Fine Lines

The conflicting emotions of a Havana tattoo, or: how to return to a place you’ve never been before.

Ethan Bauer
November 14, 2023

My cab driver drops me outside a cluster of Spanish colonial apartments in Vedado. Miguel, the man I’ve come to see, huffs a cigarette on the patio and tells me to go inside; he’ll be with me in a minute. Right away, his home looks much nicer than the others I’ve seen during my week in Havana. It’s old, but in a charming way rather than the decrepit, held-up-with-2x4s way common here. It’s even more impressive inside: Yellow walls swallowed by picture frames, old license plates and a new-looking flat-screen TV; antique tile floors landmined with typewriters and transistor radios, apparently part of a collection; and right beside the front door, a table crowded by flasks of ink. I reach into my backpack and pull out six bottles to add to the cluster.

I’ve also brought, per Miguel’s request, a power supply regulator purchased on Amazon for $50. His old one broke, and new ones are almost impossible to get here. Even if you can find them, he says they cost around $35,000 Cuban pesos, or nearly $1,500 US dollars. Miguel’s mother, who like most Cubans takes a government salary, tells me she makes $2,000 pesos a month. “That won’t even buy you an outfit,” Miguel’s fiancée says in Spanish, having overheard. Miguel returns in time to watch me empty the rest of my bag: three boxes of sterilized tattooing needles; one thousand ink cups; and a package of blood-absorbing bandages. He’s grateful. I’m ashamed. I brought all this stuff not only to help his business survive, but also because I had no idea what sanitation practices would look like at a Cuban tattoo shop, and I didn’t want to take any chances myself. How ridiculous (and relieved) I feel as he pops the cover off a new plastic safety razor and shaves my left forearm, then washes it twice with a soapy solution from a squirt bottle.


Miguel is in his late twenties, trim with a thick beard and a near-constant smirk that only disappears when he’s working. Colorful tattoos decorate both of his arms (he got his first when he was fifteen), and today he sports a navy blue UFC tank top, dark jeans and black Nike sneakers. He’s getting married in a few days, which he mentions in the same breath that he invites me to the wedding. Sadly, I’m leaving the next morning. Tonight, in fact, is supposed to be the culmination of my week-long stay in Cuba. I’d come on assignment for a story about religion. But now that my reporting is done, tonight is something of a reward—and a chance to understand why I so badly wanted to come here.

My editors sent me, in particular, because of my own Cuban heritage. My mom was born in Havana and left when she was 6, part of the Camarioca boatlift that brought several thousand Cubans to the United States in the course of about a month and a half in 1965. She grew up in Miami, then I grew up in Miami, ensconced in Cuban food and music and accents, but not much knowledge of the island they came from. Cuba the culture is everywhere in Miami; Cuba the place is much harder to find. For many, including my now 92-year-old grandmother, it’s best forgotten until the current government falls. Or so she’s said all my life—in Spanish.

I didn’t tell her I was coming here. I was afraid of what she might say, of how she might feel. In her eyes, my trip could amount to nothing less than betrayal, even if it’s for work rather than vacation. Some older acquaintances had expressed similar thoughts to a longtime friend of mine, when they heard. “Doesn’t he know it’s Communist?!” they’d asked him, as if that alone were enough of a reason not to be curious. For me, experiencing Cuba as a folktale of a forbidden land stoked confusion. We celebrate it, but we ignore it. We’re proud to be Cuban, but we hate Cuba itself. We’re attached to a place that doesn’t exist anymore. How? I figured visiting the real Cuba, and particularly Miguel, might offer some answers.

The tattoo, after all, mirrors the entire trip in that it requires balancing my apprehension and ignorance (in the guilty form of my tattoo supplies) with my enthusiasm. For those of us of Cuban descent in Miami who travel back to our families’ homelands, we’re asked to understand a place of contrasts and contradictions, where mere existence as a foreigner presents an inescapable ethical dilemma. It means admitting we want to be part of something we never fully can. And it means reaching for it anyway.

