Family matters

Michael Aviles went to Cuba to learn more about his half sister and visit other relatives. During the trip he saw the good and bad sides of Cuban life.

Published June 3, 2007

HAVANA - Michael Aviles looked down across the blanket of blue. From the plane, the tiny waves reflected sunbeams like the tops of tin cans. He thought about his half brothers and all those people who risked their lives crossing that expanse of water on rafts.

The 25-year-old Miami barber was nervous, eager to see his half sister. It had been so long, 14 years, since his last visit to Havana and their first meeting.

He had a large, extended family in Cuba, a lot of relatives to visit. But his half sister was the real purpose of this trip.

What is she like now in person? he wondered. His relatives in Miami whispered rumors, said she was a prostitute with a slew of children. He didn't believe them. He wanted to see for himself.

The plane barreled closer to the Cuban coast. Some passengers cried, pressed against the window, soaking in every detail. The patchwork of farmland. The tin roofs, the blocky trucks rattling along ribbons of concrete.

Like Michael, the passengers were Cuban-Americans, some returning for weddings, some with suitcases full of clothes, medicine, presents for family they might never have met.

Michael's bags were stuffed with the same precious necessities. But his head was full of doubts and rumors and warnings. Careful with your money, the other barbers told him. Watch out for hustlers, they said. He didn't know what to think. These were his relatives, but really they were strangers.

The plane wheels touched down. And the passengers cheered.

* * *

Magely Aviles, 28, joined the crowd outside the airport terminal, standing in the hot sun behind the barricade, waiting for loved ones to come out.

Magely ma-HAY-lee knew what to look for. Michael had sent her pictures of himself. She was looking for a younger version of their father, a man she knew only from photographs.

He left Cuba in the Mariel boatlifts in 1980 when Magely was a baby, leaving behind children and girlfriends. He met Michael's mother, a Cuban woman, in New Jersey, married, had Michael. He sent money back to Cuba, but it rarely made its way to Magely. Other relatives kept it for themselves. Magely never saw her father again.

Michael remembers always knowing he had a half sister in Cuba. When he was 11, his mom brought him to Cuba to meet her.

But since then, Michael and Magely had lost touch.

About a year ago, Michael found her new phone number through a relative. He dialed and Magely got on the phone. Michael called back again the next week. And every week since.

Michael told Magely about his years studying graphic design in New Jersey, his move to Miami, the barbershop.

Magely told him about her teenage years in a boarding school outside Havana, where she took classes in the morning and planted crops in the afternoon. How much she loved college, working as a nurse in a Cuban military hospital and now, switching careers, taking classes in Italian to be an interpreter or a dubbing voice for movies.

Once he asked her about the rumors he'd heard.

No, I'm not a prostitute. Who told you that? she said. And no, I don't have any children. He believed her.

She wasn't hurt by his questions. She knew about the decades of rancor and distance in her family.

Her other brothers, Michael's half brothers, had made it to the United States on rafts. But they never called Magely, never wrote, never sent money to help. Magely's cousins in Cuba lived off the money wired from other relatives in the United States. But they shared nothing with her.

Now that Michael had found Magely again - the last of his half siblings in Cuba - he sent her money to help with rent and the food she couldn't cover with her ration card. She held other jobs under the table to pay for language classes, including washing neighbors' clothes.

She wasn't seeking Michael's charity, though she was glad for it. But she wanted him to see her life, too.

The terminal doors opened. Magely scanned the faces amid the cries and laughter. She spotted Michael, tall, goateed and handsome. She whistled and hollered for him to look her way. He turned and spotted a Cuban Lisa Bonet. He moved through the crowd. She threw her arms around his neck. He dropped his bags and gave her a bear hug.

In the car they were quiet as Michael gazed out the window at the passing tableau of peeling paint, couples on bicycles, hitchhikers and crammed buses.

He looked over at Magely, who was dragging on a cigarette.

"You smoke?" he asked.

* * *

Michael was determined not to spend his two weeks living like a tourist, renting a car or staying in hotels.

It was authentic all right.

The first day at Magely's home someone heated water on the stove. He soaped up in the tub and splashed the water over himself.

Magely's relatives were nice to him, but behind his back they asked her, What is he doing here? Why is he visiting now after all these years?

Michael caught a bad vibe from her relatives. Remembering what the barbers had said, he stashed his money in flower pots around the living room.

The next day, he found the money untouched. Just to be safe he decided to rent a room from a family friend a few blocks away, fronting the sea.

When he and Magely arrived, he opened his luggage and discovered that all the jeans and blouses he brought for Magely were gone. Someone in her family had stolen them all.

