Toasting Cuba’s Past in Next Year In Havana

Photo courtesy of Chanel Cleeton

Editor's Note:

Chanel Cleeton is the author of Next Year in Havana, the Wild Aces series, and the Capital Confessions series. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

“Next year in Havana”—a toast filled with hope, tinged in sadness, the quintessential expression for a people who have been waiting to return home for decades, who have suffered so many “almosts,” and “not quites,” whose children grew up on stories of a country they’d never visited yet had been crafted and nurtured for them in exile.

When I began writing my novel Next Year in Havana—the story of a Cuban-American woman raised by her grandmother and tasked with the responsibility of returning her grandmother’s ashes to Cuba after her death—it was this sense of hope that inspired me most.

I grew up on stories about Cuba, and it seems only natural that I turned into a storyteller myself, that one day I would return to my roots, to the island that’s captured my imagination for so long. My earliest childhood stories were of Cuba. Not the revolution, but of my grandparents’ fond memories, my father’s recollections. The stories wove their way inside me, creating an image of a country that formed an integral part of my family’s history, even as I knew I might never see it for myself. It was the dichotomy of these two sensations—both an intimacy and distance with Cuba—that inspired me to explore my own Cuban heritage.

For many, the desire to know who you are and where you come from is one of the most primordial urges. For the children of those who left Cuba, there is a complicated layer of distance; we see the country through the lens of another, their stories filling in the spaces of Cuba for us. The added complications of the difficulty in traveling to Cuba as an American citizen, as well as the strong feelings so many Cubans hold about supporting the current regime, can augment the ephemeral sense of an island a step removed from our grasp.

There is, of course, an undeniable romanticism surrounding Cuba. For the tourists, it is the sense that they have traveled to a country preserved in a time capsule of sorts—even if that time capsule is merely a facade covering an island fraught with real problems and complicated solutions. For those living in exile and their descendants, there’s a romanticism as well, an iteration of the past framed with nostalgia, emotion, and longing, subject to the dual-edged sword of memory.

How could there not be?

For people who left thinking exile would be short-lived, burying their most prized possessions in the backyards of their homes and in the walls of their houses, the nearly sixty-year exodus has made a triumphant return to Cuba feel more like a dream than the certainty it once seemed.

And still, there is always hope.

The hope that threads through stories passed down to grandchildren, street maps of Havana neighborhoods drawn from memory, recipes shared at the stove with love, that emotion that inspires us to strive for more, to cling to the past with the hope that it shall become our future.

And so, Cuba as a place becomes a part of family lore, traditions carried over from those who left to the new lives they built an ocean away. It is both the source of longing as well as a real place with real problems, filled with people who don’t always have the luxury of romanticism, yet cling to hope—the hope that the promises that were made to them decades ago will come true one day.

For those of us on the other side of the sea, that hope is transformed in the hands of each subsequent generation. Out of all the lessons given to us by parents and grandparents, perhaps that one is the most enduring. It is the hope that one day we will see the land of our forefathers, walk the streets that shaped our families, see the homes where traditions were born. That the dream we hold in our hearts will become reality one day, and next time we raise our glasses in a toast, the words “Next Year in Havana,” won’t be a wish but a certainty.