HAVANA (AP) — Cecilia Dalmau's mother made only one request before her daughter flew to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI's visit: "I would love to see pictures from my childhood home."
When Dalmau and her Cuban-exile father, Sergio, located the address in an upscale part of Havana on Tuesday they found a decaying, two-story building with a priest of Cuba's Afro-Cuban Yoruba faith living inside — and a wellspring of powerful emotions.
"It looks like it could fall down at any minute," Dalmau said. "But I can imagine them living here, my grandmother upstairs. The life they once had. This is so surreal."
Dalmau's mother fled Cuba in 1959 as a young girl, days after Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries marched victoriously into Havana. They never returned. The family remade their life in Miami, and Dalmau grew up hearing little from her mother about the island. Still she yearned to see it.
This week Dalmau, a 29-year-old pediatric dietitian, is one of more than 300 mostly Cuban-Americans on a pilgrimage to Cuba led by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Miami, Tomas Wenski. Like many on the tour, Dalmau came seeking a spiritual experience but was also on a personal journey: to find her ancestral home and a connection to her family's roots.
For months before Dalmau left for Cuba, her mother, Ana Maria Garcia, wouldn't even discuss her daughter's trip. Then, just four days before Dalmau's departure, her mother acknowledged that she would love to see the photos of her home.
Accompanied by her nervous father, Dalmau climbed into a taxi and set off to see her parents' old Miramar neighborhood.
"Here it is," driver Juan Betancourt announced as they pulled up to a shady street lined with a handful of elegant Spanish-style mansions.
A group of young men chatted outside the home, a large, sand-colored villa with a crest of lions on the facade — and a tire repair workshop in the front yard. Worn steps led to a heavy, carved wooden door framed by a grand stone entrance.
Dalmau's grandfather, Justo Garcia Rayneri, was treasury secretary under Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban strongman who was ousted by Castro's guerrillas, so she expected a grand house.
But the home has fallen on hard times since her family left.
"It's really sad to think what it could have been. Then again, maybe I wouldn't have been here. But I do know now I want to be more involved in helping in any way," she said.
Dalmau's emotional return mirrored others taken by Cuban-Americans over the years, especially since President Barack Obama lifted limits on how often those with relatives on the island are allowed to visit. American tourists are still barred.
Dalmau didn't find any long-lost relatives living inside the house.
The home's current 41-year-old occupant, Humberto Lopez, soon arrived and Dalmau explained her story again.
He agreed to show her around but was clearly anxious about the unexpected visit. For years, exile families whose homes were confiscated after the revolution sought compensation and hoped to one day reclaim them. Most have long since given up that dream, but the ghost of such threats remain for Cubans on the island.
Inside, a cluster of wooden rocking chairs faced a small television, encircling a floral design in the marble-tile floor. Lopez said the staircase had long been blocked off so another family could live on the second floor, typical of the many buildings that have been subdivided since 1959 to create more, but smaller, homes.
In the corner was a small altar with carved wooden figures. In addition to being a painter, Lopez is a babalawo — a Yoruba priest.
"I help people with what ails them," he explained, taking out the beaded chains and deer horns he uses as part of the healing ceremony. A quick look at a list of cures showed much of Lopez's work entails special foods to help his patients.
Dalmau couldn't help but smile. There are some similarities to her line of work as a dietitian, she noted later.
Lopez took her through the rest of the house, showing off pictures of his children and looking nervously at her father.
"This must be very difficult for him," Lopez said quietly. "It must be hard coming back here."
In the taxi again, Dalmau wondered what her mother would make of the photos she snapped. "I don't know if seeing her home in this way will bring her joy or sadness."
But in just over a day in Cuba, Dalmau's own perspective had changed.
"I'd like to learn more about their experience," she said of the Cubans who stayed on the island and those who emigrated more recently. "And I'd like to maybe bring our two worlds closer together."