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Had We Stayed

The house did not look like how Cristina had hoped. But it was what she had expected. It was small and painted gray and it sat hidden on a road that seemed to go nowhere. There were palm trees sprouting from its sides, and windows painted jade but cracked. The street was full of trash. The breeze was so strong that it seemed to whirl the smell away for a moment, but Cristina knew she could find it if she looked.

Atop the house sat what looked like a concrete tube. It looked to be about two feet wide, perhaps half a foot high. Cristina could not figure it out. Maybe it was a fireplace.

“It’s not exactly what I remember,” Alejandro said sheepishly, hand at the back of his head.

“It’s been a long time,” Cristina said.

“Maybe this isn’t the one,” Alejandro said, and he unfurled the map he’d been carrying.

Cristina wished she could use Google Maps to get this over with. She wished she could access the Internet, period. “It’s definitely the one,” she said. “This is the address. Let’s just knock on the door.”

As they approached the front door Cristina saw a man, maybe mid-forties, skin browned by the Havana sun, open a fence to the backyard and awkwardly carry a ladder to the front yard.

“Buenos días,” the man said. “Bienvenidos. ¿Cómo puedo ayudarles a Uds.?”

“Excuse me,” Cristina said in Spanish, wiping her sweaty hands on her denim shorts. “I’m sorry—”

“We’re looking for the house where I grew up,” Alejandro interrupted.

Cristina was surprised. Her father was so polite, always went through the Cuban handshakes, pleasantries, mucho gustos and bright smiles. Now his Spanish sounded stilted, as if he were trying to use the vernacular of his youth to connect with people who had once been his people.

Cristina could see that her father was sweating too, around his temples, and that his black hair was beginning to stick up from where it had been combed that morning. His long, handsome face was turning pink. His brown eyes jutted out. Their bodies weren’t used to the heat. Alejandro was probably missing dry San Francisco, and Cristina, for the first time, thought about the Boston spring that was waiting for her. She didn’t want to admit that each time she wiped her forehead, she wished she weren’t there.

“You grew up in this house?” the man said, almost happily. Cristina couldn’t understand it. If someone came to her door and said, I used to live here, could I look around? I was spirited away in the night and I never got to say goodbye to that house which raised me—she would probably let them in, yes, but she’d be annoyed about it.

“I don’t actually live here,” the man went on. “I’m just fixing the roof. You’re looking for Margarita. She’s lived here for over fifty years. Did you know her?”

Alejandro shook his head, and Cristina’s heart began to lift. Maybe this wasn’t the house.

“Margarita!” the man yelled, and a window flew open.

An old woman’s face burst out, as if she were plunging headfirst into the sea. “Benito, díme.”

“There’s some tourists here who want to see inside your house,” Benito said. “I’m all done with your roof.”

“Good, I’m tired of the noise,” Margarita said, and then she turned to the tourists. “This is my nephew,” she continued, looking straight into Cristina’s eyes as if she were a new friend.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Cristina stammered. Margarita’s hair was gray and tied in a long ponytail down her back. She was tiny, one of the smallest women Cristina had ever seen, and she was wearing the kind of old-fashioned nightgown that Cristina’s abuela used to wear. Cristina’s throat began to clench as she thought about her abuela, that she’d walked these streets, carrying her son on her shoulder. Alone, often, while Álvaro was at work.

“Oh, you speak Spanish,” Margarita said, and then she looked at Alejandro, cocked her head to the side. “And you’re Cuban.”

Cristina’s father walked up to Margarita, shook her hand. “Alejandro,” he said, “Mucho gusto. I grew up in this neighborhood. I moved with my parents to the United States when I was five. I can’t remember which house we lived in. I thought it might be this one.”

“What’s your last name?”


Margarita thought for a moment. “Eduardo Castillo?”

“No . . . Álvaro y Pilar.”

Margarita shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t remember them. But my younger sister might. Isabel knew everybody in Cerro. Come back tomorrow. She is visiting her son in Santiago. She’ll be back then.”

“Alright,” Alejandro said, but Cristina could tell from his face that he had no intention of coming back. The possibility of instant gratification was gone, and he was disappointed in himself for giving in, for coming to Cerro.

