Most Americans who visit Cuba recall having a time machine moment. Mine came through discovering symbols tied to my childhood in Bulgaria, a formerly communist nation that turned to democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Last year’s 25th anniversary of this event awakened an urge to explore places of kindred circumstances, with Cuba as the natural extension. I have found the recent warming in Cuban-American relations of particular fascination, as well as the accompanying speculation over the future of Communism on the island.
But my project was not about political alignment: in both theory and practice, there are pros and cons to capitalism, as there are to communism. It was simply a childhood relived, and my future imagined had democracy been just a whispered-about but never-seen guest. I saw myself in the child in a red scarf saluting voters, my mind too young for politics, simply eager to belong. Memories of my grandfather, who gave five youthful years to a forced labor camp after failing to show proper enthusiasm for the party, flickered through my mind in front of photos held by the Ladies in White from the opposition movement—those who still protest political imprisonment despite beatings and detentions. One too many a family shared the familiar pain of separation via necessity—not an innate desire—for emigration.
All these parallels, while not sought out, are what a life straddling communism and democracy had fine-tuned me to openly receive and record.