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Photo essay: Returning to a place I’d never been

A school boy leaned against a wall in Trinidad, Cuba.
A school boy leaned against a wall in Trinidad, Cuba.Omar Vega

I was born in the United States to parents who were both born in Cuba, and I’ve spent my life balancing on the hyphen between Cuban and American. Early on, out of a child’s instinct to survive, I learned to fit in at school by assimilating. So much so that I felt like I turned my back on my family history and heritage. Until a few years ago, when I decided that it was time to explore my Cuban-ness by visiting the island.

While preparing for my first visit, in 2015 — interviewing my family, collecting old photos — I often found myself saying “going back” when referring to the upcoming trip. The thing is, I had never been there. My cousin Jessica felt the same way — as if she were returning to the place. It was then that I realized that the memories our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had been passionately sharing with us over the years had become our own. Their love of country had been passed down — along with their sadness over what could have been for the isle and its people.

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Sunrise in Camagüey.
Sunrise in Camagüey.Omar Vega
Morning rush hour in Camagüey.
Morning rush hour in Camagüey. Omar Vega
A crowded bus in Havana.
A crowded bus in Havana.Omar Vega

And so it was that I found myself in 2016 traveling by car in Cuba, from Havana to Cienfuegos, then to Camagüey, Las Tunas, and Trinidad. I witnessed the daily lives of the people through dusty windows and heard stories from them wherever we stopped. I took it all in and searched for myself — my roots — in the faces and lives of strangers.

I photographed the Cubans with a distance between us filled with my fears of not belonging, and my longing to belong. I collected images of them, as if possessing these snapshots of their lives would fill the gap that left me teetering between the two worlds of my hyphenated identity.

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It took those years after my first visit, and countless hours spent poring over the photos I made there, to see what was in plain sight. In my photographic menagerie I saw their stories, and mine, and that of us all.

The space I inhabit on that hyphen isn’t a void, it isn’t a confusion of identity. It is my identity.

Parque Antonio Maceo in Havana.
Parque Antonio Maceo in Havana.Omar Vega
A young girl stands in a doorway in Havana.
A young girl stands in a doorway in Havana.Omar Vega
A man smoking a cigarette in Havana.
A man smoking a cigarette in Havana. Omar Vega
A horse-drawn carriage on the road, somewhere between Las Tunas and Trinidad.
A horse-drawn carriage on the road, somewhere between Las Tunas and Trinidad. Omar Vega
Cafetería in Havana.
Cafetería in Havana.Omar Vega
Camilo on the rooftop in Havana.
Camilo on the rooftop in Havana.Omar Vega
Young girls on El Malecón in Havana.
Young girls on El Malecón in Havana.Omar Vega
A performer at Cabaret Las Vegas in Havana.
A performer at Cabaret Las Vegas in Havana.Omar Vega
Wedding on Paseo del Prada in Havana.
Wedding on Paseo del Prada in Havana. Omar Vega
Dancers celebrating Marcha de las Antorchas: A tribute to José Martí.
Dancers celebrating Marcha de las Antorchas: A tribute to José Martí.Omar Vega

Omar Vega is design director at the Globe. To learn more about his Hyphen photo exhibit, click here.