I am a New Haven, Connecticut Public School instructor who
to travel abroad. I do so because it affords me the opportunity to connect with people from myriad cultures, providing insight into the lives, customs, and traditions of diverse populations within our global community. It too helps me have a better understanding of diverse groups of Americans whose families live beyond American shores, many with whom I interact right within my New Haven residential and school community. Equally important, getting to experience diverse cultures first-hand helps to dispel misconceptions and false identification regarding specific cultural groups.
Last summer, I was honored to travel to Cuba as part of a team of college students, teaching professionals, and businesspersons who visited the country with Washington State’s Pinchot University. While there, I met and conversed with professors, educators, entrepreneurs, scientists, and everyday folk—gaining insight into Cuba and its people from
perspective. Through that interaction, I experienced that Cuba, like the U.S., is a diverse nation. Primarily comprised of descendants of the Taíno, the Ciboney, and Arawak (original inhabitants of the island), Africans, and Spaniards, the diversity is evident in the color spectrum of the population, ranging from deep, ebony-hues to sun-kissed tan and creamy vanilla tones. I too learned something deeper.
One afternoon, my Pinchot roommate and I decided to venture out to visit
Callejon de Hamel
, a narrow thoroughfare laden with impressive Santeria murals, sculptures, and Yoruba images. While on route, we noticed a queue of musicians at
Parque de Los Matires Universatarios
. The young people marched, rhythmically playing congas, trumpets, maracas, and claves as nearby clusters of young dancers moved to the syncopated, Afro-Cuban beats. Turns out, they were preparing for Fidel Castro’s celebratory birthday parade, scheduled to be held a few days later on Malécon, a long esplanade that borders the coastline of Havana.
Two Cuban by-passers approached us and began to engage in discussion. Initially, my roommate and I put up our guard: our thoughts immediately flashed to hustles and scams often encountered by tourists back in the states. Our preconceived notions clouded our perception: that said, our use of the Spanish language was satisfactory enough to effectively converse with the strangers. This allowed us to successfully communicate with them, dispelling our initial apprehensions. We soon learned that the young woman was an elementary school teacher and the gentleman, a laborer. Both were off from work and happened to be in the vicinity. Our discussion transformed into a warm welcome to their homeland. The young man noted that the plaza in which we were standing was actually a memorial park to honor university students who had been involved in Cuba’s struggle for independence. The young woman spoke of Cuba’s free health care system, education, and housing. “For these three things, Cuba is a good place to live, but economically, we are not free.” The two shared about how life in Cuba “
no es facil
” (is not easy), but it is good, and they survive.
Our congenial companions continued with us along our approximately 1½ mile walk, providing us with insight into Cuba’s economic condition. As my roommate and I took in the surroundings, the young woman pointed to an antiquated building. She noted that it was distribution center where government-rationed food was dispersed to Cuban residents. “Although I am a teacher,” she commented, “I get one chicken from there per month.” The two spoke of the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC). “We have a dual currency system here,” the young man noted. “Cuban residents must make use of the Cuban peso, but we would prefer to receive convertible pesos,” both agreed. “CUCS are higher in value but are mostly used mostly by businesspersons and tourists.”
We finally reached our destination. In time, we parted ways. My roommate and I offered the two a few convertible pesos for their time. The pair readily accepted and wished us well. In those brief moments spent with our new-found acquaintances, my roommate and I learned much more than could ever be acquired in a textbook: we gained invaluable, impartial insight into aspects of the Cuban life and the Cuban persona.
A Reflective View
Generally, I found that irrespective of occupation, societal, and/or economic status, many Cubans were spontaneously gregarious like the individuals my roommate and I encountered. The citizens with whom I interacted made me feel comfortable enough to ask candid questions, among them, “
As members of a diverse nation, do you classify yourself as Afro-Cuban, Cuban of Spanish descent, Mixed Heritage…?”
To my surprise, the response was always the same: “I am Cuban.” It was refreshing to experience the way the people identified themselves, seemingly with a collective oneness.
Those interactions led me to reflect on the late 50s and mid-60s, a time when the U.S. was at odds Cuba because of the country’s camaraderie with Russia. I recollected countless “beneath-the-desk-hands-over-heads” air-raid drills during my elementary school years, coupled with news media broadcast and televised Twilight Zone episodes that alluded to Castro being a communist mad man alongside zany reruns of “I Love Lucy” featuring Cuban-born musician Ricky Ricardo. Because of such images and knowing little else about Cuba, I associated Cuba and Cubans as being America’s life-long enemies. I too envisioned all Cubans as being fair-skinned with wavy hair, fiery tempers, and deep Spanish accents.
Those images were somewhat dispelled around the mid-70s, during which time I was pursuing my degree in Education. I student-taught at P.S. 128, located in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan; during that time, the surrounding community was densely populated by diverse, Spanish-speaking residents. There, I worked with Cuban newcomers to America. None had the countenance of Ricky Ricardo. Most were brown-skinned with tightly curled hair and in countenance favored me. Each was congenial and willing to share info about life in his or her homeland (just like the twosome my roommate and I had encountered during our Cuba visit). They readily emphasized how life there differed significantly from New York City apartment living. Many spoke Spanish with a remarkable trace of African dialect that proved most fascinating. In retrospect, I had experienced first-hand how limited interactions and skewed knowledge have an impact on the way we identify and interact with others from cultural backgrounds unlike our own.