The leather camera strap was already beginning to chafe Cristina’s neck as they walked through the afternoon heat to a waiting cab. She stared at the children running up and down the street, laughing and shouting, wondering how they didn’t burn away in the sun.

It didn’t help that Alejandro and Cristina stuck out. Even the little girls in their yellowed t-shirts on Camaguey in Cerro could see it, looking at them and thinking, Americans never come this far out from the center city. The children watched Alejandro and Cristina, looked at their shoes, at their bags. Cristina found herself unbuttoning her shirt, tying it around her waist to show a little skin like Cuban women did.

Cristina had expected to fall in love with Cuba so quickly that she’d forget she wasn’t born there herself. She’d hoped her father would as well. She knew now how silly she’d been.


Alejandro was regretting the visit. Cristina had waited for two years for him to change his mind about Cuba, and in the end he still vowed not to enjoy it at all. He had no warm feelings for the place, but said that he would go with her because he didn’t want her to go by herself. He didn’t trust that country to take care of his only child.

Cristina had thought about asking Lola to come with her before she even thought about asking her father. Lola was the woman who came to her apartment each night and warmed her mouth, and sweat, just a little bit, in Cristina’s bed when she slept, but who laughed whenever Cristina asked her if now, finally, she could call her her girlfriend.

“What, are we going steady?” Lola said, smiling, after six months of sleeping together, and Cristina decided they would not go to Cuba together.

Lola did ask—she was fascinated with the place, thought it would be magical—but Cristina said, “I think it would be too romantic, wouldn’t you worry about that?” She knew she was being passive aggressive but she couldn’t figure Lola out, nothing had worked so far.

“I’m having fun, you know that. This is great.” Lola turned Cristina’s steel kettle off, carefully lifted it from the stove and onto a straw trivet. “Earl or green?”

“Green. I do know,” Cristina replied. “You like casual. I like weekends away. And anyway,” Cristina went on, “In order to get the visa I technically had to make this a research trip, so it won’t really be a vacation anyway.”

Lola laughed, tying her dreadlocks up into a bouquet behind her head. “Research trip? Did your boss approve that—are you going to write an article on long lost family homes?” Her long, brown arms lingered over each cup of tea, gently stirring just a bit of honey in her own mug.

“I don’t know, maybe,” Cristina said, irritated. Lola should know, after three months, that Cristina also liked honey in her tea. But Lola didn’t seem to ever learn. “You don’t think that would be an interesting feature? It could be a broader commentary on the effects of exile in immigrant communities—”

“Not exactly an original story, is it,” Lola said, sipping her tea.


Back at the hotel, Cristina spread out her notes across the twin-sized bed. The papers fanned out against the cotton quilt. She always handwrote notes on an assignment. Usually she’d type them up when she got back to her computer in the evenings, but she’d decided not to bring her laptop to Havana. What was the point, with no Wifi to be found and her preferring to keep everything on Google Docs, so she could be sure not to lose them. Cristina wondered how Cuban journalists drafted their articles, and she was sure she would never be able to do it.

“Where do you want to go for dinner? What about the place on Ánimas Street, the one with the famous mural?”

When her father didn’t respond, she turned around. “Papi,” she said. “You’re zoning out again.” Her father had been doing this, now and then, since they arrived in Cuba the day before.

“They told me they were well-off,” Alejandro said. “They always said we were poor because we had to leave Cuba. All I heard growing up was your life would’ve been this, it would’ve been that. I would’ve gone to some elite private school, university in Madrid.”

Cristina had never thought of her abuelos as liars. They were the grandparents who snuck her mango candies and guava pastries. They taught her how to feel the sand between her toes by the water, to breathe in the Caribbean salt. They taught her how to believe in God, to paint watercolors of the honey-toned apartment buildings side by side, street by street in Little Havana.

But it was true that they came from the island in 1970, and that the wealthy Cubans had left long before that; they were the ones who fled first. They had gone to Spain or to New Jersey. They’d bought white houses and pretended that they were there because they liked it. They’d recovered, eventually, but they never forgot.

Cristina’s abuelos came to Miami a decade into the Revolution, having given up at last and believing they were to be set free in the New World. Come to find, it had not been new for some time, and it was full of holes.

“They’d been robbed of a future,” Cristina said. “Or at least, that’s what they thought. But you’re always saying you’re glad they moved to Miami. You didn’t want to have grown up here—”

“No, but . . .”

