Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"You Are Now Free"

When I arrived for an interview with the owner of Havana Road Cuban Cafe, I thought I would leave with some knowledge on traditional Cuban cuisine and maybe a bit about Cuban culture.  As Chef Marta Quintana quietly walked out of her kitchen in her charm-clad chef's hat and sat across from me, I had no idea that I would leave with a story about bravery, perseverance, desperation, love, and immense sacrifice for family and for freedom.
I fumbled through my camera bag searching for my notebook and pen while I stumbled my way through my introduction and plans for an upcoming trip to her country.  I was nervous. "Your room will be bugged.  Your camera will be confiscated.  They will take your pictures.  There is NO food for the people.  Crime is increasing", said Marta.
My eyes grew wide.  Those warnings were not exactly what I was hoping to hear after my nervous and naive introduction.  Marta must have picked up on this because before I could ask too many questions, the conversation easily softened as she started to tell me what's to love about her country and so much more.
Havana Road Cuba Cafe Restaurant
Cuba is an exciting destination that is rich in art, music, history, food and culture.  During the Batista era (pre-Castro regime), Cuba was a mecca where these riches thrived, primarily due to the people's influence. To say that Cuba was diverse would be an understatement - it was a European melting pot.  Given the many ethnicities that inhabited the island, you were only considered Cuban if you were born there. Marta Quintana was born in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Ropa Vieja, Sweet Plantains and Cuban Rice and Beans
When the Quintana's came to the United States, Marta's mother kept their Cuban traditions and cooking alive.  They have an immense respect for their traditions and take them very seriously.  In fact, her 86 year old mother frequently visits the restaurant to make sure the menu is an accurate representation of Cuban cuisine.  Marta's recipes were handed down to her by the women that came before her and you won't find them in a typical Cuban cookbook.  That makes living their traditions, especially through their food, something extraordinary.   
Coconut Flan
On January 5th, 1962, only months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, four year old Marta, her sisters, Maria Teresa and Lourdes, her mother, Martha de Quintana, and her father, Miguel Angel, left Guantanamo, Cuba for the United States in the midst of a Revolution.  The disaster at the Bay of Pigs and Fidel Castro's growing military and political power made the island a place that many desperately wanted to escape. There were fears that Fidel had plans to take children from their families and force them to join military and labor camps.  In response, the CIA launched Operation Peter Pan which brought Cuban children to the U.S.  This, however, was not an option for the Quintana's. If they were going to leave, they were going to leave as a family.  Not only was this decision a dangerous one, but it caused her family great physical and mental strife.
Miguel Angel was fortunately able to get his family's names on the year-long waiting list for a U.S. PANAM Freedom Flight.  These flights, specifically for exiles and their immediate family, left Cuba twice a day, but there was no saying as to when the program and the flights would stop.  After much waiting, the Quintana's finally got word that they had seats on a flight out of Cuba.  It was time for them to leave.

There are certain things that trigger vivid memories from ones childhood. For Marta, the smell of Lysol brings her back to the day they escaped.  They drove in what the Cubans call an "Avocado Green", or a 1955 Buick, from Guantanamo to Havana.  They arrived at 3a.m and their friends, who already left for the U.S., arranged for Marta's family to hide in their vacant apartment.  It was their only place to stay until the airport opened that morning. The apartment had been emptied and cleaned before the family left and Marta couldn't focus on anything but the pungent smell of Lysol and the unspoken anticipation and fear that filled the room.  They sat on the bare floor, unable to sleep.

It was still early in the morning when they left the apartment for the airport. As they navigated their way through Havana, their car was stopped at multiple military checkpoints along the way.  These checkpoints were manned by militiamen who would either let you pass peacefully or shoot you dead in your car for no reason.  The Quintana's were using false visas and they were so afraid that someone would notice.  Marta remembers she was wearing a wool coat, Mary Jane's, and was carrying a velvet purse with a rosary and a doll inside.
They made it through all of the checkpoints and finally arrived at the airport.  Marta's Grandmother, Ines Maria, drove there with them, but had to say goodbye in the parking lot.  She couldn't join her family on the flight because page twelve of her passport was missing.  At some point, it was torn out because it was stamped on the wrong page.  Luckily, Marta's father was able to find someone to counterfeit and replace the missing page, but it wasn't ready by the time they were scheduled to leave. 
The Quintana's were escorted by armed teenage militiamen to a glass room that was typically used to brief political exiles. The young militiamen were vulgar. One man took the small Saint Barbara statue that Marta's mother was carrying, smashed it to pieces, and strip searched her.  Another young man took Marta's purse and broke her rosary beads.  As she watched, she refused to cry because she wanted to be strong like her Father.  The teenager then took her doll and tore off the head.  He removed each limb, one by one, and proceeded to put his fingers between the dolls legs.  Nearby, another family was going through the same tormented search and a little boy started crying. The boy's mother said to him, "Don't cry. Be brave like that little girl", referring to Marta.

