Santiago está EN CANDELA (Somos Saniagueros)

Santiago de Cuba estaba en CANDELAAAAA. After much trials and tribulations somehow the Spanish Study Abroad squad made our way in a 15+ hour guagua ride to Santiago de Cuba. Though all our flights were canceled and I ended up writing one of my finals on the back of shaking bus, I truly enjoyed my time in Santiago. Santiago felt like a port city; open, airy, and simple, it felt more comfortable compared to La Habana. In Havana the buildings are bigger, fumes from guaguas and maquinas fill the streets, women yelling maní, etc. Santiago, however, had a city-feel but a familial comfort. I have been waiting this WHOLE trip to go to Santiago and my now my wish has been fulfilled, but I didn’t know it would be this on fire…candela candela candela [Disclaimer: Está en candela is a popular Cuban phrase which describes something/someone as crazy or on fire, an exaggeration of general disorder, referring to candela, meaning flame.]

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I can honestly say I have never seen such beautiful breath-taking views until I reached La Gran Piedra. Located at one of the highest peaks in Santiago, this site displays the mountainous terrain of eastern Cuba. The air felt fresh and I could even feel the clouds from the top. We boarded a rock camioneta (truck) which took us up the peak until we had to walk (unfortunately, but luckily since the views were bomb. On our way down we stopped by a cafetal. During the age of revolution in the Caribbean, many French planters fled Haiti and sought refuge along with their slaves in the mountains of Santiago. With them, the French brought the coffee crop to Cuba. This French influence can be seen in the architecture and afrocubana dance styles like tumba francesa. Moreover, Santiago has connected Cuba to the rest of the Caribbean for years. Many migrants from Jamaica and Haiti have entered Cuba here. The cafetal had been named Isabelica by the master, in homage of an enslaved Haitian woman named Isabel. I am super excited to grind up the coffee grains I purchased during the visit.

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We even found some time to stop by the Plaza de la Revolución, which memorializes the amazing Black leader Antonio Maceo.

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Next we visited El Morro de San Pedro (more spectacular views!!!). El Morro served as a fort, which protected the city during the colonial period against angry piratas, who were ready to rape and pillage (#yikes).

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During the evening, I enjoyed a lovely Italian meal at a restaurant owned by the woman who hosted me and my friend Jefe! We were really living la vida de lujo…

IMG_4520.jpg The following day we made time to go visit La Caridad del Cobre and La Moncada (pictured below). The attack on La Moncada plays an important role in the history of the July 26th Movement, when rebel forces attacked. Overall, Santiago contained so much history that I could not relish in for only 48 hours. I definitely will be returning soon (hopefully for carnival, fingers crossed).

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Still Processing: University Life in Cuba

After enduring what might as well have been my one-thousandth lecture on Cuban history and culture, I can attest that college here is far different from Amherst College. I am not expected to read and analyze as much, but more so listen and digest. My small liberal arts college centers dialogue and critical thinking, but college here is book driven and direct, however, professors are transparent about wanting students to ask questions. As a foreigner, lectures provide comfort since it only requires listening, but I do wish for something more rigorous at times. In all, I am processing this time as an opportunity to learn through digestion, self-reflection and summary rather than my current model which focuses on constantly responding with insight and critique. Am I voiceless at this point or am I just seeing things for what they are and accepting it? This in-between feeling is interesting and I am still reflecting on what education looks like here. As I watch young Cuban children walk to their primary schools with their burgundy shorts and red ties, I understand that school and the acquisition of knowledge have been emphasized in an honest way; “leer es crecer” which means to read is to grow. Hence, the focus on basic understanding and self-diligence, which includes reading, listening, and independent research, seem to be important here. Never have I found myself not wanting to know about something, and then it is up to me to look deeper into the lecture topic, whether or not I was assigned a reading or not.

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My favorite class definitely has to be Advance Spanish, which is inside FEHNI (Varona), the faculty for non-Spanish speakers. This class encourages us to speak conversational Spanish openly and without much restraint. Our professor, Lilian, pushes us to contribute and attack speaking head-on. although at times class can be intense, we just wrapped up our presentations about the famous Cuban legend, La Milagrosa, which concluded with evaluations and grammar corrections. Lilian means well when she corrects and reinforces grammar rules, no matter how picky she may be about our phrasings and mistakes. This style differs from U.S. Spanish classes because the focus of the class is not a predetermined structured lesson plan, but it is more free-form; tackling the problems in the room, which gives way to fruitful teaching moments and meaningful-dialogue. Thus far I am very excited for this class and my classmates definitely contribute to the class’ awesomeness.