“What are those circular concrete things on the tops of the houses here?” Cristina asked, changing the subject. “They can’t be fireplaces, right…?”

Alejandro looked confused for a moment, and then his face cleared into understanding. “Oh, those are for water collection. They’re rain barrels. I remember we had one at that house. It would even filter the water so we didn’t have to ourselves.”

“You remember the rain barrel, but not what the house looked like?” Cristina asked incredulously.

“I remember my mother would refill water bottles in the morning,” Alejandro said stiffly. “I remember my mother.”

“Okay, well, at least we know we’re looking for a house with a water barrel,” Cristina said, and the conversation was over.

The sun was just beginning to set when they went out to fill themselves. Cristina had suggested taking a cab, or taking a ride in one of those pedicabs that reminded her of the ones she’d seen on assignment in Columbus Circle in New York City.

But Alejandro wanted to walk. It was like he wanted to speak as little as possible with anyone. Cristina found herself craving the moments she got to speak with a real Cuban (she tried not to think of them as only that, but she couldn’t help it), fleeting interactions in a colectivo or across the hotel bar.

Meeting Margarita had tripped her up. It was the longest conversation she’d had since they’d arrived in Havana the day previous, and they were sunbit and dusty from the long walk throughout Cerro, looking up and down Camaguey for the house with a sixty-year-old address.

They arrived at the restaurant a little after seven in the evening. Cristina’s heart caught in her throat a little as she walked inside. The entire first floor was walled by a mural by a famous artist whose name she didn’t remember, but who had, she believed, studied with Salvador Dalí before the Revolution.

José Martí took up nearly half a wall by himself, throned atop a rearing red horse, and he was crying out to the uniformed men beyond him, each of them mustached and in gray uniforms. It could have been clichéd. But the flag was the proudest Cristina had ever seen it, flying above the only revolutionary man her father would ever acknowledge.

“Table for two,” Alejandro said.

The hostess glanced at them, first at Alejandro and then at Cristina. “Bienvenidos,” she said, then whispered something to the waiter next to her. He nodded and they followed him down a long hallway and then up a flight of stairs.

“Could we sit downstairs, by the mural? It looks like there’s plenty of room,” Cristina said, as the waiter sat them at a small tiled table. They were on a balcony, at least, but Cristina wanted to sit beneath the chandeliers and across from the locals.

“No, no, there’s no space. There’s a large party coming in soon.” The waiter turned a little red.

“Oh,” Cristina said.

“What a shame,” said Alejandro. “I’m sure they’ll have a nice time.”

When her pernil asado arrived, Cristina said in English, “I thought it would taste better than in Miami, but it doesn’t, really.”

Alejandro stuck his fork sharply into his ropa vieja. “That’s because their crap government means restaurants—not to mention civilians—don’t have access to quality food the way they do in the United States.”

He took a bite, waved his fork around. “This place, it looks fancy, but that’s because it’s subsidized by the government as a tourist destination. Our hotel, same thing. But let me tell you—when we go back to Cerro—you’ll see, Margarita won’t have meat in her house, or fresh vegetables.”

Cristina watched the blue tile on the ceiling as the light from the swinging door downstairs flashed across it. “Why don’t you think they sat us downstairs?” she said.

Alejandro met her eyes for a moment, and she could tell he didn’t like the question. “It’s how we look,” he said. “They probably put all the tourists up here.”

“But you said it was a tourist trap,” Cristina said, feeling a little hot, but also grateful to her father who had spent his first trip back to his country in a sour mood and who was trying not to make her feel different. “And anyway, you’re Cuban and you look Cuban.”

“Well—” Alejandro started, and then he said, “Well, mija, you have to remember, I’ve spent more time in the United States than I ever did here. And you—”

“I’m only half Cuban,” Cristina finished.

When they left the restaurant, the downstairs was still quiet, and night had settled into the street outside.


The next morning, Cristina was sure to remind her father that they had an appointment before they could return to Cerro. “I’m supposed to interview someone today—”

“I thought your boss decided not to commission that feature you pitched.”

“Well, so what,” Cristina said, bristling. “The travel agency still thinks I’m doing research for an article. We wouldn’t have gotten the visas otherwise. You know, since your passport expired . . .”