Miguel Angel Quintana and Martha de Quintana
After the searches, they were allowed to proceed out onto the hot tarmac where their PANAM Freedom Flight was waiting in the hot Cuban sun.  As they walked up the stairs to the door of the plane, Marta's father stopped and turned back to face the airport.  He saluted and said "I will be back when my Cuba is free" and then boarded the plane. There was tension in the cabin as the plane took off, as if at any moment it was going to turn around and take them back.  However, as soon as they crossed international waters, the pilot spoke into the intercom. He said what Marta's family risked their lives to hear.  "You are now free".

Marta's father arranged for his good friend, Bill, to meet them at the Miami airport. Before he could even greet his friend, he was taken away to a FBI interrogation and debriefing camp. Marta started to cry and Bill grabbed her and said it would be OK. He looked after the girls and gave them a free apartment to stay in while Miguel Angel was in custody. The neighboring apartment was occupied by two kind female nurses, Nancy and Joe. One was Irish and the other Italian, and these women befriended the Quintana girls when they arrived. They even made Marta's family their first meal in America - spaghetti with marinara sauce, an apple and some milk.  Marta learned her first words in English from them; "I love you". It wasn't until her adult life that she realized that Nancy and Joe were most likely lovers.
While the girls waited anxiously for their father's return, Bill was able to find out when he was going to be released from the debriefing camp.  On that day, the Quintana girls were full of anticipation, excitement, and nervousness.  Marta peaked out the windows all day hoping to see her father. Finally, she decided to walk downstairs to the sidewalk.  When she got there and looked down the street, there was her father, six months after they landed in Miami, walking toward his little girl.  The emotions of relief and happiness were overwhelming for their entire family. Not long after being reunited, Marta's Grandmother arrived in Miami and a free life for the Quintana's was about to officially start again, for good.

After twelve years living in the U.S. and traveling to Puerto Rico for her father's construction work, Marta and her family were faced with another traumatic event causing distinct details to burn into her memory again. In Puerto Rico in 1974, Marta's father was hit by a bus that ran a yellow light. He was launched twenty feet into the air and cracked his skull, but was luckily still alive. He was rushed to the hospital where Marta and her family met him and she remembers wearing linen overalls. While sitting in his hospital room, Marta could tell that he was trying speak to tell her something. The blood in his mouth and throat made this a struggle. She silenced him with comforting words ("It's just a bump on the head, you'll be OK") and put something in his mouth to help with the blood. At that moment, he looked in her eyes and lost consciousness. The best surgeons were flown in from New York to operate, but three days later, he died at 2:15am. Marta was 17 years old and would never know what he wanted to tell her.
Executive Chef Marta Quintana
Marta resides in Towson, Maryland and is the executive chef and owner of Havana Road Cuban Cafe. When she married, she decided to keep her maiden name out of respect. "I owe my freedom to my Father", says Marta.  She vowed to live her life in a way to never dishonor his name and believes that her purpose as an adult is to "live to leave a legacy". She still has family in Cuba that she financially supports and aiding in their survival is extremely important to her. Every Christmas Eve, her family will not enjoy their dinner unless they have confirmed that the two Cuban households have had something to eat first.  She is involved in different charitable organizations and her dream is to to build a wing at St. Jude's Children's Hospital,called the MAQ Center, in honor of her father. The center will have a dedicated space where families can go to heal.
Marta has not returned to Cuba since they left in 1962.  She is honoring her father's wish and will return when their Cuba is free. 
Marta Quintana
Editors Note:  Marta, thank you so much for sharing your amazing story.  It's a reminder that the power of a family's love is unbeatable.


  1. Lisa, that's awesome. Beautiful story and photos, too. What great inspiration for your future travels...

    1. Thank you, David! Almost done with the David Alan Harvey book. 19 days and counting.

  2. Lisa, Truly a beautiful story and its amazing how life unfolds itself naturally. You were meant to be there and there is so much more to come my beautiful daughter.
    Your blog is well stated and thank you for sharing this heart felt story with us.

    You're so loved,

    Mom and Dad