At 6:46 p.m., with the sun setting over El Malecón just a few blocks away, Miguel places the stencil over my arm. It’s about three times larger than what I imagined. “I figured if you were going to come all the way here, you’d want something big,” he says. I nod as he pulls up the wax paper. Do I agree because I want his blessing? Do I want to be what he thinks I am, so I know that I belong here? I already have three small tattoos at this point, but as a friend would later observe, this one would thrust me across the line from “a guy with tattoos” to forever brand me “a tattoo guy.” His design stretches from the base of my palm to the crease of my elbow. For something this visible and permanent, I want it to mean something. I want it to embody what I most admire about my Cuban heritage. The buzzing needle finally pierces my skin.


Is it possible to both speak and not speak a language? Here’s what I mean: my Spanish is passable. I’m capable of more than asking for directions to the bathroom. I can make small talk. I can ask relevant questions. I can speak without much of a Yankee accent—though I’ll admit that’s gotten harder over the years. My college Spanish professor even told me I was ready to be plopped into a Spanish-speaking country for full immersion. But here’s what my Spanish lacks: I can’t flirt. I can’t be funny. And I can’t have deep, intimate conversations; I’m always stuck at surface level. The latter, especially, isn’t ideal when you have a 92-year-old grandmother who uses hearing aids and, again, only speaks Spanish. I don’t have the vocabulary to do more than just… exist. Which, from a certain point of view, seems pretty good! I speak enough Spanish to survive in the Spanish-speaking world. I just don’t speak it well enough to live there.

I certainly speak Cuban. In Miami-Dade County, which has the largest number of Cuban immigrants of any county in the United States, dwarfing second place Broward County ten times over, I picked it up without realizing it. One example: when I was in third grade, I did my First Holy Communion at St. Brendan Elementary. Every single boy in the class wore a white suit, per Cuban tradition. I only realized how unusual this was when I drove up to Clearwater for my cousin’s first communion, and saw he was one of only two kids in his class to wear the white suit. He was very self-conscious about it—his Cubanness. By contrast, I took as a matter of course the Caja China at parties, an outdoor oven for roasting pigs, which to me was just a regular barbecue; the Spanish-language radio my grandma would listen to in the car—mostly 107.5 AMOR. Pronouncing the L in Salmon. Knowing the words to reguetón.

In all of these traditions, all this culture, there’s a silent recognition of loss. Pride mixed with shame. And anger. So much anger, about what Cuba the place has become.

I never really thought much about being Cuban until I went to college. The old story: only when something is taken away do you recognize and appreciate it. As a kid, feeling different, feeling set apart, feels frightening—like my cousin felt all in white. But in college, it’s something thrilling. I started telling people I was “Cuban,” even though that’s not completely true. It felt like a natural way to stand out—until someone asked me if I had ever visited Cuba. No, I told them. Which led to a crisis of cognitive dissonance: how could I call myself Cuban, wave my identity around like a flag, if I had never even been there?

When I pitched my story about Cuba to my editors for that religion piece, I figured it could be something symbiotic. They would get a relevant story for our magazine’s readers, and I would get to go to a place that had begun infiltrating my dreams.


Carlos Eire, a Cuban-born professor of history and religious studies at Yale, came to the States as a child during Operation Pedro Pan. I spoke to him before my trip, mostly about his religious expertise. But he’s also a thought leader in the Cuban exile world, particularly for his stinging criticism of the Cuban regime. I asked about that, too. Early in his career, he didn’t really want to think about, much less talk about,  Cuba. “It was too painful to handle,” he told me. “I had to reach a certain age to be able to deal with this trauma—not just what happened to me and my family, but what happened to the country.”

