Cuba: De aqui, para alla…a week’s journey with my teenage son
To educate is to give man the keys to the world, which are independence and love, and to give him strength to journey on his own, light of step, a spontaneous and free being - Jose Marti
Hijita, when you arrive do not compare, just look and see what the revolution has brought. Experience the people, enjoy and accept them.
As we prepared for Cuba, these words from my father was the best advice we received. Never before had a trip stirred such controversy, as did our trip to Cuba. Albeit, it was under pretty fascinating circumstances:
- The U.S. just elected a new president after a pretty contentious campaign season
- We were leaving on inauguration day
- My 17-year-old son and I co-wrote an academic paper and were presenting at an international conference
- Restrictions to Cuba had just been relaxed in over 60 years with the U.S.
- And it’s Cuba…a socialist country able to sustain itself despite inciting ire in it’s powerful neighbor
What is it that brings on this ire? It is a question that many have tried to answer and understand in the larger discourse of politics and power, especially between Cuba and the United States. I was more interested in the discourse of the people we met, in the rhythm of the country and in their ability as a country to maintain such a strong sense of unity as a people, despite their long history of colonization by diverse Western powers.
Many people have asked about our impressions of Cuba since we have returned…there are many to be sure, but one feeling stands out above all else: Peace.
I read the world through the emotional window that opens in the center of my being, right above my belly button. I have always experienced the world as a deeply sentient being, connected to all things of the earth and very aware of my connection…I had a father who constantly reminded me of this tradition Tus antepasados viven en ti y estan conectados por Pachamama. So when asked about Cuba, how did I experience Cuba? Through this mystical portal that absorbs all energy in front of me; that’s how!
Our journey started in June when I asked my son to co-write an academic paper for this linguistic conference. He was surprised, but being a risk-taker and trusting in experiences that often unfold in front of him he accepted. He was in Mexico at that time spending a month with his grandfather and cousins. Amidst traveling through villages and towns in Mexico with limited wi-fi he co-wrote the paper with me on a shared google doc on his phone, while I was on the other end in the United States. We also used WhatsApp to share ideas and resources through recorded messages, articles we researched and notes we took. It was fabulous and we laughed often at the intensity of crossing ideas through time and space, hoping to meet our deadline with a finely tuned paper! We did, submitted it just before the midnight deadline and high-fived across international borders!
Life continued at its rapid pace and between conference presentations, swift-blowing life experiences that often brought us to our knees and regular days of quiet hum, we heard a response two months later. Our paper was accepted and we were being invited to present in Cuba!! I love this story because it blows away all false dichotomies and belief systems that we must reach certain accomplishments before participating in the global discourse: Have a PhD, Be a published author, Have an expertise sanctioned by Western standards, even have a high school diploma. I’m a big believer in youth and the importance of hearing their voices now impact and participate in the global discourse — they have much to say and to offer new ideas untethered to political ideologies and allegiances.
When we finally landed in Cuba our first impressions…it doesn’t differ much from other Latin American countries we have lived in and traveled through extensively. Many people expressed concern when we left that the poverty would impact us or shock us. Both my son and I felt it was similar to our travels through Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, etc. none of which we feel are in dire circumstances. Our emotions ran strong in two directions: Transportation and People.
The transportation was the largest obstacle to hurdle, which brought the most adventure and submission of faith. When we landed in Habana we had to get across the island, a 16 hour travel by car — planes and buses all sold out. It was a true adventure as we bartered our way across the island from one taxi driver to another to finally a bus that could take us the rest of the way!
70 cuc para los dos de Habana a Trinidad
140 cuc de Trinidad a Camaguey — es mucho — nadie va para Santiago de Cuba — pero no lo puede bajar — es que nadie va para ese lado, yo la llevo a medio camino
35 cuc en viazul de Camaguey para Santiago a las 4pm — yes!
The people…always the gift of any pueblo.
First taxi driver — not a big Fidel fan. Che — nosotros lo Cubanos pensamos que es un adventurero…ni es Cubano! Si Cuba nunca nego a los Estado Unidos, ellos nos negaron. Pero eso si, hay que ver de todo lo bueno y lo malo en las cosas — Socialismo nos trajo excelente educacion y aseguranza medica…gratis, todo gratis! Y Trump…eso se va poner fuerte ahorita en Norte America. Nos queria Obama. Ahora, vamos a ver.
