ST. PETERSBURG — Marty Estevez-Lopez doesn't have to close her eyes to recall the memory of armed guards bursting into her small home in Cuba five decades ago.
Or the way those men went through her family's things — cataloguing them, taking inventory.
The guards wanted to make sure the family left everything behind.
"I remember saying goodbye to everyone," said Estevez-Lopez, who was 9 years old at the time. "I remember I cried a lot. It was very emotional . . . It was just really scary."
Soon afterward, Estevez-Lopez and her parents were on a plane to Indiana to join her two brothers, one of whom had been sent to the United States under the famous Peter Pan operation months earlier.
Estevez-Lopez became a U.S. citizen at 18. By that time, she knew she wasn't going back to her homeland. But then again, she didn't really want to.
"I've always had a fear about going back," she said. "Emotionally, I didn't think I could handle it."
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Estevez-Lopez, a longtime Pinellas County Schools social worker who lives in St. Petersburg, stepped on a plane in late March, when local schools were out for spring break.
Officially, she was part of the pilgrimage led by Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba, where thousands celebrated the country's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.
But personally, she was on an even greater mission: It was the first time she'd been back to her birthplace since leaving 50 years ago.
"It felt surreal. I couldn't believe it was happening," said Estevez-Lopez, 59. "Forty-one minutes on a plane and it's like you step into a totally different world."
Her cousin picked her up in a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Other cousins apologized for the intermittent electricity and water. Estevez-Lopez visited relatives she hadn't seen since the '50s, and others she'd never met at all.
She stayed on the island for about a week so she could reunite with family and travel.
It was bizarre, yes. But also healing, Estevez-Lopez said.
"I did a lot of soul searching to get myself to the point where I thought I could handle it," she said. "I prayed about it."
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Estevez-Lopez's reaction isn't uncommon, experts say. It's normal for immigrants who have to leave their country abruptly to experience similar feelings, they said.
"A lot of the Cubans that came in the 1960s were never able to completely mourn the enormity of (it)," said Eugenio M. Rothe, a psychiatrist who teaches at Florida International University. "The mourning process becomes frozen. . . . You have to think about it as a conglomerate of losses."
The cure, Rothe said, is time.
It took Estevez-Lopez most of her life — even as travel restrictions eased and Estevez-Lopez saw friends and family return.
Even her children, who were born in the United States, visited Cuba in the past few years. Estevez-Lopez was one of the few in her immediate family who hadn't gone.
Two years ago, an uncle visited. He made his niece promise that someday, she'd return.
On Christmas, Estevez-Lopez's sons, one of whom is a St. Petersburg police detective, surprised her with a plane ticket. Then she heard about the pope's pilgrimage and arranged a spot with her brother, Felipe J. Estévez, the bishop of St. Augustine.
"I just knew, this was it," Estevez-Lopez said. "And this time, it was like coming home. It's almost like a piece of me is there. I'd like to go back."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.