The one thing most Americans know about Cuba is that we actually know very little about the socialist nation. Decades have passed since the United State government imposed an economic embargo, leaving today’s generations with highly filtered, unrealistic perceptions of Cuba. Until now, ideas about Cuba’s culture and identity could only be left to the imagination.
In January, Professor of Hispanic Studies Ana Cara led a group of Oberlin students on a winter-term study trip to Havana. Cara says a growing interest on campus to learn more about Cuba inspired her to offer a course in fall 2014 called Imagining Havana. She worked with the Office of Study Away to coordinate the winter-term program, which was administered by the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College. The trip was funded in part by a grant from the Andrews-Hunt Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation as well as a winter-term grant from the college.
The focus of the winter-term project was to explore Havana through the lens of the arts. “Given the embargo, we know so little about Havana. The culture and politics are far more complex than what is represented in mainstream media,” Cara says, referencing the stereotypical—though iconic—images of cars and cigars. “Our goal was to see what Havana was like on the ground. We met with visual artists, musicians, and journalists to learn about how residents perceive their city.”
Extraordinarily, the timing of the trip coincided with President Barack Obama’s call to action to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba in his State of the Union address.
“We talked to locals about how that would impact their life. The people we talked to were very receptive to Americans and are eager to lift the embargo. They also feel great pride in their culture and although they know certain changes will be inevitable, they want to hold on to their traditions. It was incredibly enlightening,” Cara says.
Although the fall course was a fitting preparation for the trip, not all of the students in the group took the class, including third-year student Dyaami D’Orazio. She says her interest in the trip stemmed from her Latina identity and her Puerto Rican heritage. “I was curious about what my Caribbean heritage looked and felt like in Cuba. I also wanted to practice and expose myself to the Spanish language, to music that I did not learn as a child, and the history of an island that has been shrouded in misrepresentations in the United States,” says D’Orazio, an environmental studies and comparative American studies major, and a native of Bronx, New York, and more recently Miami.
The group spent time meeting with artists at the Superior Institute of Art, Cuba’s top arts conservatory. D’Orazio was impressed by the artists and musicians who talked about their work as political pieces and demonstrations of pride about their lives in Cuba. “Their humility, their grace, and their ability to give us a holistic yet personal account of their relationship to their country—and their country’s relationship to the U.S.—taught me a lot about the people there. I was inspired, floored, and pushed to grow every day I was there.”
Second-year student Simon Regenold says the fall course was a good introduction to the study of Cuba’s art, history, and religion, but nothing compares to having visited Havana. One of his favorite experiences was a visit to an organic farm. “It was a beautiful and bountiful place, and the farmer was very kind and generous. We tried to buy some fruit on our way out, but she wouldn’t let us pay for it and instead handed us a bag full of delicious, ripe guavas and grapefruits. That is a generosity you don’t find in the U.S.,” says Regenold, an environmental studies major from Baltimore.
He was surprised to find that Cubans differentiate Americans from the U.S. government’s historically hostile relations. “There is an immense solidarity. Cubans have gone through so many hard times together, and yet they were very social, friendly and kind to us.”
Cara says the course and the trip were a success, and the college plans to offer another winter-term experience in 2017 called Reimagining Havana.