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After 40 years, a BVU student restores family ties to the Cuban Fatherland

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

For Buena Vista University student Danielle Martinez, taking a trip to Cuba earlier this past academic year for her J-Term course was a given.

Last January, along with more than 20 other students and faculty, The BVU senior boarded a plane.

Regardless of cost or frayed nerves or anything else that might stand in her way, getting a chance to visit her father's homeland wasn't something she was about to miss.

Nor would she pass up an opportunity to meet members of her family who had remained in Cuba, estranged from their family in the United States for more than 40 years, under a travel and trade embargo against the island nation.

When her father and his family left the island and the turmoil of political upheaval, not all the family was able to get out.

Dan Martinez left Cuba when he was eight years old in 1959. This was the period when Fidel Castro consolidated power following the Cuban Revolution and consequent overthrow of the Batista regime.

From Cuba, Dan Martinez's family brought him to New York City. From there his father took a job in Texas where the family lived until Dan was ready for high school, when the family moved back to New Jersey.

The elder Martinez explains that his mother was from upstate New York and he and all but one of his brothers and sisters had been born in the states. So he was already an American citizen.

"It was always kind of funny. When I was a kid in Cuba I was the American living in Cuba," he said. "But when we came to the United States, I was the Cuban living in America."

Nonetheless, he worked hard at school, was accepted to a college and America became his home for good.

"After high school, a couple of schools in Iowa were recruiting students from the New York-New Jersey area," Dan Martinez explains from his home in Red Oak. "I liked what I saw and came out to Iowa, and ended up staying."

The elder Martinez would go on to win tennis conference titles for the Central Dutch during the early 1970s and, with a partner, went to the NAIA nationals in doubles.

Following graduation, Mr. Martinez married Danielle's mom, Juanita (better known as Nita), moved to Red Oak and built one of the best prep tennis programs in the state. He also coached basketball for more than 20 years.

Danielle said her father often spoke of Cuba, so when the opportunity presented itself in the form of the BVU interim class, she jumped.

"I told myself 'I can't pass this up,' " she said. "I didn't and I'd pay every penny of it again.

"Dad always talked about going back and always hoped he'd be able to take us back and show us around."

She said she always was curious about the country as she grew up. "I had a lot to learn. I had been taught that the Cuban people wanted to flee their country," Danielle said. "What I learned was they wanted to learn about us, too."

Danielle's father said he was happy she got to make the trip, happy she got a chance to meet her family and reestablish ties.

"She got to return to her roots and that is good," he said. "I always wanted to return. My cousins and I were very close in childhood. That is something very important in Cuba - family - that's everything."

And meeting that family was almost magical.

"My father's cousin Ana and her husband came to the hotel and there was a large tour group in the lobby at the time," Danielle said. "And although it had been hard to communicate with the family, they walked right up to me in the crowd.

"Ana said she could tell who I was and I knew who she was immediately. It was strange since nobody had been able to communicate with any members of that side of the family in so long."

Getting to meet Ana Lurdes Martinez Nodarse was itself a rare privilege, not just because she's a long lost cousin but she's one of the best record producers in Cuba.

"Ana was nominated twice for Latin Grammys," Danielle said. "She was nominated in 2000 and 2002."

But as Danielle explained, when Cuba is in the spotlight, politics can't be far behind.

"Ana couldn't get a traveling visa in 2002. So her seat was empty at the ceremony. They panned her seat when the nominees for best producer were announced and they wrote her a letter asking her why she wasn't there.

"She wasn't at the ceremony because of politics, that's it."

Danielle said it was "amazing" to meet her father's 86-year-old aunt.

"I was pretty nervous because my Spanish is so poor and their English wasn't that good, either," she said. "But Sally Brecher, the Spanish instructor, helped us by interpreting. I didn't know what to expect when I got to their house, but they wouldn't let me leave once I was there."

Danille brought pictures to give to the cousins and they spent hours pouring over albums, showing her pictures of her long-lost relatives.

And she got to see her great-grandmother's house in old Havana.

"That was something I was excited about," Dan Martinez said.

While the students saw many of Cuba's showplaces, Danielle said that one thing that did impress her was the poverty.

"There was a number of beautiful places but there was also a lot of poverty," she said. "It seemed like a dollar could go a long ways down there."

There were many people begging or attempting to sell things to the students, and all the cars are from the 1950s.

"Although there was a lot of poverty but there was no violence," she said. "I never once felt threatened. The people were very kind and I felt as if we were pretty well taken care of."

Her father knew the realities. "I packed a toilet case for her before she left," he said. "I packed toilet paper and some other things like soap. She said she wouldn't need that. Little did she know... all the things we take for granted in this country ."



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