My father had a knack for sharing just enough details of his life in Cuba that I never realized how little I really knew about what he was sharing. I’ve come to realize that many of the details that I thought I knew were filled in by my imagination as a child. For example, I had always pictured my grandfather’s bakery to be a quaint, small town bakery, the kind where he knew every single customer who walked through the bakery door. I imagined him greeting each patron like an old friend, because chances are they were. He knew everyone’s birthday, anniversary or wedding date and was at the ready with his client’s favorite cake flavor. He would rise early in the morning, like Fred the Baker in those ‘80s Dunkin’ Donut commercials— “time to make the donuts”—to decorate one of those fabulous cakes of his.
Ten years ago, I learned from my father’s good friend, Kiko, that the quaint little bakery of my dreams was in fact a regional bakery serving an area larger than the town of Sierra Morena, my father’s hometown. For an island roughly the size of Louisiana, I don’t believe the region served was all that big considering that the town of Sierra Morena is so small. Located 142 east from Havana, the capital of Cuba, Sierra Morena is in fact one of eight villages comprising the municipality of Corralillo in the province of Villa Clara. The most recent data that I was able to find online for the town’s population dates back to 1943, when my father was just a boy. At that time, there were 1,734 people in Sierra Morena.
It was over that first lunch in Cuba with my cousin, Jorgito, that my second notion of the bakery was debunked. I learned that the bakery was in fact still in operation. While it was no longer under my family’s purview, it was in fact up and running as a government bakery.
Shortly after Castro wrested power from Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, all private business ownership became illegal and was nationalized. I am not sure if he continued to work under the government at a business that was once his, but I am inclined to say yes, at least for a little while. Kiko had also shared with me how my father was at odds with my grandfather over the longevity of Castro’s regime. My grandfather believed it was something that would eventually blow over. My father did not which is why he fled the island.
August 3, 2018. My son, mother, sister, niece and nephew are in an old Pontiac Chieftain on Jose Marti Highway to my father’s hometown. Like much of our travel over the past few days, luscious greenery is flying past the car windows. As we cross the city limits into Sierra Morena, my mother starts laughing hysterically.
“Your father always said that I was from a town [Guayaquil, Ecuador] with a one lane road,” recalled my mother as she suppressed her laughter. “My town was a major port city. I would tell him that he thought my town had one road because his only had one.”
Well she is almost right. Sierra Morena is a two-road town. One leading into town; one leading out. While I’ve always imagined the bakery to be something out of the town of Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show, I imagined Sierra Morena to be like Macondo, the fictional town in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, only less magical. It is exactly how I pictured it.
We spend the day catching the highlights of our family history. We visit the cemetery where my grandparents and aunts lay in rest. We visit the home where my father grew-up, now occupied by cousin Gabriel’s family, and browse through old family photos of my father, younger than I could ever imagine him. We meet with relatives that we only knew through stories and old photographs.
Finally, it is time for us to visit the bakery. Located a short walk around the corner from the family home, we decide to drive because of the oppressive Caribbean sun. When we arrive, the first thing I notice is a quote painted on the side of the building in faded red paint.
“Educe a tu hijo. Programa para la familia dirigido al desarrollo integral del niño,” which translates roughly to, “Educate your child. Program for the family aimed at the integral development of the child.”
I find it hard to believe that this PSA was present when my family owned the bakery. Yet the bakery’s original name, “Panaderia Heleodoro,” is emblazoned in a bright red paint as if it were newly painted. I get out of the car and stand in front of the entrance of the bakery. Here before me stands what would have been my birthright, had a revolution not overcome the Cuban people nearly 60 years ago. Even the name, Panaderia Heleodoro, is more than just an institutional name. Heleodoro was my father’s middle name. Whether he was named after the bakery, or the bakery was named after him, I still don’t know. All I know is that it makes it feel like something that should have been mine. Something that should have stayed in the family.
Stepping into the bakery, I immediately realize that it is not that much different from what I had imagined for so many years. It feels abandoned, like a shell of what it once was, but in that regard, it is no different than so many of the other buildings on the island that have fallen into disrepair. The space is large enough that it is conceivable that it could have served as an industrial bakery. However, now that I am in the bakery, I have a hard time seeing the quaint neighborhood bakery of my dreams. Even though the bakery is in operation, the only evidence that it has been used recently, is a table full of bread rolls. Exposed to the air, they look stale, but must have been baked fairly recently, since none appear to be moldy. Other than the bread, there are no other signs that it is in use.
Our time at Panaderia Heleodoro is cut short because Sierra Morena’s citizen watch is taking note of the strangers photographing the bakery. My cousins are able to make the citizen patrol at ease with our presence and we soon head back to the family home. I ask my cousins if any recipes from the bakery has been passed on to the family. They laugh, and I immediately surmise the reason. Either my grandfather had taken those recipes with him to his grave or they became proprietary of the Cuban government. Either way, the bakery and its legacy are just another casualty of the revolution.