She didn’t mean his American passport. She meant the first passport he’d had, which had been used once, in 1970, and now collected dust in a box of things brought back to San Francisco after Pilar and Álvaro were buried.

“I would’ve had to pay this government six hundred dollars,” Alejandro reminded Cristina. “I’d rather spit in Fidel’s face.”

“I know, I know,” Cristina said quickly. “But they set up this interview for me with this genealogist, Leonardo, because I said I was writing about my family history.”

“Fine,” Alejandro said. His face was growing sour.

They met Leonardo in a coffee shop, the kind of place Cristina thought tourists must find charming. She’d interviewed many people over the past few years who had been to Cuba, and most of them told her, “Oh, you must go, it’s so quaint, it’s like stepping back in time.” She always felt annoyed by this. Since when was it an accomplishment to be outdated?

Alejandro ordered three cafecitos and, as he sipped his coffee, looked happier for a moment, like he was back in his parents’ apartment in Miami.

“Well, what have you done so far?” Leonardo asked. “Where have you visited? Tell me you’ve gone to La Floridita at least.”

“No, not yet,” Cristina said, “But we had dinner at La Mariposa Roja last night. It was very nice.”

“The walls there are beautiful. They were painted by a local artist who died a few years ago.”

“We didn’t really get to see them,” Alejandro said. “They seated us upstairs.”

“They did?” Leonardo said, surprised, but then: “Oh, yes, of course they did,” he laughed.

Cristina sat up straight, the coffee filling her nose. “Why do you say that?”

Leonardo raised his eyebrows. “Right, Americans, you don’t notice things like this. You—you, you look Spanish,” he said, pointing at Alejandro. “But she—” Leonardo wagged his hand back and forth at Cristina’s nose. “Her face, her hair. Look how dark she is. She’s mulatta.”

“I knew it,” Cristina said angrily. “As if I don’t get enough of this in Boston. But at least there I can sit at most restaurants.” Her head began to itch and she scratched it, pulled one curl long until, when she released it, it snapped back against her chin.

“It’s alright, I’m a mulatto myself,” Leonardo said compassionately. “It’s very frustrating, not being treated the same as everyone else here.”

Alejandro didn’t look very surprised. “I told you this country was backwards,” he said in English to Cristina, not even knowing whether or not Leonardo would understand and be offended. “This is the kind of thing your mother went through as a child. In Cuba, you know, the Civil Rights movement never happened,” he finished triumphantly.

Cristina wanted to snap back at him, repeat Leonardo, tell her father he looked Spanish— he looked European. What did he know.

Cristina had heard her father called white many times, as many times as she had heard a friend in school joke that he must’ve swum the ocean to live in the United States. She had always said, “He’s not white, he’s Cuban.”

Besides, her mother was black, and this negated any whiteness on Cristina’s part.

In college she read a Cuban refugee’s memoir and realized, with a pang, that she might be wrong, that her father could be white and that she could be as well. Only in this country can I not mark White, but, Hispanic, on my tax forms, the Census, at the DMV. Had I stayed in Cuba . . .

Alejandro had straight black hair that ended at his earlobes. His father had often told him bedtime stories about their ancestors who had been great men in Spain. They had found new lands and started new countries.

“We just don’t call people mulatos,” Cristina told Leonardo. “Mixed-race.” The phrase sounded silly in Spanish—raza mixta—though it didn’t sound any better in English either.

“Most Cubans, we are Africans, really,” Leonardo went on, as if he hadn’t heard her. His skin was not brown or white but somewhere between tan and gray, weathered and worn.

“My mother is the Black one,” Cristina said. “But she’s American.”

She knew Leonardo was right. Most Cubans were Afro-Cubans. She recalled the waitress at the restaurant, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, skin tanned by the sun. The man who seated them, black hair, pale eyes—he looked like Alejandro.


Cristina liked Lola because she never said, “Well, you know, you’re not really Black, you’re Latin,” like so many people had told Cristina in college. But Lola was Haitian, Cristina would remember with a twinge, or at least, her parents were, and she had grown up in a suburb of Boston with picket fences and white faces. Lola was not equipped to hand Cristina the Blackness Card she wanted, or at the very least, a Black-Endowed Approval Rating.

