At a time when delving into one's heritage is more popular than ever, some take genealogical research one step further by traveling to their ancestral homes to trace family histories and connect to the past. "Journeys Home," a new anthology from National Geographic Books, features essays by journalists and authors who traveled to homelands around the globe.

The cover of the book Journeys HomeSpectacular photos accompany personal accounts by writers including actor-author Andrew McCarthy, who explored his Irish roots; Joyce Maynard, who returned to British Columbia, Canada; and Pico Iyer, whose journey took him back to India. Helpful resources for each destination and a how-to "Genealogy 101" guide offer advice to those interested in exploring their own family histories.

One of the most compelling stories is one told by Cuban-born Juan José Valdés, director of editorial and cartographic research for National Geographic. Just seven years old in 1961 when his parents put him on a plane to Miami, where they joined him three months later, Valdés has made three return trips to Cuba, in 2001, 2012 and most recently in 2013. He told MNN what going home has meant to him.

MNN: Why did you want to participate in 'Journeys Home'?

Valdés: I felt I needed to participate in this book for several reasons. Among them is that I'm one of some 14,000 unescorted Cuban children who arrived in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Over time, our numbers have dwindled and our stories have begun to be confined to the annals of history. Although we are by no means the first group – as the recent wave of unaccompanied Central American children can attest – to have survived such an event, I hope my piece brings attention to the fact that children are resilient and can generally overcome any adversity.


What was it like to be uprooted from your home as a child? How has that impacted you? 

Being uprooted from one's home as a young child, especially if you're an only child, was a life-altering experience. Time and emotions were such that my parents had not provided me with an explanation for my quick departure. The outcome of this has been a 54-year odyssey seeking answers to my past, trying to make sense of all of those phantoms, or sensory prompts, that remind me of my Cuban childhood.

How did you feel about going back? How did it feel landing there and being there?

My emotions differed from trip to trip. On my first trip, I was overwhelmed with what I saw and with the people I met. I felt like an observer more than anything else. By my second trip, eleven years later, I was more self-assured and sought out many of the places I had known as a child. However, this was a cautious search, for I did not fully seek to face all of my phantoms. All bets were off by my third trip. Phantoms be dammed, I made it a point to reclaim as much of my Cuban past as possible, and I entered my childhood home. To date, the 2013 trip left the best and most lasting memory of all of my trips. It was different from all others in that by that time I had garnered the fortitude to face my phantoms head-on. Simply put, I realized that I was finally home.

Juan José Valdés holding a model train

Juan José Valdés holds up a model train from his childhood that he retrieved during a visit to Cuba. (Photo: Kathleen Valdés)

Did you write your essay right away or let it digest for a while first? What did you want to convey? 

I took many pictures on my trips in 2012 and 2013. Once back in the States, I physically arranged these, and other photos taken prior to my 1961 departure, until I felt they told my graphic story. It was then that I was able to begin to write down what I wanted to convey: childhood is among the most precious things one can ever possess. If battered or lost, it is a part of one's life that can never be relived or replaced.

What do you think of the opening of relations between Cuba and the U.S., which allows more Americans to go? Do you encourage other Cuban-Americans to go?

In my opinion, the opening up of relations between the U.S. and Cuba has been long overdue. But I also understand the strong feelings many Cuban-Americans have against the current government. All I can relay to those Cuban-Americans who left the island long ago is to listen to their hearts. It will ultimately show them the best way home.

Have you read the other essays? Which made an impact on you and why? 

Andrew McCarthy's personal narrative made the strongest impression. I could relate with how he regarded his origins throughout the stages of his life – putting distance between himself and his past as a young man only to succumb to it as a grown man.

The book offers helpful resources. Did you avail yourself of any? Did you do any tracing or DNA testing? 

The book does offer many helpful resources for tracing one's genetic origins. However, I did not avail myself of any. Growing up, the most essential thing I was taught was that all that mattered was that both sides of my family were born in Cuba. To most Cubans, regardless of where the four winds may have taken us, being Cuban trumps everything.

How meaningful was it to get your beloved model train back, which you hadn't seen since you first left Cuba? 

Getting my train back did much to put me at ease with myself. It filled one of the biggest pieces missing from my puzzled life. If nothing else, it allowed me to tangibly reclaim a small but yet significant part of my childhood. I see life as being made up of a series of events, or dots. If one's mind possesses all of these dots – whether positive or negative – one can make better sense of their life. But if the dots are taken away or go missing, especially those from your childhood, the outcome leads to a less than a fulfilled life.

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