What happened was that long before the triumph of the revolution, Cuba had already fallen on difficult times. President Fulgencio Batista had seized power via coup d'état in 1952 and forged alliances with American business interests and organized crime—most notoriously gangster Meyer Lansky, who built the famed Havana Riviera hotel and casino along the Malecón in 1957—at the expense of most Cuban citizens. Batista’s dictatorial ambitions and his policies, which exacerbated the island’s wealth inequality, gave Fidel Castro many working-class allies by 1956. Even many Cubans who despise Castro today also admit that the situation preceding him was plenty bleak, too. Batista fled on January 1, 1959, and Castro rolled into Havana a week later.

Castro said he wanted to fight imperialism and corruption—forces that had, admittedly, wreaked havoc on his country. But his methods included shutting down independent press; seizing all private property and homes; and perhaps most infamously, sending his lieutenant, Che Guevara, to carry out summary executions of the revolution’s opponents at the La Cabaña prison. To be fair, Guevara’s tribunals only condemned fifty to two hundred people to die, while a CIA report from 1963 notes that the Batista regime committed some 20,000 politically motivated murders during the revolutionary era. In any case, repression of dissent became a common theme of Castro’s Cuba, continuing through today with Las Damas de Blanco in 2003 and hundreds of arrests following anti-government protests in 2021. Cubans are also only allowed to vote for the Communist Party of Cuba. Throw in Castro’s economic policies that prioritized social programs over economic development, along with the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba beginning in 1962, plus the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis that made Cuba the center of the militaristic universe, and it becomes impossible to identify any one reason why Cubans began fleeing by the thousands, and why many were so adamant about never going back. Something to do with honor. But, to Eire’s point, the upshot was that everything about life in Cuba had changed, and many people believed those changes were for the worse.

Believe what you want about Communism as a philosophy, but the Cuban system is a functional monarchy, with no opposition and no meaningful elections. Most Cuban-Americans do not support the current regime, but generational divides have emerged at the policy level. Back in 2014, for example, a flurry of news stories reported that younger Cuban-Americans were developing different views on the U.S. embargo than their older relatives.

There is an unadmitted hierarchy to the Cuban exile community in Miami. The first ones to flee had been largely from the professional class: doctors and bankers and executives who’d gone into exile because of the new government’s economic reforms. The second wave, the one that included my family, left largely because of declining economic opportunity and non-existent political freedoms. This group was mostly middle and lower-middle class, and like their predecessors, predominantly white. In 1980, the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States, and the first two waves of exiles were quick to look down on them. 71% of Marielitos were blue-collar workers. They were, on average, darker skinned and less educated than their forerunners. Castro allegedly included several thousand convicted criminals and mental patients among them, leading to tension in the established “Miami Mafia.” But most of them weren’t criminals, or insane. They were just poor. Integrating them into a community that, by then, had conceivably achieved the American dream wasn’t easy.

This divide still animates political attitudes today. A 2022 poll conducted by FIU researchers found that recent arrivals are more likely to support Joe Biden and Democrats. It also informs views about traveling to Cuba. The grandchildren of the first exiles are starting to go back, but the first exiles themselves want nothing to do with the place they left. That’s my grandmother, and my mom. The former views the memories of what she lost as too painful to revisit, plus she can’t imagine doing anything to support the regime that forced her to leave the only home she’d ever known. While there are some workarounds, the Cuban government owns a majority stake of every hotel on the island, as well as most of the local businesses. It’s hard to visit without doing something that gives your dollars to the Cuban government, and for her, something is far too much. My mom was just a kid when she left, but she still lost plenty, having brought just one suitcase of clothing and a Mariquita Perez doll on the ferry to Key West. That wound, plus the fact that she didn’t really grow up in Cuba, makes visiting both painful and pointless. “They didn’t want me there,” she’s told me, “so why would I want to go back?”