But Lola did have Black friends, the first Cristina had had since high school, and when once, Lola let Cristina join her and Matthew and Alexa at a Mexican restaurant, Alexa had asked her, “Crissy, how do you say margarita in Spanish? I mean, with a salt rim?” and when Cristina shrunk into her chair, the waiters eyeing her with distrust, she thought, no one calls me Crissy, or Christy or Tina or even Christina, it’s Cristina with an accent on the first i—I, Cristina.


It was after noon when they finally set off for Cerro, and Cristina was beginning to feel faint. They were in a cab and it was at least sixty years old, leather seats and no air conditioning, and the water bottle she’d filled back at the hotel was dwindling.

Her father seemed to be doing a little better. It was as if his body, plunged back into the weather of his youth, was acclimating more quickly than hers. He came from this land, Cristina reminded herself. Maybe not as real as the cab driver, or Margarita or Leonardo, but he was more Cuban than she.

“I’m sorry I dragged you to Cuba,” Cristina said quietly, not sure she wanted her father to hear her.

He turned to her, surprised. “What are you talking about? Aren’t you having a good time?”

She sighed, sat up straight. She felt like she was in high school again, explaining to her father why some friend was upset with her. “I thought it would feel like coming home, like Miami. But it’s completely different, it’s like before, I had only a slice of being Cuban, and I’ll never have the whole cake, or pie, or whatever.”

“I won’t either. I know you think I do, but all I remember about growing up is Miami and being poor. I don’t remember Cuba. And anyway, apparently I was poor here and my parents forgot too.”

“They wanted to come back,” Cristina said, realizing it as she said it. “They thought they’d be able to, they didn’t think he’d live as long as he did. They thought they’d come back and it would be easier here, not being foreign anymore. So they couldn’t have been trying to hide something from you, you’d have figured it out once you came back here.”

“I know,” Alejandro said. “I don’t think they lied on purpose. I don’t think they remembered anymore. That’s probably why they never gave me the address.” He folded the piece of paper in his hand, the one they’d found in the rubble of his parents’ apartment after they died.

They alighted on Victoria and walked to the little gray house. Benito wasn’t there but Margarita was, sitting in a plastic chair on the porch. She waved them over.

Cristina’s heart sank. She was expecting another old woman to be sitting and waiting to return to Alejandro the memories he had lost.

“Isabel is just getting the crackers,” Margarita said. She looked happy to see them.

Isabel came outside and Cristina could breathe again. She got out her notepad and introduced herself and wondered if the old woman had known a version of her abuela that she never could: young, pretty, and in her home.

“My sister tells me you are Pilar’s son,” Isabel began. “You wouldn’t remember me, would you.” She smiled to show him that she was teasing.

“I’m sorry,” Alejandro said. “But I’m so happy to be back.”

Cristina gazed at her father’s face. He didn’t look like he was lying, but she knew that when this conversation was over, if they found the house or not, he would berate Communists as soon as they were alone. But he didn’t look like he was lying.

“You don’t remember where you lived, either,” Isabel guessed. She reached for a cracker, and Cristina took one without being hungry, wanting not to be rude.

“My parents didn’t talk about it much, they didn’t want to remember that we were poor . . .” Alejandro closed his eyes. “I remember the neighborhood, the trees, the dogs on the street. But many of the houses look the same. Maybe it’s been repainted, or replaced—”

“No, no,” Isabel interrupted. “It’s around the corner. Well, around the corner and then another two blocks. The street that is Victoria is not the one that was back then. Two blocks over, that street was Victoria once, now Martí.”

José Martí, the champion of the Cuban flag, once the face all Cubans knew, before it was replaced by another leader.

“Let’s go,” Alejandro said, standing up.

Cristina reached out her hand to stop him. “Don’t be rude, Papi—”

“I want to see it,” he said, and Cristina realized that, for the first time since his parents’ funeral, he needed her.

“We can go see it,” she said.


Three days earlier, Cristina and her father had found each other at the Miami airport between their connections, he arriving from San Francisco and she from Boston. Alejandro had traveled further and looked tired already, but said to her, “I admit I’m looking forward to seeing it. I wonder if it’ll be like I remember.” “From what I hear, it’s hardly changed,” Cristina replied. “But none of those sources were Cuban, let alone pre-Revolution.”