Magely was angry, but Michael decided not to confront them. It would just make things uncomfortable for Magely. Instead, he took her shopping, let her buy anything she wanted.

He knew to expect hustling. He knew the needs were great. But he wasn't expecting this.

* * *

Michael videotaped everything for his Miami family: the narrow streets through tall tenement housing in Central Havana, the squawking car horns, the old-model American cars, the crumbling buildings.

There were a lot more cars on the road than he remembered from his first trip. The people looked hip. They all were watching out for each other; if someone broke down on the road, people stopped to help. Not like Miami, he thought.

A cousin took Michael to a hospital where she worked. The building was in terrible shape.

Scary, Michael thought.

But as he sat there, Michael was impressed with how attentive the doctors were to their patients.

Magely showed Michael her school, showed him her schoolwork. He liked how determined she was to improve herself.

Michael went to a club one night, but Magely stayed home. Not her scene, she said, and Michael thought that was classy.

The women were very friendly. Michael thought it was because he was the guy from out of town. Everyone was so hospitable, curious, talkative.

One woman he thought could be a supermodel was paying close attention to him.

Damn, she likes me, Michael said to himself.

Later, he asked her to take a walk along the Malecon, the seaside boulevard.

I can be with you all night, but it will cost you $150, she told him.

What? It's like that? Michael replied, stunned.

Walking home one night, Michael met a woman waiting for a bus. She'd been there for hours. He struck up a conversation. She was tired and hungry, so he offered to buy her whatever she wanted at Ditu Pollo, a chicken hut down the street.

She placed several orders: for herself, her daughter, her mother, her uncle.

Magely and her cousins laughed when he told the story. Michael laughed, too, but inside he felt bad for the woman. He wanted to help, but the need was so depressing.

* * *

Michael packed a bag and left Magely for a few days to spend some time with his mom's family in the country.

He and two cousins drove slowly along the pitch black highway. There were no lights, huge holes and the occasional stray cow. Shadowy figures flickered in the headlights by the side of the road, travelers hoping for a late bus or a friendly motorist.

The next day he dutifully videotaped all his relatives, including an ailing aunt and uncle, for his mom and grandma back home. He sat at the kitchen table with his great-uncle and helped clean the rice before they put it on the stove.

He kicked back with local young women and talked for hours over a bottle of rum and never worried they might hustle him.

His mother's family treated him like a king. They cooked for him, always touching him, hugging him.

Unlike his father's family, this side had stayed close. But he was eager to get back to Magely.

* * *

His last weekend in Cuba, Michael and Magely drove around visiting all of their grandfather's old stomping grounds.

His father's father had been a barber, just like Michael. He lives in Miami now, and Michael wanted to bring home some pictures. His grandfather came from a musical family and used to cut hair for some of Cuba's best musicians. He hosted parties at the Tropical Gardens.

With Magely trailing lazily behind him, Michael talked his way into a well-known club where his grandfather spent time. Inside, he took more pictures.

At the airport, he filmed Magely hamming in front of the camera, pretending to get in line behind the other travelers leaving for Miami.

"Don't leave, Michael, " she said, only partly teasing.

Off camera, she cried.

It was the worst day of Michael's trip.

* * *

Michael sat back in his airplane seat, gazing down at the Everglades. The ride was bumpy, and he gripped the armrests.

In the days ahead, he would drive to his grandmother's house in Hialeah and show his videos to her and to his mother. The two women would watch, his grandmother leaning forward in her chair, her hands to her lips. They would shake their heads at the changes.

"Look at that, " they'd say in Spanish under their breath. "Jesus Christ." And gasp at the sight of one of his grandmother's brothers, much thinner and toothless.

In the airplane, Michael's mind was on Magely, whom he'd left just 40 minutes before.

Could he get her here to live with them someday? But if she did, would she change, just like his half brothers, one of whom stopped calling him once he got to the United States?

Michael thought she wouldn't, hoped she wouldn't. But he couldn't be sure. He was learning that what keeps families apart is not only politics, but also time and distance, grudges and even greed. Overcoming all that is hard.

As the plane dropped lower over the city, Michael looked out the window, saw the gleaming buildings, the bright colors. He sighed, releasing the depression building the previous two weeks. He was so happy to be home, so grateful for his life here it made him giddy. As the wheels touched down, Michael lifted his arms and joined the rest of the passengers in a round of applause.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at (813) 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.


About this story

The St. Petersburg Times was present for Michael's visit with his mother's family in Sancti Spiritus and for several days he spent with his half sister, including the tour of Havana on his last weekend. The airport scenes, bar scene and their pasts were recalled by Michael and Magely.

For more photos

Please go to life.tampabay.com for an online gallery with more images from Cuba.