But my mom has a cousin, who’s about her age, who didn’t leave until later. She grew up in revolutionary Cuba, cutting cane for the Communist Youth and experiencing the transformation of Cuban society in a way my mom never did. She didn’t like the changes, and she’s glad she left, but her reasons for not going back are more bureaucratic than ethical: She’d need a Cuban passport, and it’d just be more of a hassle than it’s worth. But her husband, who came over during Mariel, still has family in Cuba. Many of the more recent arrivals do. That makes the place more real, and less simple to box up in an attic of loss, never to be revisited again. For Cubans who lived the revolution, it’s easier to understand that Cuba itself didn’t cease to exist in 1959. That, despite many distressing memories of difficult times, the defining experiences of human living—love and work, joy and embarrassment, pleasure and friendship—find a way to endure, even under Communism.

Whatever the risk of guilt and shame and unintentional support for the regime, I’m too far removed from the experiences of my mom and grandmother and Eire to adopt their point of view. To fully grasp their tragedies. I’m not rooting for the Cuban government—but dammit, I am curious.

I started reading news articles about Cuba in Spanish. I re-adopted the habit of listening to baseball games on Radio Mambí. And I began calling my grandmother just to chat, which perhaps I should have been doing all along. Back in Miami, with the trip only a few days away, I visited a little travel outfit in the Bird Bowl shopping center to acquire my $50 tourist visa card. And with that, I set off on JetBlue flight 1899 from Fort Lauderdale, bound for José Martí International.


Eduardo is waiting for me outside the airport. He’s short, balding and walks with a cane—the result, I soon learn, of a motorcycle accident that snapped his tibia and left a grapefruit-sized knot in his leg. He catcalls every passing woman. And he speaks perfect English, albeit with what sounds to me like a Russian accent. I met him when I contacted a travel agency to help arrange my trip to Cuba. I wasn’t terribly confident in my Spanish, and I figured I’d need a fixer anyway to help me navigate the unfamiliar terrain. I was naive at the time, clicking on the first Cuban travel agency that popped up on Google. I’d since learned that these agencies often contract with Cuban government employees, who operate in an official capacity on behalf of the state. I learn that Eduardo is precisely such an employee, but that this gig is outside his official capacity. I still feel uneasy, but he quickly calms me down. “Have you ever left Cuba?” I ask him. “If I had,” he tells me, “I wouldn’t be here.”

He’s the perfect person to “fix,” in a certain sense, the fact that I am here. There is an immediate tension between us: I’ve come to visit a place he’d give anything to leave. But he also seems relieved that I’m not like many of the tourists he gets, whether from the United States or Europe, who are eager to purchase olive-green hats and wax poetic about Che Guevara and Cuba’s healthcare system. He can’t stand them, he tells me.

A few days later, Eduardo leads me up three flights of stairs to a rooftop tourist trap in Old Havana. It’s the type of place that almost certainly offers kickbacks to folks who bring in clients, but I could hardly blame him for that, and I wasn’t going to complain. It was at least pleasant, with a young, afro-sporting musician strumming a guitar and a view of the city, its long-neglected concrete and rooftop water tanks. The owner, clad in a skin-tight white T-Shirt, recommends the lobster. Coincidentally, I’m sure, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, though it’s still much cheaper than it would be in the United States. It’s also functionally illegal for Cubans themselves to eat, reserved for tourists and export. That’s the case with many luxurious items in Cuba: visible when you visit, unattainable when you live there. The classic American cars that romanticize Havana’s streets mask the unglamorous Korean diesel engines and scavenged parts that keep them running. The high-rise hotels sprouting from the shores of Varadero Beach are only accessible through a toll gate, and that’s just to get to them. Staying is just about impossible. “If I could just spend one week of vacation at Varadero every year,” Eduardo tells me, “I think I could be happy here.”