“I’m bracing myself. It can’t possibly live up to my memory. As a child, it was like paradise . . .” Alejandro trailed off. Cristina imagined a childhood of warm sun and soft beaches. She couldn’t wait to see it.

On the plane, he slept, something Cristina was unable to do. She pressed her nose to the window like a child, tracing the ocean waves with one finger.

As she stepped off the plane that first June evening, Cristina couldn’t help but think, I’m home. She was ready to meet the descendents of the people her abuelos had passed on the street every day more than half a century before. She was ready to eat fried plantains, was sure they would taste different than they did in Miami. She was ready to sit by the sea.

The humidity hit Cristina so hard as she came into the bright sunlight, for a moment she couldn’t breathe. Immediately she began to sweat. She could practically feel her father’s heart beating behind her.

“It is beautiful,” Cristina said.

“It is,” said her father.


Now, standing in front of a blue house on Martí, Cristina said, “This is it. Finally.”

A water barrel sat atop the house. Above what must have been the kitchen where Álvaro cooked for Pilar. The house looked beaten by age, like Margarita’s, with dents across the window frames and cracks in the drains, but this one was painted a lively green.

“I don’t know why I don’t remember it,” Alejandro said softly. “I think it was purple back then.” He ran his hand up the post on the porch.

As he took a step up the stairs, his fingers gliding up the ramp, Cristina worried, “What if someone’s home?”

“I should knock,” he said. “We could talk to them.”

“I don’t want to disturb them,” Cristina said. Now, more than ever, she felt herself an intruder in a foreign country. “I feel strange, knocking on so many stranger’s doors.”

“I think we should,” said Alejandro. “I don’t mind.” He knocked on the peeling lavender door. They waited.

A few good words with Celine

BVS: What does it mean to you to be Black and creating?

CAR: I’ve always felt a need to create, whether it’s writing a novel or sewing a dress, but the last ten years or so I’ve felt a particular drive to tell untold stories from my Black and Latinx communities. It’s important to me to tell Black stories that may otherwise be forgotten or neglected. While creation is often laborious, I feel it as an act of release and growth. When I have a story or book idea lingering in my mind, neglected because of work or personal obligations, it’s hard to think about anything else until I can get it on the page. Everything from capitalism to coronavirus is working to prevent Black people from putting their work out into the world by creating obstacles and tragedies to work around. This has been the most stressful year of my life, and that I’m still able to produce writing here and there has been a victory for me.

BVS: What moves you/holds you/sets you on fire about Black Writing?

CAR: Black Writing is inherently rebellious. It dares to pursue a free world that is ever-fleeting and impossible to grasp. Black Writing is also an act of memory-creation; meaning, by writing, we leave tangible proof that we were here and that we were important. There is no one Black story, and Black writers are often relegated to writing about trauma or stereotypes. By telling complicated stories and investigating the endless ways that Black people live and breathe, we’re able to exist as individuals in a society that would prefer to see us only as a collective.

BVS: We talk a lot about Black History in February, but I also like to talk about the months that come after as Black Futures Months--what forthcoming Black-created art (lit, film, music, etc.) are you most looking forward to?

CAR: I think it’s imperative that we, as a literary community, create more opportunities for Black creators to focus on their craft, especially through financial support. I’m particularly excited to support Black women right now, across disciplines but particularly fellow writers. I’m looking forward to The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Harris—I’ve crossed paths with her while teaching creative writing in New York City and am so excited to support her and her debut novel. I’m also looking forward to seeing this novel on the screen in the future, as it’s already been optioned. Issa Rae’s last season of Insecure, of course: I grew up in Los Angeles and this show has been so important to me over the last few years. Dantiel Moniz’s debut short story collection Milk Blood Heat is top of my reading list right now, as is Rebecca Carroll’s memoir Surviving the White Gaze. Morgan Jerkins’ debut novel is on its way as well (I teach her essays to my writing students), as is the serialization of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Celine Aenlle-Rocha is an Afro-Latina writer based in New York City, where she is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University. She has contributed to Fatal Flaw, Pen+Brush, Broad! Magazine, The Rational Creature, The Suburban Review, HIKA, and Luna de la cosecha. You can find her @celineaenlle on Instagram and Twitter.


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