Cano Diaz was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba. She is now 22 and a recent media and communication graduate of East Tennessee State University.
In 2011, she and three members of her family left Cuba. The communist government, the economy and the education system were only a few of the reasons her family fled. They did not know if they could ever return.
Now that the U.S. is rebuilding its relationship with Cuba, Cano Diaz plans to visit as soon as she can.
Tension boiled over between the two countries after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. He established a one-party communist state and the U.S. responded with economic, commercial and financial embargos in 1960.
White House reports once claimed the U.S. sanctions were necessary to stop the spread of communism in the region. Cuba is 90 miles south of the U.S., and leaders of the democratic superpower were worried about then-Soviet involvement in a nation so close to its borders.
Human rights organizations denounced U.S. sanctions. The international community, backed by U.N. research, has said the true victims were the Cuban people, not communism. The nation has remained communist for decades.
Cano Diaz remembers life during the trade embargo.
“Where I used to live, that little building in Cienfuegos, we have a trash can on the corner of the street,” Cano Diaz said. “I think it was broken, people kept dumping their trash there, but there was not a truck that would come and get the trash.”
Cano Diaz grew up hearing stories of civil war and the Castro takeover, but lived in the fallout of history every day.
“Our building was pink but it wasn’t that radiant pink,” said Cano Diaz. “Since the economy was so bad you didn’t see many buildings painted. They would wait years before they did that,” she said. Few could afford paint.
Cano Diaz’s family exited when an opportunity became available, unexpectedly. Her parents took advantage of a law enacted by Spain in 2008. The Historical Memory Law recognized children and grandchildren of refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
“I was 14 or so,” said Cano Diaz. “...My dad became a [Spanish] citizen, and then my brother and I became citizens, so that is how we got out of there.”
They left in the order they received their Spanish passports.
“First my dad was the one that left,” said Cano Diaz. “He spent there, three months [in Spain] before I left. I left next and lived with him for a while. Then my mom and my brother traveled to Spain.”
Cano Diaz completed a year of high school in Spain and was startled by a language barrier. Some of the language was new to her. The family was comfortable in Spain, but left when an invitation came from the U.S.
“My dad’s sister lived here for like 50 years,” said Cano Diaz. “We talked to her and she offered. I lived with my aunt for nine or 10 months, and then my parents moved to Miami and I went there.”
The first time Cano Diaz and her brother planted roots in American soil was in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. She remembers how hard it was to understand English.
“All I knew how to say was ‘yes,’” said Cano Diaz, laughing, “so I said yes to everything! You know, the accent really shocked me. I was like, ‘I can’t understand one single word!’”
The mountains must have warmed her heart because Cano Diaz returned to attend college at ETSU. In studying media and communication, she has an opportunity that she believes would not have been afforded in Cuba.
“I always like television [and] film, I loved film,” said Cano Diaz. “In Cuba I didn’t think I had an opportunity to do something about it. When I got here it was different. I started doing accounting, I hated it, it was boring. I found out there was a department about radio television and film and I decided to go for it.”
Cano Diaz is now an American citizen. Her paternal grandfather in Cuba has died, but her father’s mother visits the U.S. from time to time. Cano Diaz hasn’t seen her mother’s parents since she left Cuba.
“I knew they [Castros] were a bunch of liars. I learned that since I was little.”
She speaks with family members in Cuba and follows Cuban news when she visits her parents in Miami. After Castro died last November, she saw an uncertain future. She believes change will take decades, and will not happen while a Castro is leading the country.
“I knew they [Castros] were a bunch of liars. I learned that since I was little,” Cano Diaz said. “Whenever I got here I realized, ‘Oh my God, we lived in a lie.’ They are greedy bastards.”
President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, has promised that he will not seek reelection in 2018 and that elections will be free and open. More U.S. aid and tourists are pouring in, and development is underway. But Cano Diaz believes the economic system needs changing.
Since the U.S. sanctions, Cuba’s only economic support came from the Soviet Union. Cano Diaz said everything went down from there. She has doubts about whether President Donald Trump can make a difference.
“With Trump, I know he’s mentioned before that he wishes to speak to the president and say ‘Okay, if you change your ways, if you have freedom of religion – which we do have in Cuba, it’s not that oppressed – that if you change your politics, then yes, we’ll continue to have relations,’ but if he doesn’t, then he’s going to break all that,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s the solution.
“[Trump] can’t just, in my opinion, go into a country and say what he wants to say and expect people to change because of him.”
To Cano Diaz, the situation is more complicated.
“The problem is not just the Castros, the problem is also the people around them – they’re also communists,” she said. “You know, they have that mind. So I think it would take not only the Castros, I think it would take a lot of people to change to enhance the situation in Cuba.”
All Cubans in America can do is support their families in Cuba, she said.
“I would go back, but just to visit ,” she said. “Not to stay there.”
Above, right: Beatriz Cano Diaz and other Radio, Television and Film program students go on a photo shoot during her last year at East Tennessee State University. Photograph by Kenne Medley