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Kaarina Demers

In November, I had the opportunity to participate in a UNC graduate class that included a field study in Cuba.  I thank the Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Valley, Eleanor Flanders who is the namesake of the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant, and the Flanders family, as well as SVVSD for supporting me in my endeavor to enhance my teaching and students’ classroom experiences.

I had been looking for educational tours to Cuba for close to a decade and finally found the perfect study tour through UNC called Emerging Cuba.  To prepare myself for this adventure, I took that graduate level class, read some great books, bought the Lonely Planet Travel Guide and spent 3 days in Miami soaking up as much Cuban-American culture as possible. I learned about the longest standing embargo in history, the decadence and corruption that led to the Revolution, the enormity of US ownership Pre-Revolution, the imposed exile of Cubans, Soviet influence and subsidies, the Special Period in a Time of Peace initiated by the collapse of the USSR and easing of both US and Cuban policies.  I wondered what the consequences of all of that really looked like and felt like for the average Cuban.  

My first impression of Cuba came from the airplane flying into Varadero:  such a pristine coastline leading into a lush green landscape.  Navigating the airport and customs was easy, not so for acclimating to the humidity and heat that accosted me at the door.  Conveniently, there is a bank at the airport, accessed from the outside.  I had brought Canadian currency to avoid the penalty fee of changing US dollars into the Cuban Convertible Peso (called a CUC).  My excitement grew while I waited in line to exchange money as I saw the vintage cars rolling by.  Pre-1960s era cars in various stages of upkeep, Fords and Chevrolets to Studebakers and Packards.

We, 14 teachers from SVVSD, BVSD and the Poudre School District and our two professors, met our tour guide Nelson and driver Darien.  We hugged the coastal highway driving 90 or so miles to Havana. The first homes I noticed were Soviet style concrete apartments, lovingly referred to as Ukrainian Gothic by Nelson. I saw men in the surf fishing, men cutting grass with machetes, cattle egrets flying low over fields, both rocky and sandy shores and abundant vegetation.  On this first leg of the journey, I came to love Cuban rest stops, replete with live bands (think Buena Vista Social Club), piña coladas served in fresh pineapples and gift shops full of Che Guevara ware and communist books (including Obama the Imperialist).  The first stop in Havana was at the Hotel Nacional, occupying a prominent point on a cliff overlooking the Malecòn and the Straits of Florida.  Here was the site of the 1946 Mob Conference, where Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano dreamed of making both Havana and Cuba their paradise.  I sent a postcard home not remembering we do not have postal relations with Cuba. Maybe someday it will surprise me and appear.

The Malecòn is a five-mile seawall protecting Havana, with wide sidewalks and intermittent jetties.  It is also a five-mile bench, sometimes called the giant sofa of the city and the grand meeting place.  It’s true.  At all hours, it is filled with people singing, dancing, playing guitar,fishing and conversing, and at times sea spray.  We walked the old part of the city, Vieja Havana and marveled at the colonial architecture and thought of pirates, viceroys and the slave trade while walking on cobblestone through narrow streets. That night, my friend and I took a ride in a 1957 Studebaker convertible along the Malecòn.  The pride and joy of the driver was contagious; the harbor, seawall, Hotel Nacional, headlights were a whir as we whizzed to our hotel.

The next day we went to the University of Havana to hear from three professors who were delighted to share their lectures with us on geography, economics and early history.  As I walked around the cramped halls and classrooms, I was glad to see how diverse the student population was.  The faculty was not as diverse.  There is equal gender representation and pay, though. After the presentations ended, I gave my gifts of books (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), duct tape, zip ties, holiday dish towels and soap. Due to lack of imports and low income (Cubans receive a monthly salary of $20-$60 a month), soap, lotions and school supplies are most needed.  I noticed that whenever our professors spoke about the revolution, they used the common phrase “el triunfo de la revoluciòn” – the triumph of the revolution.  

By the second day, I was excited to eat at paladars; paladars are self-owned and run restaurants operated out of the families’ homes.  Two friends and I sought out one positively reviewed by Anthony Bourdain.  I had the Ropa Vieja, which translates to Old Clothes.  It is made with shredded beef, broth, bell peppers, garlic, onion, tomato paste, cumin, cilantro, olive oil and vinegar.  That night mine was made with pork, a common substitution. Another traditional Cuban dish is picadillo, which has ground beef, olives, raisins, capers and the rest as Ropa Vieja has.  Both were beyond delicious.  

On day three, we visited an outdoor neighborhood market.  These are the grocery stores.  You can buy meats, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices.  I lingered too long and lost the group.  I knew where they were headed: to a museum and the ferry.  I decided to skip the museum and make my way to the ferry.  I had a map, so I walked through the neighborhood streets studying the decaying Art Deco architecture and the government renovations from mansions to apartments done after the revolution.  I thought about the families who lived comfortable lives in these beautiful homes, who left with nothing, but a hope to return.  But the new Cuba was not interested in the wealthy or intellectual.  The Cuba of the Revolution was focused on equality and a socialist vision.  When I was sure I was lost, I took a bicycle taxi downhill to Vieja Havana.  I wandered into more neighborhood markets, art galleries and cafes, conversing with everyone who made eye contact with me.  German?  Canadian? They wondered. At the word Americana, Cubans smiled, stepped closer to me, reached for my hand, at times embraced me.  I heard the phrases “You’re here,” “You’re back,” “So good to see you.”  Our connection was wistful and hopeful at the same time.  I felt like a long lost cousin making my way home after decades of isolation.   They talked of hardships and perseverance, showed me photos of their families; I showed them photos of my family, cats, dogs, the Rocky Mountains and my snow covered house.  I asked about why each had only one child and were braces expensive.  The answers were they can only afford one child and braces are covered by their free healthcare. At the ferry, the group called me.  I decided I would take the ferry across the harbor and wait for them there.

