The world that the 61-year-old Martinez returned to last month he had last seen as an 11-year-old boy — before he flew to Miami with his sister and became separated from his parents and brother for decades.
After 50 years of separation from the family he had left behind, he flew to Cuba for a belated family reunion, bringing along his son and daughter to meet a large portion of their family for the first time.
The plan in 1962 was for Martinez’s entire family to make the trip to the United States. “From what I know, we all had paperwork to leave from Cuba and the United States that we were approved to leave,” he said, sitting at a restaurant on the Jacksonville square, nearly 800 miles from his hometown. “The exit permits only came for my sister and me.”
The pair flew to the U.S., expecting their family to follow, but flights between the countries were cancelled before that happened. The siblings found themselves alone in Miami while their only stateside family, an aunt, was in Jersey City, N.J.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, any diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is virtually nonexistent. For Cubans who secure exit permits, they are stamped as permanent except in rare occasions, according to a report on the Cuban diaspora by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. There are currently about 1.8 million Cubans and their descendants living in the United States.
Once out of Cuba and in the U.S., Martinez’s sister, then 18, tried to make rules for her younger brother while they lived together in Miami, but she eventually turned him over to the state. Martinez found himself bounced around, first to a boys’ ranch in California, then to his aunt’s house in New Jersey through middle school. Eventually, his sister, now in California, sent for him, and he completed his education at St. Bernard High School in Playa Del Rey, Calif.
It was there, Martinez said, that he finally began to allow himself to get attached to the people around him.
“After a while I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to see my parents again,” he said. “I consider myself an orphan with parents.”
So Martinez self-adopted into the families of his closest friends, many of whom were older students on the football team who treated him like a little brother. One of his favorite adoptive big brothers, Ron Moore, was killed in Vietnam and his death shattered Martinez and inspired him to join the military.
Everywhere except home
In 1969, Martinez began a 20-year career in the Army that took him all over the United States and world — to North Carolina, San Francisco, Germany, Panama and Fort McClellan, which is how he settled in Calhoun County. Despite his extensive travels, he never made it back to his native Cuba.
In recent years, travel from the United States to Cuba has become easier for those with family still there, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. While previously, Cubans with family still in Cuba were allowed to visit once every three years for up to two weeks, President Barack Obama instructed government agencies in 2009 to lift all restrictions on individuals’ ability to visit family in Cuba and to send remittances home.
Since that time, travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans has increased dramatically, according to Tom Piccone, deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute.
While previously Miami was the only city from which flights to Cuba occurred, Piccone noted that now airports in several cities—including Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa—are authorized to send flights there.
Allowing these visits to happen, said Piccone, is part of a people-to-people and family reconciliation that is long overdue.
“It’s a building block to the type of dialogue that’s needed between the two governments,” he said.
Still, he said, the Cuban government limits the number of Cuban-Americans that can enter the country and “applies a kind of ideological test — they would say a review of security threats.”
For Martinez, his career as a military police officer and Army criminal investigator is part of what made him slow to visit Cuba and his family that remained there. He worried his past duties would be of interest to the Cuban government or that a trip could affect his security clearance. But Martinez’s daughter, Mai Martinez, wanted to take her father on a trip to his native country.
“Mai just felt like 50 years was long enough, that I should go visit my roots,” he said. “And she wanted to take me and my son.”
The elder Martinez eventually agreed to the trip. “At this point in my life, if they lock me up and throw away the key, I’ll just deal with it,” he said. “I knew there was not going to be any Cuban invasion if I got locked up in Cuba.”
Reunion with the past
Fortunately, nothing serious happened, he said. While his son and daughter made it right through the gates once they landed at José Martí International Airport, he said he was detained for about an hour and a half over a hard drive officials claimed was in his luggage.
“Finally, I’m out, and my friend Lazaro greets me, and I’m in tears,” he said. Then the group, including his nephews, set off for Martinez’s hometown and the house that he grew up in.
“It’s almost indescribable because 50 years and all of a sudden you are where you were a kid,” he said. “The bridge that I used to jump into the river from, which in my day I thought was as tall as the Golden Gate Bridge, all of a sudden it’s only 30 feet high … People kept their size, but structures shrunk. It was baffling.”
Many of the family that Martinez visited with during his time in Cuba he met for the first time. His only reunions were with his three first cousins and his uncle, and those were surreal. Once he was face-to-face with these family members from his past, he was confronted with the fact that time had passed outside of his own awareness.
Martinez said he carries a picture of his mother from 1962, when she was in her 30s.
“That’s the mother that’s imprinted,” he said. “Then I’ve got a grandmother-like photograph of my mom, but in my mind that’s not my mom … I cannot adjust it to meet reality.”
Both of Martinez’s parents died before he was able to return to Cuba, and his trip marked the first time he was able to visit their graves. He waited a few days to make the trip.
“I wasn’t prepared and I knew it was probably going to be hard,” he said, tearing up.
On the drive to the cemetery, he stopped to pick wildflowers along the way to place at their graves, where he sat to have his conversation with his parents, the most meaningful moment of his two-week trip.
The nights spent with his cousins, having meals with them just like he did in the old days, made the agenda for his trip seem unimportant, and he and his son abandoned plans to backpack and explore the country, something they hope to do on another trip. Sitting there on his family’s porch, he said, “I’m seeing what I used to see when I visited them, and it’s incredible that I’m 61 years old and I’m back in this town where I used to come visit them … and ride bicycles.”