Estudios Afrocaribeños (Afrocaribbean Studies) comes in second place for my favorite classes. This class is at the Facultad de Arte y Letras and is part of the Art major at the University of Havana. It focuses on Afro-Caribbean influences on art throughout the Caribbean, and more specifically, Afro-Cuban peoples impact on the island’s larger culture. The existence of African cultures in Cuba has immensely impacted art and has been appropriated by artists like Picasso.

This class is integrated with Cuban students, which is great, but also breeds an interesting classroom environment with an obvious divide in the room between international and Cuban students. Nonetheless the university encourages us to interact with each other; I think we are all just waiting for someone to take the first leap. Problem is, I do not know if I am in a leaping-mood after a 3-hour seminar…

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Cuban Literature class has been interesting thus far, I really enjoy the overview of reading themes…More specifically, our readings which fall under neoclassic and the romanticism of the 19th Century …other than that…not much to say, so I won’t say anything else about it…Luckily I did get assigned to analyze a poem! It was splendid….

The university experience differs for everyone. I have made friends with bio-chemistry students who complain about how rigorously they must study and also how brilliant some of their classmates are. Although my work may not be as intense as I am used to, I know I am doing the right thing by continuing to enrich myself. Whether it is going to a museum or a quick google, I am processing my own agency here about what I wish to learn more about and dig deeper into. Education can never be linear and yeah, I am still processing what learning even looks like when I only have a year of college left…

The Cuban Ajiaco

Through my studies here in Havana, I have become familiar with the work of Afro-Caribbean anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. He is known for coining the concept of transculturación. Transculturation can be understood as the phenomenon that expresses the process of the mixing and creation of Cuban culture. This includes deculturación, when a group loses a part of its culture, followed by aculturación, when a group becomes acclimate with a new culture. Hence, we can understand transculturation as the rationalization and adaptation of cultures through time, as they mutate and manifest in different ways. My recent adventures have helped me experience many different parts of the mezcla that is Cuba. Even in my last post you can see the mutation of culture through time, whether it be from the old plazas to the new musical influences.

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The Spanish Study Abroad gang made our way to Las Terrazas for a fun refreshing day. Las Terrazas is a large eco-friendly town with many incredible views. We first got to see the cafetal, which are old-spanish coffee plantations. There we could see the old barracones where enslaved peoples were housed. The trees were thick and lush, allowing you to see far beyond a sea of rich green trees. As we passed through, we walked over a rickety bridge where we could see the clean flowing streams of the river. The baños de San Jose are famous for their cleanliness. We dived in the baths, soaked up some sun and we had a great lunch afterwards with some good pollo asado.

 My favorite part of our day trip had to be horseback riding!!! We got to montar a los caballos while passing through some trails, which showed off even more of the beautiful landscape. This time with nature refreshed me. With the Northeast currently experiencing strange warm weather, global warming and other natural disasters still reminds me how much we take our earth for granted. Especially as a person of color, exploring nature can be revolutionary since we often stigmatize outdoor activities as “white” or peculiar. Moreover, we are rarely afforded outdoor experiences, whether one comes from the inner city or does not have the opportunity to immerse one’s self in nature. After all, I like to remind myself that the earth has fed me and it is important to respect it, and appreciate what it has to offer.

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There is a running joke that Havana is Havana and the rest of Cuba is campo. I would push back on this joke because it undermines how important rural areas are to our ecosystems and the culture that exists in these spaces. Since arriving in Cuba, I have seen images of farmers and I have heard tonada del campesino or country music tunes, which are fairly popular throughout the island. This campo identity has a place in the mezcla of cultures and if it was not for this type of preservation, I probably could not swim in clean rivers and take in such breath-taking views.

In the ajiaco that makes up Cuba, some friends and I stumbled upon the small Chinese neighborhood located in Centro Habana. There we became friends and got a tour of the Escuela de Wushu, a small martial arts school where adults and children gather for regular community classes. The school’s founder is Robert Vargas Lee, who is of both Chinese and Cuban heritage. Members of the school have gone on to compete and represent the school internationally. Many people forget the significance of the Coolie Trade, in which many East Indian and Chinese peoples were brought to British, Spanish Dutch, and Portuguese colonies as laborers. As a result, these cultures have fused into Cuban culture and other parts of the Caribbean.

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At the Wushu School we were fortunate enough to be invited for a Lunar New Year celebration on February 15th. This was my first time attending a Chinese New Year’s celebration and it definitely blew away all my expectations. The procession started with men in dragon costumes, tumbling and rolling, while boisterous drums and a gong kept a steady tempo. Then, other performers, majority members of the wushu school, came out with prop swords as they staged perfectly-synchronized fight sequences. Women joined in also, baring fans and long silk scarves; these women maintained a poised air and proved they were just as physically capable as the men. The event, in fact, included greetings in both Spanish and Chinese. This inclusivity impressed me. Though they only make up a small portion of the population, it is important to recognize the Chinese presence in Cuba and the significance of the event. Moreover, even within the music being played at the event, you can hear the East Asian influence in the music through its use of the pentatonic scale mixed with Spanish language. We can understand this cultural event highlights the mutation of cultures that has happened in Cuba. Cultural mutation is not finite yet continuous.  Cuban music continues to be impacted by the opening of the internet and even more heavily by American music.