If you’re trying to be an ethical Cuban tourist by giving your money to the Cuban people as much as possible, eating is one of the hardest things to manage. Most restaurants, especially the ones that cater exclusively to tourists, like the one with the lobster, are government-owned. Paladares are supposed to offer an alternative. Born out of the “special period” in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell and plunged Cuba into severe economic turmoil, these small restaurants inside peoples’ houses were sanctioned by the government in 1993. They offer one of the few opportunities for private enterprise available to Cuban citizens, although even there, you can never be sure. A 2018 Brookings report detailed new government regulations of private businesses that “are replete with astoundingly specific performance requirements and innumerable legal breaches that seem crafted to allow government officials wide discrimination to impose heavy fines (or extort bribes), suspend licenses, and even seize properties.” Plus, in my particular case, I’ll admit I didn’t prepare as much as I should have. I let Eduardo guide me, accepting his justification that if I went to the wrong place, the food could make me sick. Since I was there for a short time to do a job, I figured his logic checked out, though I’m skeptical in hindsight.

Luckily, aside from lobster at the rooftop tourist trap, many of the other places he chooses are paladares, or at least seem to be; they’re definitely restaurants in peoples’ homes. The one glaring exception comes toward the end of the trip, at an obviously government-owned spot called El Guajirito. Located only about a block and a half from my Airbnb in Old Havana, the inside is ornate: a marble staircase winding up to a spacious dining room with antique wooden chairs and tables, and large portraits of famous Cuban entertainers decorating the walls. Its main attraction isn’t the food, but a stage show, featuring a group of musicians singing classic Cuban tunes. I arrive when the place is already packed with tourists from all over Europe and, most noticeably, Russia. The hostess seats me at a table with a Russian couple, just the three of us. Our waitress, like all the waitresses here, wears a low-cut top, a short skirt and high heels, along with a leather, pirate-like tricorn hat. “My English, so-so,” she tells us.

The Russian couple doesn’t speak any Spanish, so I translate their order. Throughout my time in Cuba, my Spanish has been useful, but never overwhelmingly so. Until now. Almost no one here speaks any Spanish. And no one at all seems to care about anything but having a good time. Reasonably so: that’s why you come to a dinner show. That’s why you vacation. Yet earlier today, I’d seen a line for food rations stretch two blocks long just down the street, and I can’t escape that contrasting image as the show begins; the menu here lists filet mignon, for goodness’ sake. It feels especially surreal when the performers start asking audience members what country they’re from, and then sing a relevant song as the right flag flutters on a projection screen. I almost spit out my drink when one of them yelps, “Aplausos para los Estados Unidos!

The performers, for what it’s worth, are very good. A few of them even sang with the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. But the whole thing still feels something like getting off Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride, then immediately reading a catastrophic news story. The show ends with a conga line, with everyone from the audience—even the overworked waitresses—joining the performers on stage to dance salsa. Everyone except me. I stay seated alone, in the very back of the room, seemingly the only tourist here who can’t enjoy the moment.


Havana’s baseball team is on the road during my trip, so I trek an hour west for a Cuban National Series game. I grew up playing baseball, and everyone in Cuba, it seems, did too. Some of the most prominent players in the Majors are Cubans, including the Marlins’ Jorge Soler and Yuli Gurriel. I couldn’t visit without seeing the highest levels of the country’s official national sport.

“El Estadio Victoria de Girón,” in the province of Matanzas, translates to something like “Bay of Pigs Victory Stadium.” With a capacity of 22,000, it hosts the Cocodrilos de Matanzas, the local province's baseball team. Unlike in the United States, Cuban baseball doesn’t function under franchises; each province has a team, and that’s that. And unlike at El Guajirito, there’s a decent chance I was the only tourist at this weekday matchup against the lowly Cazadores de Artemisa. But just like at El Guajirito, the game provokes whiplash. Just of a slightly different sort. There, it was about the contrast between the country’s poverty and the blissfully unaware tourists. Here, it’s about the best and worst parts of Cuba itself.

The best parts are the ones I expected: a salsa band that plays for the entirety of the home team’s at-bats; a group of dedicated fans dancing in the stands from the first pitch through the final out; a low-budget crocodile mascot busting moves between innings; an audience completely engaged with the happenings on the field rather than their smartphones; and, certainly compared to MLB games, the price. We get in for about a nickel’s worth of Cuban currency. It’s baseball for baseball’s sake, accessible to anyone who wants it.