Second taxi driver — A government run taxi, no position politically…just focused on principle — Es que mira, si yo soy tu vecino a mi que me importa lo que esta pasando adentro de tu casa. Tengo que ser decente contigo y tu conmigo y ya. Si al final, todos somos una sola gente…porque tenemos que pelear porque no te gusta como manejo mi casa? Debemos ayudarnos y cuando hay un desacuerdo, tratar de entendernos. Digan lo que digan de Cuba…nosotros si tenemos excelente educacion y cubierto medico!
Everyone seemed to agree — if nothing else, the revolution brought an excellent educational system that is tuition free, including the university and free, universal healthcare that is considered among the best in the world!
On the third day of our journey I noticed something…I felt a deep peace surrounding me, a calm. It was then I noticed I had not seen a single billboard announcing a new product I needed to buy, the latest car on the market, the biggest homes I can buy, the newest shoes I need, the body size I should have…there was not this blaring consumerism we are bombarded with in the U. S. There were political slogans, even those were few and their messages general in nature of standing together as a people. This calm, was a welcomed surprise for me.
Arriving in Santiago de Cuba, our home for the week at an Airbnb we secured from the United States we settled into a rhythm with the conference schedule and our own interests. After many communications through email we finally connected with our conference organizer — Leonel — he must be the epitome of the Cuban experience of people…he immediately reached out in a huge hug to both of us and said, Ymasumac y David, por fin, que alegria ya llegaron! Bienvenidos, que bueno ya estan aqui!
Leonel introduced us to a wonderful doctor from Guantanamo who shared with us her work: a pioneer in understanding and treating alcoholism and addiction she has spoken internationally, including in the United States.
She said, yes, este es un pueblo where the child of a campesino can become a doctor for free, but there is still struggle. And with that she shared with us her struggles as a young Black Cuban pushing through stigmas and barriers coming from one of the poorest communities in Cuba to become a doctor. Life is about struggles and hard-won rewards, but all of them guided by an invisible hand of God — never despair! She then turned to Misak David and asked him to come back when he was in college and to learn with her over summer or winter break.
We had a few days until we presented so we moved from one experience to another: workshops from this global learning community focusing on language and culture, nightly dancing with our conference fellows, Cuban poet Jose Marti and Fidel’s gravesite, swimming in the warm Cuban ocean, food in homes where their backyards were converted into restaurants, old cars breaking down requiring a good ole’ push by many willing bodies that were around — aqui todos somos Cubanos y todos nos ayudamos.
The day of our presentation arrived, we were ready! We presented in Spanish and English on the courageous voices that are stressing the dominant culture in the United States using technology as a platform to amplify other ideas, creating impact and changing policy! Misak David spoke about Chance the Rapper and his use of technology and social media to push out his work as an artist. Eventually, through his constant stressing of the dominant culture of the Grammy’s Chance the Rapper was able to push through their archaic policy that didn’t allow for independent artists streaming on multiple free platforms to be eligible for a Grammy nomination.
This domination of one voice and one view from the Western perspective is one that prevails…including in our preparations to Cuba. With a perception of poverty and oppression, many cautioned us to not be shocked by the conditions of Cuba. Our experience did not support this belief system at all — Cuba was a society that was thriving, changing dynamically, reflecting deeply on world issues as we all are and ever focused on developing an educated and healthy populace!
Our return was on a 16-hour ride back on a bus from hard-won tickets that took 3 hours of waiting in line and a bit of haggling to keep our position in line. More great conversation with Cubans who loved their way of life…nosotros pasamos el tiempo bien aqui, vamos a casa de un amigo y hacemos una parrillada y esa misma noche bailamos y gozamos…la vida es buena aqui y la educacion y el sistema medico gratis…no es asi en Norte America?
Our final taxi driver to the airport was a true historical bible of the revolution whose grandparents fought in the revolution. He shared stories his grandparents told him: struggle is good for a people it keeps them strong and united, we may not have all the materialism that you have in the U.S. but we have espiritu y eso, eso es algo que les falta a los Estados Unidos…aqui todos somos Cubanos y todos, no importa el color, sabemos que el avanze depende de cada uno de nosotros ayudando el uno al otro…Norte America, todavia no sabe eso y eso es su debilidad.
Oye, y eso de Trump…’sta loco! Eso se va poner candela, eh. Se va poner caliente alli!
So what did I take away from my trip to Cuba…understanding the oneness of humanity it appears will not come without deep struggle for our people as a global nation…and for those of us in the United States, so long as we continue to measure everything to economic value and success, we will fall short of finding a lasting peace, because material goods and values are not permanent…it is like building a house on sand.
You cannot legislate this kind of morality, we have to be willing to find it together. For a people, like the Cubans who have experienced such profound struggles to still have peace and joy…is a true measure of success…I for one, am willing to learn from them.