As I mentioned, rap music is gaining popularity and I have been, in fact, visiting La Fábrica de Arte, probably the most popular club in Havana, for a weekly Hip-Hop Show every Thursday. Many performers are infusing reggae, reggaeton, elements of jazz, pop music, and especially electronica into their music. These mixes provide an interesting listener experience, giving us a taste of everything and in addition, it shows Cuban artists’ versatility and willingness to adapt.

I myself have been adapting to the salsa rhythms in Cuba. My Spanish Studies Abroad buddies and I took off to the Salsa Festival for a fun night of music and dancing. We got the opportunity to show off our new salsa moves we learned after our 1-hour lesson (disclaimer: we will be taking a second salsa class so we can finally get turns down!).

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Salsa music and the roaring hips hips of all the habaneros filled El Parque Almendares last week. All around were happy people dancing and singing to the sounds of Bombalero, a popular Cuban music group. The singers shouted exclamations, “¡Dale!” and “¡Dame la cintura!” and of course we had to “Levantan las manos.” Leading the crowd into a frenzy, these Cuban singers brought showmanship and their innate Cuban flavor. This “flavor” is acquired, through personal connection and immersion, because not just anyone can hit all the pasos to a salsa or feel the rhythm without a missing a beat. These cultural gems are innate and hold a special place in the mix.

In retrospect, Cuba’s mezcla speaks for itself, but representation still matters. We should highlight a culture for all its facets and all its mutations. This includes how we encapsulate parts of our culture and also what parts of our culture are still stigmatized. Nonetheless, I am appreciating more and more, all the flavors that make up Cuba.

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Patience and Time: We’re in Cuba!

Patience and time are two conflicting concepts in Cuba, but these past three weeks have taught me to be patient with myself and that immersion takes time. Cuba time moves slow for this New Yorker boy. Waiting for food at restaurants, waiting to purchase ETECSA WiFi cards, to purchasing cubacel cards, to waiting to ride the guagua (Cuban public bus), or even waiting for my fellow Spanish Study Abroad classmates to arrive anywhere, I have been coerced into patiently waiting. Nonetheless, I appreciate this reality because too often those privileged with accessibility and the pros of American life, expect everything at rapid pace, but in Cuba things are different. I am adjusting to speaking Spanish consistently with my family and peers, while also navigating a new space. At times I grow frustrated when I mispronounce a word or struggle to express an idea. I get even more frustrated with myself when I do not fully understand a THICK cubano accent.  These are all simple reminders that I am an extranjero, and this can sometimes create feelings of alienation.  Although no one likes feeling othered, this is a part of the adjusting process. Overall, I have been adjusting well; having meaningful interactions, excursions, and more. This has been a jammed packed three weeks, but let’s look back on some of the fun….

After getting comfy in my modest room on Calle H entre 13 y 15, we took off to La Habana Vieja, the original port city during Spanish Colonial rule. I gawked in awe at the colorful buildings and the large-airy plazas, like Plaza de San Francisco and the Plaza de Armas. Soon we were passing through the narrow streets of Centro Habana, where local Cubans carry out their daily activities. Centro Habana presents a strikingly different portrait of Havana, compared to the middle-upper class neighborhood of Vedado, where majority of exchanged students are housed. The streets had more garbage, houses were smaller with larger families, more stray dogs and cats, yet there happened to be something familiar there. It still somehow reminded me of Brooklyn, where people are simply surviving and carrying out their day without fear. Whether it be the bread-scent of the panadería or yells for a taxi and the giggles of school children, Cuba is an actual place and there is more beyond the old plazas and beaches.

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We got the opportunity to attend Cañonazo, a reenactment of the closing of the Spanish ports which happens every Tuesday at 9PM. We gathered around as drummers marched in shabby costume wigs and colonial garb. As 9PM approached, the drumming accelerated rapidly as one of the soldiers lit the old canon and BOOM, the echo of the canon rippled across the harbor and through out Havana. I got a nice little flick with a canon.
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At first I questioned why Cubans would actually dress in the attire of their colonizer, but then I remembered how America, and many other countries still ritualize parts of a traumatic past. We turn past legacies, good or bad, into commodities because people crave these romanticized colonial narratives; this rang truth to me as we passed by vendors selling tons of souvenirs, calling over large tourist groups to their tables. They say every Cubano goes to Cañonazo twice, when their father takes them and when they take their son.

