It goes without saying that old habits are hard to break. However, with it now being 2020, the act of eradicating antiquated characterizations and assumptions of people, places and cultures is long overdue. This is especially the case with Cuba and the United States. Undeniably, the turbulent historic and political changes in Cuba during the colonial period, the late 19th century independence movement and the fall of the Soviet Union have collectively transformed and consolidated Cuban identity. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming majority of people who cast Cubans in an irreversible light as communist supporters of a dictatorship plagued with violence and poverty. Two years ago, as a younger member of society, I was unaware of the persistent political, social, and economic tensions between the United States and Cuba as I embarked on a month-long immersion program to Cuba. I wouldn’t characterize my 19-year-old self as naive nor unprepared. Instead, I believe that my absence of any conditioned stereotypical or archaic representations of Cuban identity allowed me to indulge on perhaps the most eye-opening, challenging and rewarding experience that I have ever had in my life.
After a taxi ride of unfamiliar views leaving the José Martí International Airport, I entered the neighborhood of El Vedado to meet my host mom for the next month. I reflected upon the sites that I had seen from the car window such as miles of farmland, pockets of impoverished communities and established government structures. I observed the apartment complex which was seven stories high and right next to the grand National Hotel of Cuba. My homestay location differed greatly from the greenery and cattle that we passed in route to this urban and developed town. From the living room window in the apartment, I had a stunning view of the ocean and its seawall, known as the ‘Malecón.’ This structure possesses a multitude of symbolic meanings such as being a landmark of Cuba, a protective boundary between the city and any raging waves, and a hotspot for both Cubans and tourists where you can find couples, families, and friends simply relaxing, singing or dancing along the seaside boulevard.
Amazed by the vitality of this community, I sat down for a cup of coffee with my host mother as we began to get to know one another. Despite the initial awkwardness of being strangers and the obvious language barrier, her devotion to art and the inescapable creativity of her works allowed me to instantly feel more connected to her and to her life. Ranging from portraits, abstract imagery and still life paintings, her walls were decorated with her own oil and watercolor masterpieces. She was a selfless host mother who always made sure I had enough to eat, the right medicines for any congestion or nausea, and hugs every morning and night. I will always admire my Cuban host mom with profound respect because regardless of the cultural differences, she made me feel at home from the very start.
My host mom even shared her poetry with me as each verse was a romantic treasure dedicated to her husband. In these moments of transparency, I realized the power of not just open communication, but the importance of keeping an open mind and heart when interacting with people. We are all connected because we are all human. That connection becomes erased or misplaced when we decide to give up and surrender to frustrating obstacles such as linguistic or cultural differences. Essentially, my relationship with my host mom and living under her roof, grew my appreciation for art as it gives us the ability to communicate through a universal dialect.
The following three weeks in Havana consisted of constant movement. The hustle and bustle of the city was surely felt each day. Whether in the classroom annotating poetry, discussing short stories, analyzing renowned Cuban literature or outside walking from gallery to gallery, we were always on the move. My professor would always shout “youth is beauty” and encourage us to avoid any feelings of exhaustion or surrender. My professor’s energy withstood any obstacle such as last-minute tour or speaker cancelations or the tiredness of the group. With her animation and translucent passion, we were exposed to the most authentic experiences of Cuba. Given our professor’s colleagues in theater, poetry, ceramics, dance, painting, printmaking and literature, we were introduced to remarkably influential individuals and groups within the visual arts and literary communities of Havana.
Aside from rigorous coursework in reading, writing and discussions, we devoted two days a week to salsa lessons. Given my experience in competitive dancing for several years, salsa lessons were by far one of our most exciting and entertaining activities. Becoming accustomed to a new form of dance, rhythm and timing, I cherished each day of class. Furthermore, we were lucky enough to see both performances and rehearsals of famous dance companies such as the internationally recognized contemporary group, Mi Compañía. The strength and drive of these dancers are unmatched by any performance, energy, or group coordination that I have taken part in or seen. Beyond the realm of dance, I saw a play and witnessed a rehearsal for a monologue carried out by the gifted group, Teatro de La Luna. It is safe to say that there was never a dull moment throughout these first three weeks in Havana.
Eager for more discoveries, our group headed towards two new cities: Matanzas and Trinidad. With our first stop being in Matanzas, we spent a week working alongside an incredibly talented group of artists. The group is known as Ediciones de Vigía where a diverse team of artists, editors, and writers collaborate to create hand-made books that feature poems, stories, musical compositions, theater, etc. Aside from the artistic marvels woven in each masterpiece, these creations possess high literary content to create captivating representations of prestigious works. During workshops with Ediciones de Vigía, the comradery formed between the artists and the students was genuine and everlasting. The personalities of each team member quickly unfolded as we found ourselves laughing and singing with huge smiles and appreciation for one another. In Havana, we had a variety of activities where it was our responsibility to make the most out of each exhibit, tour, Q&A and salsa lesson. However, within Matanzas, these opportunities were exceptionally interactive. Even though we were new recruits to the crafty processes of bookmaking, it was an empowering and insightful experience to be able to absorb, attempt and achieve innovative skills.
