Journey renews Bristol man’s ties to his Cuban heritage

BRISTOL — Alfonso Enrique Ceballos — known more commonly around town as plain old American “Rick” — recently returned to Bristol, his home of many decades, from a trip that was a homecoming of a very different kind.
The 67-year-old banjo player extraordinaire, whose group Daddy Longlegs is known for its eclectic blend of traditional music, has just returned from a trip to Cuba, a homeland he has not seen for over 60 years.
Ceballos not only reconnected with family he had lost touch with in the Caribbean island nation that has been estranged from the United States, but he made strong connections with the music that resonates in his life even today.
The son of a Cuban immigrant and an Italian-American girl from western Pennsylvania, Ceballos, whose last name is pronounced “Sibayos,” last visited Cuba as a small boy of five in 1953.
“I felt like it was someplace that I belonged, the way that people embraced me,” said Ceballos of his trip to Cuba.
“Living in the Northeast, my name is like I’m from outer space,” he added jokingly. “My name gets mispronounced so many different ways by so many people that I just joke about it. So to be in a place where it’s ‘Oh, Ceballos!’ oh yeah, there’s real pride in that to me. That to me was just very moving.
“There was a lot going on for me that was very emotional.”
Since Eisenhower imposed the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba in 1960 (still in effect) and closed the United States embassy on Jan. 3, 1961, relations between the two countries have been strained (to put it mildly). And travel, even for family members, has been highly restricted.
Restrictions on travel to Cuba for those with family there — how often they were allowed to go, whether they could stay with family there, what kinds of aid they could offer family members — has varied decade to decade, depending on the administration in Washington and policy in Havana, where Fidel Castro remained in power from the 1959 revolution until he officially handed over the reins of his dictatorship to brother Raul in 2008.
Officially, it is still illegal for Americans to go to Cuba as mere tourists. But in January 2015, the Obama administration made it legal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba on trips that fell within one of 12 categories, including visiting close relatives, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and public performances and sports competitions.
Rick Ceballos’s dad, Alfonso Ceballos, was born in the town of Morón, in eastern Cuba. Alfonso’s family were rural laborers, Rick Ceballos said. But Alfonso immigrated to the United States as a young man in 1929, along with three buddies. He came to New York City, where he met Rick’s mom, Loretta. The two married and moved to Pennsylvania to be near Loretta’s family, and opened a successful restaurant.
“My mom did the cooking, and my dad was the front man. He’s the one that schmoozed all the professionals in town; they loved him,” Ceballos said.
But even though both Rick and his older sister, Lydia, were born in Pennsylvania and raised in the bosom of his mother’s extended Italian-American family, there was a strong Cubano element to life at home.
“The Cuban influence was very strong. My dad was always very proud of where he came from — it’s kind of that dual immigrant thing, he wanted to be a successful American but he was always very proud of being Cuban.”
Ceballos describes his dad as being very much like beloved 1950s and 1960s celebrity Desi Arnaz, a noted Cuban-American musician, who fled Cuba in the 1930s and later married comedienne Lucille Ball. Arnaz co-starred, with Ball, as the character Ricky Ricardo in the TV sitcom “I Love Lucy.”
“My dad was a very strong personality, very strong,” Ceballos said. “I always tell people, if you’ve seen Ricky Ricardo on TV, well, that was my dad. The same personality, the same dialect, which he never lost, the same volatile temper. That was my dad.”
Even though Ceballos senior didn’t teach his children Spanish, Rick Ceballos grew up hearing his dad sing Spanish songs as he rode along on trips around the countryside looking for top ingredients for the family’s restaurant. The restaurant served typical American food. But at home, Alfonso Ceballos cooked Cuban, a strong cultural influence that has stayed with his son his whole life.
“He cooked Cuban food. I grew up on black beans and rice and pork and caramel custard, one of my favorites still,” Rick Ceballos said.
Like many Cuban immigrants from that era, Alfonso hated Castro.
“The three buddies of his that went to New York with him originally went back to Cuba and all became very successful businessmen,” Ceballos recounted. “And they all lost everything when Castro came in. So obviously, my dad had no use for Castro. He was pretty much a classic Cuban Republican.”
Alfonso Ceballos took his young family to Cuba in 1951 and again in 1953. But for Rick, who was just five years old on the last trip, those visits left indistinct memories.
“I have kind of vague snapshots in my head. One thing I remember is that when we were driving from Havana to his home town there was a big vulture that hit the car window and shattered it.”
Ceballos remembers meeting his dad’s family, especially his grandmother, and sleeping under mosquito nets.
Deeper connections to Cuba come from Ceballos’s own lifelong love of and pursuit of music.