One of the main reasons I chose Cuba for my study abroad experience is the country’s art and culture scene. From the Ballet Nacional de Cuba to the wave of conscious Hip-Hop/Rap, art has a place in the Cuba. My friend and I took a trip to the Callejón de Hamel, which is a community Afrocuban art project that happens every Sunday. The alleyway walls are painted with affirming phrases and colorful depictions. During the hot Sunday I visited, I saw two Afrocuban groups perform. They had numerous drummers and dancers, who were all doing a very quick-step rumba. As a dancer and performer, my love for a quick switch of the hips and showmanship has me hooked on live performances here. The performers at the Callejon were present in their bodies and definitely gave a great show. Hopefully, I will be returning soon to get some rumba steps down.

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In other culture vulture activities, my friends and I also attended a small Hip-Hop/Rap competition that happens in la Quinta de Mollinos, a small park near Centro Habana. The performances were interesting, I felt slightly removed due to the context of the situation. I saw the competition as an adaptation of Black American Hip-Hop, but it had its own social significance in terms of the realities that were being addressed through song. Authenticity will always be questioned, but the Cubans rapping in that park all brought their own flavor to the stage, waving bandanas and repping their Cuban “TRAP” music roots.

Despite all these new adventures, I have had plenty down time. Dedicating time to reading, writing, and reflecting, I finally understand patience as virtue. I want many things, and being from this tech-savvy generation, I cannot help but feel suddenly detached from many pieces of my life. As everyone rants about Black Panther and I miss the heat of a good twitter hashtag, I am realizing the importance of self-reflection. Moreover, the importance of actually taking a break from things which constantly overwhelm us. It is fine to not always be busy and anxious about school, family, and extracurricular activities, which is something I am still learning. In retrospect, these last three weeks have soothed me a bit. I will be patiently waiting for more.

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Pre-departure Reflections

In just a few weeks I will be arriving in Havana, Cuba to embark on my semester abroad. Everyone I tell is excited for my abroad experience, and I am too, however, fear still envelopes me from time to time. As I sit and practice Spanish on Duolingo and Conjuguemos, I worry about how I will adjust to being abroad, away from my family, capitalism (one of my guilty pleasures), and everything I am accustomed to.

My Amherst College career has been exciting because new spaces have always allowed me to reinvent myself and lean into my own excites. Thus, as I prepare to depart, I am reminding myself to stay confident, be myself, and have fun. I want to enrich myself in Cuban culture, make new friends, hit the beach, try new foods, and in all, have new experiences.

Recently, one of my favorite comedians and social media icon, Amanda Seales, tweeted several tweets about the joys of traveling abroad and about why we (Black American people specifically), should prioritize gaining these new experiences. This led to a heated discussion around race, economics and class privilege. Though her delivery was wrong, Seales made a great point that we should always try to acquire new experiences. Moreover, you do not need to even go abroad for said experiences; a simple trip to a new museum, park, or event can enrich our spirits and teach us something new. Only about 29 percent of American adults have been abroad and 71 percent have said they could not afford it. These percentages are even smaller for Black American people, many whom do not even own a passport. As I sit, recognizing my own privileges and what this experience means I am excited and grateful for this opportunity.

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I am a Black Studies and Theater & Dance double major with a love for diasporic art and culture. I chose both my majors because I love performing, allowing audiences to become lost in work and reflect on its contents, and in addition, my blackness continuously impacts my art. I like to think of it as all my worlds intersecting: music, dance, sound, visuals, feelings, wishes, etc. Through my coursework at Amherst, I have taken several classes on Cuba: Race and Revolution in Cuban History, and Sexuality in Latin America. My race and revolution class taught me that blackness in Cuba has inherently always been the face of revolution in Cuba. With the creation of spaces like CENESEX and the work of Mariela Castro, LGBT Rights and conversations around gender & sexuality are growing.

I am excited to explore Cuba’s art scene. Cuba has embraced conscious hip-hop/rap and between the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and other art hubs, the island has a rich art scene to explore. My Cuba experience will definitely influence my senior theater and dance thesis. Given the end of the embargo and the expansion of the internet, Cuban art will begin to expand in profound ways. I am a lover of Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, and Pitbull. My knowledge of Cuban pop culture, however, is definitely superficial. New experiences means keeping your mind open, regardless of what you already know or associate with something.

This journey will motivate me to lean into my fear and see what comes out of it. This will be an exciting time, and I just have to trust myself. As Celia Cruz said, “No hay que llorar, que la vida es un carnaval.” Hence, I hope I have a beautiful life in Cuba without minding any of my fears.

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