Mountain Characters: Pitkin County judge revels in heritage during trip to Cuba
Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely grew up hearing songs, poems and stories from relatives about her Cuban heritage, but she’d never been there.
So when President Barack Obama initiated a thaw in relations with Cuba and the Castro regime earlier this year, she figured it was time to finally make the trip.
“I wanted to get there before it changed,” Fernandez-Ely said Thursday during an interview in her office at the Pitkin County Courthouse.
However, she didn’t want to do the standard tourist-beach thing.
Instead, Fernandez-Ely, her husband, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely, and their 17-year-old daughter, Julia, opted for a “people to people” tour to the island called “Undiscovered Cuba,” she said. That type of tour, which requires an American visa, has been available for 25 years, she said, and can revolve around art, schools, health care or other particular interests.
Their 12-day trip — from June 29 to July 10 — first took them to the capital, Havana, then to points and cities mainly in the eastern part of the island, immersing them in art, music and dance.
“There were no tourists,” Fernandez-Ely said. “We didn’t go to a single beach. It really was undiscovered.”
Fernandez-Ely, 62, was born in Virginia but grew up in Miami and Caracas, Venezuela — her father was an international lawyer. Her Cuban heritage goes back to her great-grandmother, Augustias Centurion, who was born in Spain but grew up in Jiguani, Cuba. Centurion married her husband, Jose Fernandez, a Spanish soldier posted there in colonial times, in the late 1800s and the couple briefly moved to Havana before settling in Tampa, Florida.
Her grandfather was born in Tampa but married a Cuban woman. Her father was born in Tampa, as well, though her mother was from Indiana and is of Swedish and Danish descent.
While living in Venezuela between the ages of 3 and 9, Fernandez-Ely’s Uncle Benny and Aunt Yolanda, who ran hotels in Cuba, moved in after Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959. That was when her Cuban education kicked into high gear, she said.
“All Cubans talk about politics endlessly and drink coffee all night,” she said. “That was my life in Caracas.”
With those memories foremost in her mind, Fernandez-Ely and her family began their trip in Havana, which she said is just beginning to recover from the depression that began in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, she said she enjoyed the eastern part of the country, which is more agricultural and seemed much more vibrant than Havana and the western side.
In cities such as Santa Clara — where Che Guevara is buried — Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, the Elys were treated to art, ballet, flamenco and music, she said.
“There’s a vibrant arts scene,” Fernandez-Ely said. “We danced in every restaurant.”
But one of the most memorable moments came after they visited the city of Bayamo in the southeastern part of the country, she said. Fernandez-Ely knew that the city of Jiguani, where her family is from, was nearby and asked her tour guide if they might be able to stop briefly and try to find her relatives.
“It was not part of the tour,” she said. “But they said, ‘Sure.’ They were gracious enough to stop.”
So the tour bus stopped in the center of the small town, founded in 1701, and they asked a man carrying an umbrella if he knew any Centurions in town, she said. Sure enough, the man knew Jesus Centurion — her third cousin — and took Fernandez-Ely and the members of her tour to a nearby, well-kept home.
“Jesus came out (of the house) with the eyebrows, posture and attitude of my family,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”
For his part, Jesus Centurion was friendly but skeptical, Fernandez-Ely said. She said she thought he looked similar to her father, her Uncle Benny and even herself, but the family connection was cemented when Jesus lifted his finger as if to make a point.
“I laughed,” she said, “because my father used to do that.”
They were only able to visit with Centurion, his wife, son and grandson for about 30 minutes before they had to go because the other tour members were waiting for them, Fernandez-Ely said. However, she wants to go back as soon as possible and would like to bring more relatives to have a larger family reunion, she said.
“It’s so funny,” Fernandez-Ely said. “You see people so far removed from you, and they are definitely your genetic people.”
Another highlight of the trip occurred when they visited the Rio Toa near the city of Baracoa in the eastern-most province of Guantanamo, she said.
“Legend has it that if you get in the river, you will go back to Cuba,” Fernandez-Ely said. “So I dove right in.”
She said she’d like to go back during spring break next year and, if possible, wants to own property in the country, which she acknowledged won’t be an easy thing to do. Still, the effort would be worth it, she said, to have that family connection.
“I recognized myself in the Cubans,” she said. “They’re friendly and intense.”
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