With all the recent talk about Congress planning to lift travel restrictions to Cuba, I got to thinking about my own trip there in February 1957, when I was eleven. My father was engaged to sing for a month at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. My mother and I joined him for the last week of his stay there.
Built in 1930, the hotel looked like a Spanish castle, with gleaming tile floors, high ceilings and pots of tropical plants in the corridors. (I learned just this week that it was designed by McKim, Mead & White to look like The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.) It stood on a hill at the center of the curving shore. To the left, the severely modern U.S. Embassy building thrust its gleaming glass and steel toward the sky. To the right, toward the city, stood the ancient fortress, Moro Castle. Cuba was under a dictatorship. Order and prosperity seemed in place, but communist insurgents were even then organizing in the Sierra Maestra hills for the revolution that would bring Fidel Castro to power. I have several vivid memories about our 1957 trip. Here’s one of them:
One day my family decided to go for a ride in the country. As we were driving through what was obviously one of the more prosperous neighborhoods outside Havana, the car started to make a knocking noise. My father, being a collector of antique cars, was very sensitive to the slightest strange sound emanating from any internal combustion engine. He pulled over and stopped the car. We were immediately surrounded by half a dozen militiamen with automatic rifles pointing in our direction. Always cool in moments of crisis, my father tried joking with the men – then he started to put up the hood to indicate that we had car trouble. He was stopped by the barrel of a gun. Switching to Spanish, which he had learned easily for this trip (given his opera-cultivated facility for languages) he got serious, asking what was wrong, what had we done, what they wanted us do. One of the men jerked his head in the direction of a house, hidden behind typically Spanish ornate wrought-iron gates and masses of bougainvilla. "Batista mama!" he spat out. So that was it! We had chosen to check our engine noise directly in front of the home of the mother of dictator Fulgencio Batista. My father decided to take a chance with the engine noise, rather than with the armed guards, and they let us drive away. This was two years before the Cuban Revolution, but believe me, the undercurrents were there, and even I, as an eleven year old, could feel them.
Interestingly, in my extensive archives there are no photographs from my father's engagement in Cuba ...