The worst parts are the neglect. The stadium was built in 1977 and doesn’t seem to have undergone any changes since then. Its towering light fixtures are missing the actual lights. Its bleachers are blunt concrete slabs. It has no concessions. Instead, vendors in the stands hawk cardboard boxes stuffed with browner-than-it-should-be deli meat sandwiches and small plates of candy (everyone I spoke with before my trip warned me to avoid the ballgame food). The players, who’ve seen many comrades defect and risk their lives in pursuit of the Major Leagues, wear uniforms with mismatched numbers and cleats whose soles look poised to fall off with their next hard turn around first base. And then there’s the sanctimonious, unchanging political propaganda: “VENCEREMOS” painted in red on the wall right behind home plate (“We Will Overcome”); a billboard promoting “Altruismo” alongside pictures of famous Cuban athletes; giant photographs of Fidel at the Bay of Pigs bracketing the center field scoreboard.

Instead of propaganda, American baseball games have soulless advertising. Just take Miami’s own loanDepot Park, where the Marlins play. There are some corporate naming partnerships in American sports that make good sense. loanDepot Park is not one of them. The company, which touts itself as the second-largest non-bank lender in the country, has absolutely nothing to do with Miami. Imagine if the stadium was instead called Publix Park, or Flanigan’s Field. Instead, Miami’s loanDepot Park is a shameless cash grab. But cash pays for things. Without question, loanDepot Park is objectively more comfortable. It has better food, better seating, better gift shops and better trimmings, with its firework shows and video board and between-inning entertainment. The price is ads, everywhere you look, from whoever is willing to pay up.

Meanwhile, at the Matanzas stadium’s gift shop, they have exactly one Cocodrilos T-Shirt and one hat; the rest of the inventory looks more like a hardware store: toilet seats and screws and bottles of cleaning solution. The Cuban government’s sporting philosophy mandates amateurism—real amateurism, rather than the nonsense that passes for it back home. That keeps prices low and makes the games feel more like games than productions. And, propaganda aside, there’s something refreshing about that.

The players who’ve defected, however, would probably disagree.


On our way back to Havana from the ball game, our taxi driver needs to make a stop. He pulls the yellow cab off the Vía Blanca highway onto a track of country dirt. After about twenty minutes, we reach a cinder block house with a tin roof. His aunt greets us at the door. I can barely see inside, but it looks stripped. A few pieces of furniture atop a badly damaged concrete foundation. She does have a blocky television, a single plug-in stove burner, and a moka pot. She offers my fixer Eduardo and me a cup of Cuban coffee.

While we wait, Eduardo and I chat and look out at her yard—orange clay speckled with gravel and weeds, fenced in by barbed wire. Across the street, some goats graze near the tracks. Eduardo is a big fan of foreign movies and TV. Like many Cubans, he gets access from illicit flash drives collectively known as el Paquete. His favorite right now is Fauda, an Israeli-made action series about the Israel Defense Forces. He’s also an entrepreneur, with dreams to start his own candy company—if he can just get the necessary machinery.

The coffee arrives and we guzzle it down. I’m not a regular coffee drinker, but I mean this: it’s the best Cuban coffee I’ve ever had. Once we finish, our driver leads us back to the cab, where a passing laborer is waiting. He compliments the car, and offers Eduardo and me high-fives. His scouring-pad hands are the most calloused I’ve ever felt. Our driver hollers at his aunt, “Te quiero,” and waves with one hand, while the other clutches what we came here for: A plastic bag of fish oil pills. As we drive away, Radio Taino, “La FM de Cuba,” sings Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.”


My clenched teeth give way to more bitter sugar, this time courtesy of Miguel’s mom and another stovetop moka pot. It’s not quite as tasty as that batch in the country, but that could just be first-time bias talking. It’s still better than any Cuban coffee I’ve ever made. I take my last  swig as Miguel finishes up the tattoo’s linework, etching the final rose petal into my wrist.

