All his life he heard the stories of his homeland, a place he was taken from in 1968. It took 44 years, but this month, Rene Gomez returned to Cuba to stand on the land of his ancestors.
Gomez, now assistant headmaster and upper school principal at Lafayette Christian School, was born in Guanavacoa, in metropolitan Havana, the capital city of Cuba. When Fidel Castro took over the country in 1959, he began moving the government toward communism. That’s when Gomez’s parents began planning to leave the country.
“Things were going from bad to worse. At the time, if you had a family member abroad you could get permission to leave the country - if you paid the fees. My dad had a daughter from a previous marriage living in the states so they were able to get permission to leave,” Gomez said. “Even back then, the cost was between $1,000 and $2,000 per person. My dad worked in a medical laboratory and so he funded most of the fees.”
In 1968, Gomez, his parents and his sister were granted visas to immigrate to Miami, Fla. He was 3 years old.
“Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t come here on a raft,” Gomez said.
He doesn’t recall life in Cuba, but does remember the challenges of being a Spanish-speaking child in Miami.
“When I started school, I was put in special education classes because I didn’t know English. All we spoke at home was Spanish,” he said.
When he was about 10 years old, his mother returned to Cuba for a visit. He wanted to go, but she said no. That’s when he first became aware of a common fear.
“It was common folklore among Miami Cubans. I was young, I didn’t serve in the military, if they take me to Cuba, they’ll keep me. They won’t let me come back,” Gomez said.
His mother returned twice more. Gomez heard from her the stories of his grandparents, his aunts and uncles and all his cousins. Still, his mother was too afraid to consider taking him to Cuba.
“I longed to go back. I wanted to experience what my friends and family talked about,” he said.
Gomez joined the U.S. Army even before becoming a U.S. citizen, then went to school and moved to Georgia. He’s been a coach, teacher and administrator at West Georgia Christian Academy and Lafayette Christian School.
He had often heard of a LaGrange church, Western Heights Baptist, that partnered with Cuban churches, traveling to the country to help renovate old church buildings and work with Christians there.
He didn’t attend that church and didn’t think he would be able to go with them. However, earlier this year, a fellow teacher noticed his Cuban flag on his truck and asked Gomez if he was going to Cuba with the Western Heights group.
“That got the wheels turning. I talked to another teacher from that church and she gave me the information. Then I talked with the team leader and got more information,” he said.
He waited more than a week to tell his wife he wanted to go.
“She grew up in Miami, too. I had to figure out how to debunk the myth that they’d keep me in Cuba,” he said. “She knew my desire to go, but she was still nervous.”
The church team goes to Cuba about twice a year, with permission from the IRS which is a requirement for anyone traveling from the U.S. to Cuba. When they applied for the visas, the paperwork went smoothly, except for Gomez’s.
“My passport is a U.S. passport, but it has ‘country of birth’ on it, so they knew I was Cuban. I had to provide my mother’s maiden name, then I had to tell them where I was from and my street address - which I didn’t know. I had to get that from my cousin,” he said.
His visa was finalized just hours before he was scheduled to leave.
“Re-entry was emotional. After 44 years I was going back to where I was born. I traded seats so I could look out the window and see the island as we flew in. It was emotional,” he admitted. “I stepped off the plane and stood on Cuban ground. I thanked God to be in Cuba, not just to go home, but to be able to serve God there as well.”
He’d heard the stories, even seen pictures, but this time he saw the poverty, watched people stand in line for grocery rations, experienced the “stepping back in time” feeling of seeing cars from the 1950’s on the road. He spoke his native Cuban Spanish.
He swam in a Cuban river, played baseball in a stadium and worshipped in a church.
He wondered how his life would be different if he’d never left his homeland.
“We could worship in a church with no problem. We could not speak of God outside the church, although we could talk in the homes of other believers,” he said.
The team was there to help with building, lead Bible studies, hold a vacation Bible school for children and build relationships with people in the church.
“The weather wasn’t cooperative. It rained four days and you can’t lay concrete in the rain. Still we had the opportunity to invest in the ministry of the church,” he said.
Baseball was one of the biggest openings to meeting people.
“The church had started a new ministry with baseball and we brought new gloves, balls and aluminum bats, which are really hard to find in Cuba. They were fantastic ball players. They gave me some pointers,” he said.
Gomez was not allowed to contact his family in Cuba. However, on future trips, with more planning, he’ll be able to contact them and they may be able to come meet him. And, he is already planning those future trips.
“I will definitely be going back,” he said.