Between the Lines
Messages from my Family in Cuba

Katarina Wong

© Copyright 2020 by Katarina WongC

Photo of a Cuban stamp.

This essay was originally included in the Bronx Memoir Project Anthology [Vol. 3], which was a compilation of memoir essays created by attendees of their Bronx Memoir Project (BMP) workshops.

Until I was 13, I only knew my mother’s side of the family from the letters that appeared in our mailbox in distinctive red and blue striped envelopes. Tight, cursive handwriting declared my mother’s full name: Lucia Capin Wong, the only time I ever saw her family name attached to ours. The weeks it took those letters to cross the ninety miles between Cuba and Florida made each envelope feel like a winning lottery ticket.

Mooooooom!! A letter from Cuba!” my sisters and I would cry as we ran in with the mail.

Dámela! Give it to me!Mom would stop whatever she was doing to hurry over. She’d carefully slice open an edge of the envelope, smooth out the pages, and read their contents. Sometimes it would be a single letter; sometimes the envelope would contain several letters from different relatives.

Querida hermana...Dear sister…”

Querida tía...Dear aunt…”

Querida hija...Dear daughter…”

Querida prima...Dear cousin…”

Precious stories about their lives would unfold from those onion skin thin sheets. Who got married, who was pregnant, who went to Havana, how the tobacco crops were. Sometimes part of a letter would be mysteriously redacted in heavy black marker. My family were mostly poor, rural people. What state secrets could they possibly know? I wondered.

I never saw my mother writing back, although I knew she always did. I imagine her sitting at our dining table late at night when the house was finally quiet, the kitchen cleaned, my sisters and I tucked in bed, and dad watching TV in another room. Maybe then, exhausted from cleaning houses during the day and working as a caterer at night, she would finally have a few moments to pull out similar thin sheets of paper and tell her family about her life in America.

Querida hermana...Dear sister…”

Querido hermano...Dear brother…”

Querido papá...Dear father…”

Querida prima...Dear cousin…”

Sometimes, the envelopes from Cuba showed up a bit fatter than usual, and that was cause for extra excitement.

Moooooooom!! A letter from Cuba! I think it’s got photos!”

My sisters and I would gather tightly around her as she pulled a chair to the kitchen table. We were eager for the show-and-tell about to come.

Who’s that? Is that tía Raquel? Is that grandpa?” we’d demand.

Esperan, niñas! Let me read the letter first!”

She’d translate the letter to us then carefully spread the images across the floral tablecloth. We would lean in to examine those black and white peeks into our family’s lives. Mom would point out who was who, etching their faces in our minds and in hers.

Sparked by the photographs, she would tell us about her life in Cuba. “I remember,” her stories would begin. “I was walking home at night. I was very young -- maybe five? -- and I had to pass by the guardia, where the soldiers kept their horses. I was so scared of them, especially the big, black stallion. He looked like he wanted to trample me. I would always run past as fast as I could! This photo of your cousin Mayra is taken right next door to where those horses were kept.”

I’d heard versions of her stories before, but it didn’t matter. Like a favorite fairy tale, I never tired of them and each photo added details to the sketches I had drawn in my mind of our family. On those special afternoons letters, photos, memories all intertwined to become an invisible, unbreakable thread that mended the space between Florida and Cuba and, if only temporarily, the hole in my mother’s heart.


My sisters and I first went to Cuba in 1979. Our grandfather was dying and Mom managed to get special permission to take us to meet him.

My mother came to New York in 1960 as a 26-year old eager to see the world, but then got stuck here when relations between the two countries broke off six months after. On her return to Cuba nearly 20 years later, she found one generation had grown old and another had sprung up. Life had gone on without her, and there was much she needed to catch up on despite the letters we received.

To me, the photos seemed to come alive during that visit. My relatives were both familiar and unfamiliar, like a figment of a vivid dream. That visit, so bittersweet, was the only time I would see my grandfather, but it was also the start of other relationships.

Eventually my tía Raquel got a phone line, and Mom would dial and dial and dial until we finally were able to get through. Sometimes it would take hours or even days, but then…

Lucia!!!” excited voices would crackle through the poor connection, and I imagined my aunt and cousins pressed up against the heavy rotary phone receiver, straining to hear Mom on the other end. Calls were prohibitively expensive, so my mother only called once or twice a year and spoke especially fast, never allowing herself more than a couple of minutes. Those voices helped sustain her between letters and her next visit many years later.

By the 1990s Mom and I were traveling to Cuba regularly — sometimes once a year, sometimes every three years, depending on who was in the Oval Office — and I began to understand the longing that still inhabited my mother. Those trips reminded me that part of my heart was beating there. The more I returned, the louder I heard its beat.


Querida sobrina…Dear niece...

Querida amiga…Dear friend...

Querida prima…Dear cousin...

In 2014, my relatives began to have email access, and their messages started to pop up in my inbox. In the past, our letters were a one-way reporting of events. Now I’m able to have conversations with them the way I do with everyone else in my life.

I’ve come to know that my aunt Emma loves the cinema, that she spends her vacation every December at the Latin American film festival in Havana, carefully taking notes on each movie. When she found a lump had grown back in her breast, I was able to communicate with her quickly about her cancer treatment, offer encouragement in the days post-chemo, and get the news of her remission the same day she heard.

My emails with my cousin Omara focus on practical matters. We write about her job in television production and where they’re filming next, what her mother Raquel needs (“Could you bring a battery-powered lamp for the blackouts? Underwear? Canned food?”), and how hard it is to find toilet paper one month, eggs another, the general disappearance of a host of other necessities.

I know Omara loves Nutella and biographies of historic women; that my artist friends Aylén and Liz need paint brushes and their dog Dante was ill; that my friend Valentina is partial to parmesan cheese, the kind in the green cylinder, and is dating someone new. I tell them about my boyfriend, my cat, how the dark the winter days depress me and how happy I am when the first green signs of spring appear. Back and forth, we reveal ourselves to one another through large and small details of our lives.

When I see their names in my inbox, I feel the same surge of excitement I did as a child, and I hurry home after work to call my mother.

“Mom! I heard from Cuba!”

“Really! Who wrote?” I imagine her sitting at her kitchen table still covered in a floral tablecloth, as I sit down at mine in New York City, the evening light softening into night. I put her on speaker and her voice fills the room.

“What do they say?”

Just a second, just a second! Let me open the email,” I reply before reading the latest message.


I am an artist and am shifting my practice to focusing on writing. 

Contact Katarina

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher