When Latin pop star Juanes announced plans for a 2009 concert in Havana, the powerful Cuban exile community in the U.S. met his proposal with jeers and anger. But a small group of young Cuban-Americans helped make it happen, publicly supporting Juanes and spreading the word for the "peace" concert" that became the communist island's largest non-government led event in decades.
That concert put Roots of Hope _ Raices de Esperanza _ on the map, and the Miami-based nonprofit has since become a symbol of a new generation of Cuban-Americans looking to help shape the future of U.S. relations with the island.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the concert in Havana's iconic Plaza of the Revolution, where Fidel Castro gave some of his most famous speeches. And although the event was billed as non-political, Juanes called for people on both sides of the Florida Straits to turn hate into love. Organizers thwarted last-minute Cuban government attempts to control entry to the concert, particularly close to the stage and cameras, even as the government heavily promoted the event.
Roots of Hope has maintained it is apolitical since its inception in 2003. It has morphed from a group of idealistic teens into a combination of students and professionals whose alumni have access to some of the nation's top elected leaders, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida. Earlier this month, co-founder Felice Gorordo, 28, was named one of 15 White House fellows.
Today, Roots of Hope is sending cell phones to teens on the island so they can better communicate through calls, text messages and photos. About 1.1 million land lines and 1.1 million cell phones exist in Cuba for a population of more than 11 million, according to the Cuban government. Internet access is limited, and the government controls most other forms of communication.
Cell phones remain expensive for many Cubans, who on average make a $20 a month. While calls to the U.S. are also pricey at about $3 a minute, receiving internationals texts are free, said Roots co-chair Tony Jimenez, 29. Some youths use their cell phones more like pagers, checking the caller ID or ring and then calling back from a land line, added Jimenez.
Donated phones are exchanged for refurbished phones, more than 500 of which have been sent to Cuba in the past year, according to Roots.
U.S.-Cuba relations have been icy for decades, and the U.S.-imposed embargo remains in effect. But as the Obama administration relaxes travel restrictions on cultural, educational and other trips, the group also is promoting its guide for responsible travel to the island. And it has created a fund to promote travel there by young Cuban-Americans, an effort modeled after programs encouraging Jewish teens to visit Israel.
The idea is to create meaningful exchanges _ more than simply vacations or casual conversations, but dialogue about ways to improve the realities in Cuba, Jimenez said.
Georgetown University sophomore Ben Tyler, whose mother's family is from Cuba, said that nonpolitical focus is why he got involved.
"I used to think about Cuba as just political issue I couldn't do anything about," he said. "Now I see you can work around the politics, and that's where you can get things done."
Roots of Hope began at Harvard and Georgetown universities. Many of the founders grew up in Miami's large Cuban community and didn't think much about their history beyond the stories they heard from their grandparents. Then they went to college and discovered they knew very little about their origins.
"A lot of friends who were Latino had a tie to where they were from, and I didn't," Gorordo said of his freshman year at Georgetown. "I knew Cuba only through my parents and black-and-white photos."
One of Gorordo's uncles had been a political prisoner in Cuba immediately following the revolution. The family didn't talk much about another uncle who remained in Cuba. But Gorordo was eventually able to visit the island and contacted his mother's family. When he met his young cousins, he was surprised to find them wearing his old clothes. His uncle _ the former prisoner _ had for years been secretly sending the clothes to his brother to thank him for visiting him in prison.
Gorordo recalled the words of a former teacher: from afar everything in Cuba looks black and white, but up close the island is 10,000 shades of gray.
After that, Gorordo became committed to helping Cuban youths like his cousins.
The group has continued to expand its influence since the Juanes concert. In 2010, following the death of a Cuban political prisoner, the group helped organize a massive march in Miami led by Cuban-American singer Gloria Esteban. Similar marches occurred in Los Angeles and New York. When celebrity commentator Perez Hilton tweeted about the Roots of Hope website to his more than 3 million Twitter followers, the site couldn't handle all the traffic and crashed.
Its challenge will be to remain above the political fray. Calls by several Cuban-American politicians, including Rubio, for a return to former President George W. Bush's policy of allowing Cuban-Americans only one visit to immediate family every three years, would undeniably affect Roots' work.
Yet Jimenez said he is not concerned about those hoping to turn back the clock on exchanges with the island.
"There is a small group that is very loud," he said. "But we work under whatever the U.S. law is at the time."
Associated Press Writer Paul Haven contributed to this report from Havana.