Customarily Cuban: Thoughts on the Modern Day Cuba

By Gabrielle Rente ‘20

Car driving along El Malecón with El Morro in the background.

Car driving along El Malecón with El Morro in the background.

Last winter, I had the incredible opportunity of going to Cuba on a ten-day seminar led by professors Schweitzer and Lampman from the music and anthropology department, respectively. The seminar provides students the opportunity to conduct field research and study Batá Drumming used in rituals as a part of the Lucumí (more commonly known as and pejoratively called Santería). Students are immersed in the colorful culture of Havana and partake in various activities such as dance classes, music lessons, and horseback riding, enlightening students on the vibrant life Cuba has to offer.

I had my expectations of Cuba from an early age, such as a monochrome socialist state straight out of the movies. The idea of traveling back to Cuba was impossible for me, but I still dreamt of seeing it for myself.

My father’s parents came to the United States from Cuba as refugees in January of 1966, bringing their three children, one just an infant, with them. They first landed in Miami, where my grandfather told me the first meal he had in the United States was a cheeseburger and a glass milk from a vending machine, foods he hadn’t tasted in a while.

But they did not settle in Miami. They took a plane to Newark, New Jersey where my uncle, a child from Operación Petro Pan, was living with a foster family. My grandfather had stuck him on a plane at the age of ten with a ticket he retrieved from ex-president Ramón Grau San Martín. Six years had passed since then. When the airplane landed, my grandmother talked about how they played in the snow like children.

People ask me, “How did you family react to you going back?” as if my act of going was an offense to my family’s struggle. No. My grandfather was proud that one of his grandchildren cared about their ancestral roots. He was not surprised that I was the first to go back; I used to request stories about Cuba and ask about the relatives in faded photographs.

As I waited in line to check my bag in the Miami International Airport, heart pounding in my head, the professors were chatting with one of the security guards, who of course, was Cuban. Apparently, his mother had fled the island in a less cushy experience compared to what my family experienced. He disapproved of our excursion because it “supported the regime.” He had family there he hadn’t seen for decades.

One of the professors pointed me out. The security guard had an annoyed disposition. “Do you still have family there?” he asked me.

I replied, “No.” He huffed.

After that exchange, I asked the professors and people in the seminar who knew me not to tell people I was Cuban. Suddenly, I dreaded what might happen when we went through customs.

It was raining lightly when we landed at Jose Martí International Airport. I cried when the plane landed, feeling history repeating itself in that odd, parallel way it tends to do, but I pulled myself together when it was time to walk through customs. I handed my passport to the bored-looking agent in a pressed blue button up. He typed information into his computer, took my photo, stamped my passport, and handed it back to me. That was it.

In the span of ten days, our group made up of twenty-six students (the largest group taken on the trip so far!) explored nearly every inch of Havana. We rode around in vintage cars with a tour guide named Jesús and his nephew Michael. We took dance classes in the ruins of what once was a theater down the street from our homestead. We toured the museum of the revolution and later saw a Cabaret show at the Hotel Nacional. We took a bus to the colonial port city, Trinidad, and went horseback riding in the mountains where we stopped at a farm and tried freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and coffee. We stopped in on a Lucumí rituals and listened to the Oro cantos and batá drumming. On Three Kings Day, we walked with a parade through the streets of Old Havana and ate ice cream out of coconut shells.

The Pantheon of the Society of Natural Benefit of Catalonia

The Pantheon of the Society of Natural Benefit of Catalonia

One of the coolest experiences I had was finding my family’s mausoleum in El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, the largest cemetery in Cuba. I also saw the building that used to hold the police precinct where my great-grandfather worked and the university from which my great-grandmother received her degree in teaching.

Despite the sentimentality of it all, my views of Cuba have shifted for the better. First off, I landed with the notion to take any political talk with a grain of salt, but if anyone did bring up politics, I simply responded, “La política no me interesa.” However, I left with the knowledge that the people of Cuba are fundamentally happy. People will openly tell you that they are proud of their country, and of course they are! It is their homeland, la patria. I am skeptical to believe this, as most people spotted us as American tourists, and most people want that tourism to stay as it does affect their economy, but I do think that the clear majority are content.

To speak to the political climate, I noted billboards advertising elections. I would later find out that the regime is still firmly in place by rigging these elections but it’s slowly opening to the idea of democracy and loosening its iron grip on free speech and free religion. Here, I will state that it is incredibly important to keep in mind that the American standards of happiness do not

Additionally, the issue of the embargo is getting better. The country is nowhere near as it was in the “good ol’ days,” as brief as that stage was after Cuba’s independence, but it is steadily getting better. Dr. Schweitzer pointed out a hardware store to us and noted that they had more inventory than last year. Now they were selling new toilets. Still, Dr. Schweitzer advises us to pack items that our host families were lacking, such as toiletries and basic first-aid medicines.

One original opinion I had that was strongly confirmed is that Cubans are incredibly inventive, or “Cuban engineering” as my father proudly calls it. Farmers who have equipment to maintain, mothers who want to furnish their homes and keep their family warm, business owners, taxi drivers, musicians, etc.; they are all insanely clever and have adapted quite well to their individual situations. The drivers must manage their vehicles and are quick resolve any issues that may come about, such as the stick shift coming right out of the console.

The taxi drivers are also very adept motorists. It’s okay, you’ll be safe.

I did eventually tell a few people that I had Cuban roots. Some were excited, some were incredulous, some didn’t even bat an eye. I had a conversation with our bus driver, Yoel, on the trip back from Trinidad. He told me that most tourists found the country disappointing, ugly even, because of the overall poverty. In Havana, our group had been invited to our hostess’s home across the city, and I stood on top of that building looking out at many crumbling edifices. A cat walked along the jagged edge of what once was a house wall and crawled into another building’s intact window. This was a life my family had once known passively, but fate had been kind to us. I watched two girls in my group make a face of disgust and then, as if it were a boring museum exhibit, turn away and leave. I told Yoel that I understood.

My experience of traveling to Cuba was an adventure I’ll never forget. Being able to share my photos with my family was highly emotional and brought me closer to my relatives. Coming to Washington College as a freshman, I had no idea that roughly a year into my college education I would be achieving a lifelong dream. My view of Cuba has completely changed for the better, and because of this incredible experience, I’ll be doing my English senior thesis on the Cuban hero and writer, José Martí. I hope that more students go on the seminar and can have their own views challenged and changed like mine have. My word of advice? Sit down at one of the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants along el Malecón. Order a café con leche, and as you watch the waves crash against the wall, think.