Pepe Pena returned home to his native Cuba February 2011 for the first time in nearly 50 years. He was joined by his longtime partner, Art Johnston, and a small group of other Americans on a humanitarian mission endorsed by the U.S. and Cuban governments.
The gay Chicago partners, who also are co-owners of Sidetrack, traveled to Toronto for a non-stop Air Canada flight to Havana, where they brought medicines not available in Cuba, particularly to help treat kids with cancer, and meals, mostly for senior citizens.
"It was emotional," said Pena, who was born in Cuba in 1943 and left for the U.S. in 1962and he had not been back since. "It almost was, and is, like a time-warp [going back to Cuba now] because the cars there are the same that were there in 1959. Nothing has really changed.
"As much as I enjoy being there, and enjoy [being around] the people, it's interesting to see how American-ized I've become. There were many times when I truly felt like a foreigner there."
Pena and Johnston traveled south on behalf of First Hand Aid, a group of volunteers delivering much-needed medical supplies and more to Cuba.
They also got to see members of Pena's family.
"When we're there, talking with the locals, it's just normal talk, nothing political or anything like that. Being in Havana, well, the city really hasn't changed all that much," Pena said.
So what was the best part of that first trip back to Cuba two years ago?
To be able to go with Johnston, Pena said, because for years they were not allowed to travel together to Cuba.
"There were members of Pepe's family who I had heard about for 38 years. To finally meet them, people who were important in helping Pepe become who he is, [such as] cousins and other relatives, that really was a remarkable experience, overwhelming," Johnston said.
Johnston and Pena have since been back to Cuba two more times, and are planning to go back again in April.
"[The trips] can be an overwhelming experience," said Johnston, who also went to Cuba in November 2011 and May 2012.
"Our role [on the relief mission trips] is to help carry the medicine in," to the country, Johnston said.
They then deliver medications to the needy in Havana hospitals, visit countless patients, even to just offer a word or two of encouragement.
"We basically go around and play Santa Claus; we cheer up as much as we can," said Johnston, who often gives toys to youngsters in the hospital.
Johnston and Pena aligned with First Hand Aid through a longtime Sidetrack customer, also gay, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. Johnston and Pena heard about First Hand Aid and instantly were interested in helping.
They have since brought about 20 other friends from Chicago into the mix of First Hand Aid, and on relief trips to Cuba.
The Chicagoans, ranging in age from 25 to 70, are gay, and include men and women.
"Through the [gay] community, we get to meet so many people who are so incredibly dedicated and selfless. They too have stepped up," to support the non-profit First Hand Aid, Johnston said.
"Even in the worst of conditions, the [Cuban people] still have a sense of humor and there is not an ounce of animosity from them between Cubans and Americans," Johnston said.
The efforts of this group are reminiscent of LGBTs helping members of the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans who came to the U.S. in 1980. (Mariel was the harbor in Cuba from which boats departed.) The exodus came with official Cuban approval, but it caused huge debates in the U.S. Cubans living in America helped acclimate some of the estimated 125,000 people who made the dangerous trek, and calls went out through the gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches for people in the gay community to provide aide and housing. In fact, many of the new immigrants were LGBTs seeking safety in America.
A headline in Chicago's GayLife newspaper July 4, 1980 read "Gay Cubans filled with terror and fear upon return," discussing a gay man who had traveled back to Cuba to bring his mother out of the country. On July 11, 1980, GayLife reported "MCC launches Cuban relief efforts": "As gay organizations in Chicago and around the nation continue to report a high volume of inquiries regarding gay and lesbian Cuban refugees, a July 7 meeting of organizational representatives in Washington, D.C. heard a progress report on the status of the gay refugees' assistance project" being organized by MCC.
Chicagoan Bill Kelley was among those attending that D.C. meeting, as a representative of the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force. Two MCC congregations in the Chicago area helped refugees.
Though many from the LGBT community are supportive of the modern-day efforts of First Hand Aid, the organization is not a gay group. But, during their Cuban trips, Johnston and Pena have met many Cuban gaysand even bring rainbow items from Gaymart in Lakeview, including shirts, flags, handkerchiefs, key chains, and more.
"The organization First Hand Aid does great work, and everyone who has gone [to Cuba on a relief mission] with us has been moved emotionally," Johnston said.
On Saturday, March 23, Johnston and Pena are co-hosts for Havana In Chicago, a four-hour fundraiser for First Hand Aid, starting at 4 p.m. The event will feature Cuban food from Paladar and Cuban music from Grupo Zye, winner of the 2012 Jammie Award (Best Jazz Album), plus door prizes and a silent auction. Advance tickets are $50 and organizers are hoping to raise at least $10,000.
"We've met so many wonderful people [through First Hand Aid], so many people whose dedication to the cause reminds me of the gay activists that we've known all our lives," Johnston said.
For more information about the charity, or to pre-purchase tickets to Havana In Chicago at Sidetrack on March 23, go to: FirstHandAid.org
Also contributing: Tracy Baim