Christina McHale and her grandmother, 54 years later, travel to Cuba

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“I had always wanted to see where she grew up, and see it with her," McHale said of her grandmother. (Twitter/@ChristinaMcHale)

Last year Christina McHale traveled to Australia, Maui, Rio de Janeiro, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Paris, London and Tokyo, as well as other glamorous global hot spots on the WTA tour. But it wasn’t until the season was over that she had the chance to visit the one place where she wanted to go the most: Havana, Cuba.

No, the city doesn’t host a pro tennis tournament. And, no, it hasn’t been a regular tourist destination for Americans for half a century. But it has something much more important for McHale: family roots. McHale’s maternal grandparents were born in Cuba, as was her mother, Margarita. After leaving in 1962 and making stops in Spain and Boston, the family wound up in New Jersey, the state where Christina was born 30 years later.

Christina’s grandfather, Sergio, was a journalist in Havana. By ’62, it was becoming clear that the three-year-old communist regime of Fidel Castro was growing more oppressive. Sergio wrote about people’s fears for the future in his articles until he and his wife, Maria Livia, were told they had to leave.

Sergio has passed away, but Maria Livia is still going very strong at 83, and it was Christina’s longtime dream to travel back to Cuba with her. Last fall, with relations between the U.S. and Cuba finally beginning to thaw, the 24-year-old saw her chance. So after all of her work trips were over for 2016, Christina took a once-in-a-lifetime all-girls excursion: Her mother, Margarita; sister, Lauren; and grandmother flew to Cuba. It was Maria Livia’s first trip back in 54 years.

“I had always wanted to see where she grew up, and see it with her,” says Christina, who speaks Spanish with her grandmother. “I think before she got there, she was a little confused about how she was going to feel after all this time.”

What she found, ironically, was that virtually nothing had changed. Havana’s buildings were the same, only much more decayed. The cars were the same bright, boat-like 1950s Detroit models that had cruised the city’s streets for decades. The family’s old apartment; the old neighborhood and the people in it; the park where she used to walk; even the woman who used to do her hair: Havana, after half a century of being cut off from the United States and the capitalist world, was much like Maria Livia had left it.

“It was so emotional for her, and for us,” Christina says. “It was amazing to see the places she had talked about. The people in the neighborhood were so warm and happy, and the architecture was so beautiful.”

For Christina, the trip “surpassed my expectations.” The foursome traveled to the beach, saw everything there was to see in Havana and enjoyed the local version of the food that her grandmother had been cooking her for years. But there was an element of culture shock, too. There’s a downside to a place where little has changed, and little has been built, for 50 years.

“The buildings were run-down and falling part, with no paint left on them,” McHale said. “I knew about that, and what the country has been through, but it’s hard to prepare for the poverty you see there. It really did put things in perspective for me.”

As for Maria Livia, she made up for lost time.

“We did a LOT of walking, and she did it all with us,” Christina says—with some amazement in her voice—of her grandmother, who still works as a teacher’s aid in New Jersey.

McHale says she returned to the States and the tour knowing more about herself, and prouder than ever of her Cuban roots.

“Havana will probably change soon,” she said, “so I’m glad I got to see it now, through my grandmother’s eyes, when it was still the way she knew it.”

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