A year-end night of magic in this Cuban hill town

Was Zulueta a place of memory or of myth? When a journalist returns to his ancestral home to find out, the fireworks cast a spell

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Born in Cuba and raised in the cosmopolitan city of Havana, journalist Enrique Fernandez moved with his family to the United States when he was 13. Among his strongest childhood memories were the annual family visits to Zulueta, ancestral home of both his parents. In Zulueta, a small, self-sufficient rail town that thrived during the turn-of-the-century sugar-hauling days, everyone is a "cousin" and life is low-key. Except, that is, at New Year's, when the whole town explodes in revelry. This year, Fernandez went back to Zulueta, to see if Zulueta was real or inflated by his memories.

Dividing into two historical camps for the revelries, the town holds a competition that brings grown men to tears. Each side builds an elaborate float for the big parade, followed by a fireworks display designed to out-boom the other side. From the moment that he joins the conga line weaving through town on the morning of the festivities, Fernandez is carried, as though by a magic spell, back to his own past.

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