Although creating these eloquent constructions was a highlight of the trip to Matanzas, we also took time to relax in the beaches of Varadero, explore the array of river-front galleries and conduct performative happenings. One evening, we coordinated a poetry slam including all of the students and several members of the Vigía group. While our professor assigned each of us particular poems, some of the Vigía artists presented poems that they had written themselves. I was flabbergasted by the creative and heartfelt renditions throughout the concert from both students and our new friends. Moreover, we were graced with a beguiling performance from a group of technically trained dancers in a modern company. Young and aspiring, these dancers emoted a miscellany of sentiments. As an audience member, there were dances that evoked empathy, sadness, joy and rage which made this show a sincerely, cathartic experience. Lastly, one of the students in the group orchestrated his own musical presentation and sung a compilation of songs in Spanish and pop hits such as Ed Sheeran. Evidently, Matanzas and its inspiring people unearthed yet another layer of the undeniable creativity and performative arts within Cuba.
Our experiences in Trinidad varied immensely from any other city because the majority of our time involved nature. Starting off with a visit to Valle de los ingenios, or the Valley of the Sugar Mills, our activities became more laborious. As we walked around a former plantation, I was saddened by this area where slaves were once crammed into inhospitable barracks and forced to carry out inhumane physical labor. The juxtaposition between the beauty of nature and the historic cruelty behind this environment was rattling. The following day, we ventured to Topes de Collantes which is a nature reserve park in the mountains. Basking in the heat and humidity, we spent hours hiking across the mountain range to find a refreshing waterfall. Later in Trinidad, we rode horses throughout the countryside and cooled off at another immaculate waterfall. Apart from our wildlife crusades, Trinidad is a closely-knit town with pockets of local markets, vendors and museums. The aspects of Trinidad further unraveled the diversity across this island historically, environmentally and artistically.
With teary-eyed goodbyes and suffocating squeezes, I was leaving some of the most inspiring and kind-hearted people that I ever met in this life. Throughout the entire car ride to the airport, I silently sniffled as my heart was so touched by the places, people and projects that we had encountered. Upon departing my host-mom, she held me close and said “sigue el resto de tu vida con el corazón, y tendremos un mejor mundo.” This translates to her encouraging me to follow the rest of my life with my heart because she thinks it will make the world a better place. In this goodbye, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my host mom as it made me reflect upon all of the individuals I had met throughout the program. The activities, people and conversations made me more aware that our world and our societies are programmed to categorize people. We cage everything up from gender, sexuality, race and income to form compact representations of what people can and cannot be. My time in Cuba showed me the power behind breaking these confining constructions and living in a harmony stimulated by differences. In some ways, what we consider our differences can be seen as strengths which can unite us in our global mission to accept and to support one another.
Coming back to the United States, I carried myself differently. I became more observant and energized. I read all of the books that I had purchased in Cuba and made my screen time consist of captivating documentaries. Needless to say, I was exhilarated when my professor invited me to go back to Cuba as her executive assistant to the program. Both years involved admirable artists, memorable professors and genuine friends. I hope that one day soon, I can return to this astounding and unique region in order to continue to grow as a woman, student and human being.
Lydia Millhon | Wake Forest University
Lydia Millhon is in her final year at Wake Forest University pursuing a major in Spanish with concentrations in interpreting and translation/localization and two minors in Latin American Studies and Politics and International Affairs. Born in Columbus, OH, Lydia always found ways to get involved with community outreach programs. Lydia’s humanitarian experience ranges from tutoring Spanish speaking children to participating in local projects to raise awareness of the U.S. Immigration Crisis and creating a bilingual portfolio for incoming Spanish speaking individuals and families with a local non-profit organization, Columbus Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS). Throughout her Wake Forest career, Lydia has taken advantage of various study abroad opportunities including two summers in Cuba studying Cuban art and literature and a semester in Salamanca, Spain studying the language, politics, and literature. Lydia strives to combine her passions for cultural studies, especially with visual arts, into all of her projects and curriculum. Aside from her fascination and participation in modern dance, Lydia has experience in theatrical, instrumental, and poetic performances cross-culturally. As a part of the Latina Republic Correspondent position, Lydia hopes to further her studies in social issues such as immigration, human rights concerns, and state violence as well as other significant cultural topics including visual arts, environmental action, and local businesses. In pursuit of global human connection, Lydia hopes to unite Latin America with and open the eyes of those around the world.