Many of Miguel’s clients come from the United States. They often tell him that even with plane tickets and accommodations, getting a tattoo from him is still cheaper than the equivalent level of work back home. Tattoos are also one of the best things you can do to support the Cuban people on a trip to Havana. Cuban tattoos are unregulated. Technically, they’re illegal. Back in 2015, the government unleashed a crackdown against them, closing studios and seizing equipment. But today, a quick Google search reveals many new shops scattered around Havana, not to mention individual artists like Miguel operating out of their homes. The unregulated part sounds scary at first, conjuring worries about hepatitis. And yes, it does mean that there aren’t any government-enforced health and safety standards. But it also means no income taxes; the artist can charge what they want, and keep it all.

I don’t even know what Miguel plans on charging me as he begins the shading process, although I’m hoping it’s $300 or less. American ATM cards don’t work in Cuba, nor do credit cards, so whatever cash you bring is what you’ve got. I have $300 left (plus $20 for tomorrow morning’s taxi ride to the airport). I can already tell this level of quality would probably cost close to four figures back in the States. Meanwhile, the average wage in Cuba is 4,000 Cuban pesos per month, which is currently valued at about $166 American dollars. A tattoo like this one could easily net him an average monthly wage with a half-day’s work. It’s no wonder his Facebook page shows a much more lavish lifestyle than that of many Cubans, with trips to Varadero and lots of Cristal bottles. I’d already spent several weeks exchanging messages with him online, going back and forth on the design.

I wanted something to represent my Cuban heritage, but not in a cliché way, with cigars and old cars and palm trees. I wanted something that was obvious but not too obvious. I also wanted something that was symbolic of both Cuba and Miami.

I started with a rooster.

Roosters in Cuban culture symbolize conquest and masculinity, pride and a ferocity that surprises. I’d seen plenty of those qualities during my week in Cuba, as well as during a lifetime in Miami. Plus the symbol itself is all over in both places. But a rooster alone wasn’t enough to capture the complexity of a second-generation exile’s Cuban-adjacent existence. I requested that the rooster be standing in the pistil of a white rose. I wanted to evoke José Martí’s famous poem from Versos Sencillos, where the author grows a white rose for his friends and enemies alike. Martí certainly embraced his inner rooster in his quest to free Cuba from Spanish colonial rule, dying in battle as a result. But in that poem, he also expressed, in eight straightforward lines, a deep understanding of forgiveness. I have to forgive myself for coming here. I have to forgive my family, and the Cuban government, for keeping me away.

Miguel added his own special sauce to my design, with a sunrise over the top of the rooster and two branches on either side—one laurel, one oak, like in the Cuban coat of arms. He finishes up by dipping his needle in red ink to fill in the laurel branch’s berries. At 10:26 p.m., three and a half hours after we started, he snaps off his latex gloves and wipes a bead of sweat from his nose. Finally, we come to the price.

Miguel, as thanks for the new supplies, offers the tattoo for free.


Back in South Florida, it’s time to tell my grandmother. I sit down beside her at the same kitchen table where she watched me grow up and pull up a picture on my phone: her old house. It’s unmistakably her old house because her father installed a glass panel above the front door when he built it, bearing his initials, JR, in a regal script. She doesn’t recognize it.

Even when I explain to her, prove to her what it is, she still doesn’t believe it. Not until I show her a picture from a photo album I found inside. The house was a duplex; my family lived on the top floor, while another family lived on the bottom. The people who live on the bottom floor today are descendants of those same neighbors, and they’d kept an album from back before the revolution. One page features snapshots of my great-grandparents, even one of my toddler mom—a page untouched for more than fifty-six years. She starts crying, but not in the way I expected. We spend the next few hours looking through my pictures together. Everything from her old house to the giant Che Guevara memorial. She’d still never want to go back, but she also seems happy that I did.

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