita and Esperanza, two favorite cousins.
As happy as the reunion was, José was haunted by the absence of his parents. It took him an entire day to gather the strength to visit their grave for the first time.
“This is Marino’s wife’s family’s tomb, so they put my parents’ bones in here,” he said.
It was heartbreaking to watch, but once he made his peace with them, he felt a freedom to embrace his island again.
“This is my town, Calabazar de La Habana,” José said.
For him, so much had changed in his village in the 50 years he’d been gone. But one thing remained the same: the spirit of his family, always celebrating life with plenty of music, dancing, and laughter.
That’s the Cuba José missed and always remembered. Now it’s the Cuba that Mai will always remember too.
(Note: Travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens is very restricted. José Martinez and his family were able to visit the island, because Martinez was born in Cuba, still has family on the island, and maintains dual citizenship. As a journalist, Mai Martinez is also able to travel to Cuba for work purposes. The entire family had to apply for proper paperwork and visas from both the U.S. and Cuban governments.)