Across the harbor is the town of Regla, a working class neighborhood with a shipyard, power plant and a Catholic church that has become a center for Santeria.  Santeria is a widely misunderstood religion.  I, too, misunderstood, thinking it was white magic or voodoo or witchcraft.  Santeria’s origins are with the west African slaves’ transference of their gods onto the Catholic church’s images of saints.  The Virgin Mary became Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean and Mother to all.  I sauntered to the church, walking past several fortune tellers and a woman selling flowers.  I sat under a palm tree on a cement bench and took in the scenes.  It was a slow day for the fortune tellers, so they chatted busily with each other. I saw people make offerings to Yemaya from the rocky shores.  One woman stood in the water with a maraca chanting, another tossed sand in the water, yet another bent to pour water over her infant’s head, and another threw flowers; all of them barefoot in the water.  In between the rocks and the seawall was evidence of other sacrifices: chicken and pigeon carcasses, rotted fruits, more flowers.  The group finally made it and we toured the church together and had lunch at a trendy beer garden off the Malecòn.  I veered off from the group again and headed to an artist’s market, full of arts and crafts catering to tourists.  Walking back to the hotel, I encountered more friendly people, interesting architecture, shops and markets.

So it wasn’t hard for me to say my condolences to Cubans I met regarding the death of Fidel Castro.  His efforts on the behalf of gender equality, free, equitable healthcare for all, life expectancy and healthy birth rates that rival the U.S., and higher learning free for all are noteworthy achievements.  Those I met were glad that I, as an American, could recognize those accomplishments.  I found out Fidel Castro died while I was staying with a host family in Viñales, on the western side of the island.  The host mother, Yasleni Diaz, asked me if I slept well.  I replied yes and asked her the same.  She said, “No.  No Cuban slept well last night.  Our commander has fallen.” I didn’t immediately understand her euphemism for death, asking if he would be ok.  To that she made the international gesture for death, a finger drawn across the throat.  Shocked, I didn’t know what would come next, so I asked.  Nine days of national mourning with no dancing, alcohol or music.  There would be a public wake in Havana at the Plaza de la Revoluciòn for three days and then a formal drive with his remains to be interred in a famous cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, on the south eastern side of Cuba, closer to Guantanamo Bay. Each township would be given a book of condolence to sign.  Everyone was expected to sign; not everyone would though.  I signed the book.

We made it back from Cuba in time for the last night of the wake in Havana.  I set out on the twenty-minute walk from the hotel to Plaza de la Revoluciòn to capture the moment.  Plaza de la Revoluciòn is  very large public space with a tall statue of José Martí on one end and Communist Party offices on the other.  The night I walked down, I could hear the President of Nicaragua speak.  I could hear him, not understand him.  Cubans have a very fast tongue. There were easily 10,000 people in the streets leading up to the square.  Loudspeakers lined the roads.  People were dressed casually, listening and walking to and from the Martí statue.  There were many tourists as well.

As I walked home from the Plaza de la Revoluciòn on the last night of my adventure in Cuba, I realized I was not ready to go home.  I loved the cool ocean breeze, the quick friendships I made – the warmth of the people and the land.  I want to wander Havana’s every street, walk the full length of the Malecòn, and finish my conversations. I will.  I will go back to Cuba. In the meantime, I will teach my students the Cuban adage “Resolverlo.” (loosely translated as fix it).  To resolver is to resolve a problem improvising in the most creative of ways. But it also means to survive in a time of hardship, to make do and most of all to triumph.

The best part of participating in this UNC study tour of Cuba is that all 14 of the teachers in the grad study cohort are sharing our lessons plans.  Elements of Cuba will be infused into each unit of my 6th grade Social Studies course.  By the end of their sixth grade year, students at Altona Middle School will have a deeper understanding about Cuba, governments and economy.  Cuba will be the model for our map study where students hone their mapping skills and learn more about landforms and geography.  Students will participate in a simulation about socialism and communism, as well as learning about the interdependence of countries with Cuba as the focal point. I am still developing plans for incorporating Cuba into our economy unit.  Finally, when studying globalization, students will learn the purpose and effects of the longest embargo in history and how Cuba engages with the world, as well keeping abreast of current events related to Cuba as the country and its people adjust to the post-Castro era.  This coming summer, I will plan cross curricular lessons with our sixth grade science teacher and we hope to post our lessons on the district’s  grade level content curricular resources page for use by other educators in the St. Vrain Valley Schools.  The Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Valley made this possible.  I am eternally grateful to have the opportunity to enrich my students’ lives and expand their understanding of the global community and one of our closest, yet mysterious, neighbors.