“I’ve always loved Cuban music,” he said. “If I think about a common thread, it would be the music.”
Ceballos had wanted to return to Cuba his entire adult life but between the federal restrictions, his own limited Spanish, not being much of a traveler by nature and just life, he didn’t make the trip until this January, at age 67.
Because he was visiting family, Ceballos’s trip fell within the new federal guidelines, but he and his wife, Alice Leeds, chose to travel with ElderTreks out of Canada, because they felt it would make the trip more informative. With ElderTreks, they did a 13-day circuit of the island that started and ended with Havana.
As with many other visitors to Cuba, Ceballos noticed the poverty. U.S. news reports say the average Cuban makes about $20 a month, and staples like beans, rice and coffee are still rationed. Health care and education are free, but chronic food shortages lead many to the black market.
And as with many other tour groups, ElderTreks stayed in mostly government-run accommodations where the food was limited to bland buffets in huge portions. Knowing that food was still rationed for so many around the island, Ceballos said his group felt uncomfortable being offered more than they could possibly consume.
“If a song comes out of this trip it will be called, ‘We have so much, they have so little,’ because that just kept coming into my head all the time,” said Ceballos.
With his tour group, Ceballos visited UNESCO world heritage sites, tobacco plantations and mountain heights.
But for Ceballos the real spirit of Cuba and the greatest sense of rediscovery connecting him to his roots was found in the music and dancing that seemed to go on 24/7 and in the incredibly warm welcome he received time and again as a returning “native son.”
“It was kind of a recurring theme,” he said. “When I told people that my father was from Cuba, they embraced me like I was this long lost brother or something. There were these old ladies at a senior center, and they just started hugging me and kissing me and that was just very heartfelt, that was very special.”
That experience repeated itself throughout the trip, including with fellow musicians, people on the street, and even the group’s bus driver, who turned out to be from the same hometown as Ceballos’s father.
Over and over, he said, people told him and other U.S. citizens in the tour group, “Oh, we love the United States. We don’t care for the government, but we love the United States.”
“A lot of their families are in the United States,” Ceballos said.
The limits of the Cuban economy — Ceballos said that doctors, for example, make about $40 a month — keeps people crowding into their family homes in larger and larger numbers, which in turn, he says, sends young people, especially, spilling out onto the street for music and dancing.
“It’s huge,” Ceballos said. “It’s huge. The music, the dancing, it’s everywhere. It’s not just in the clubs. It’s in the streets. It’s everywhere.
“The last Saturday night that we were there, for example, we went along the Malacón, which is this huge, famous boardwalk. And it was just lined with young people. Just tons and tons of kids. They not only want to get outside and away from their houses, but they can’t afford to go to bars or nightclubs. So there are just these kids partying. And the next morning — we had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch our plane out of Havana — and at 4 a.m. the streets were still packed with young kids partying.
“Nobody has any money, so they were playing music, they were dancing, they were carrying on.”
Classic Cuban music blends traditions from Spain and Africa, among many influences. Its syncopated rhythms, blaring horns and driving tres melodies have influenced many other musical forms, including salsa and jazz.
A high point in the trip for the Bristol musician was a workshop with percussionist David Lopez Garabito. As Garabito led a participatory lecture-demo on the congas, claves and maracas, Ceballos brought out his own pair of musical “bones” and played along.
Another highlight was reuniting with long-lost cousin Luis, now 77 and a retired army officer who lives in Havana. While Ceballos says they might have disagreed over politics, the two hugged warmly and spoke for hours learning about each other’s very different lives and shared family history.
Ceballos, for example, knew that his now-deceased father had been sent to be raised partly by better-heeled godparents outside of their poor, rural town, but Ceballos didn’t know why. Luis explained that in those days it was a common practice to give kids from poorer areas a better chance in life.
Luis also was able to tell Ceballos about how their shared grandmother was a famed midwife, so skilled that even doctors consulted her. And that she had first learned her skills living as a refugee in the jungles during Cuba’s war to achieve independence from Spain in the late 1890s.
Back home in Bristol now, Ceballos is celebrating his return to Cuba by buying a kind of Cuban guitar called a tres so that he can pour his reignited connection to his Cuban heritage back into his Vermont music.
Going full circle, Ceballos thinks back on the music — the sounds of music in the streets all night — that first welcomed him to Havana on this return journey.
“I remember the very first night we got there, really, really late at night, and we got in our hotel room and we got into bed — and I mean it’s a really a night city; they talk how New York never sleeps; I mean, are you kidding me? Havana! — and so we’re in bed there and there’s just all this noise going on down on the streets and music and people carrying on. And I just remember going, ‘I finally made it. I’m back.’
“There was just this sense of after years and years of thinking about it, ‘I’m finally here.’”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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