When a Group Becomes a Family

Traveling to Cuba was my very first experience studying abroad in a different country, and what a way to begin. When I had applied to take advantage of this opportunity I didn’t know any other student who was also going at the time. We had all met briefly before leaving to discuss literature required for the class, and that felt like any other classroom experience I have had before. But over the duration of this time spent studying abroad, I feel that something magnificent happened. From not being able to remember everyone’s names in an ordinary classroom, to making 10 wonderful new friends in a country that felt like it was cut off from the rest of the world.

Everyone is so connected to the internet sometimes that they don’t take the opportunity to converse with new people around them. I think the fact that there was no internet readily available in Cuba, paired with the phenomena of being in a different country, helped open everyone to being interactive with one another. I think that everyone was able to make new friends that they really enjoyed the company of, that they may not have thought they would by looking at their Facebook profile. I felt like I was almost witnessing a social experiment that couldn’t be conducted in most other places of the world because of the constant internet access available. I have never thought that technology played such a huge role in my day to day activities.

It was an odd phenomena when I wanted to do something as simple as check the weather for the day by opening the weather app, but I wasn’t able to do that. Admittedly, I found myself subconsciously going to open different applications on my phone when I really didn’t need to. I was doing that more because I felt like I didn’t have something to do in that moment so that is how I could pass time. Once I realized this, I was shocked and spent the rest of my time being more social with the rest of the group, a decision which I did not regret one bit. By the end of our journey, we have become one of the most cohesive, and non-internet relient groups to have visited Cuba.

With this mentality, each member grew closer together by the day. From when we first arrived to the Residencia in Vedado, to when we said our final farewells to our gracious hosts on our last day, it was a complete transformation. Personally, I was both very excited yet nervous, to discover how cohesive of a group we would be. But by the end I feel like I had made friends that will last a long time. Part of what makes these friendships so special is the fact that it was forged by such a unique experience.

We visited many places as a group such as museums, and spent many hours together during lectures learning about the Cuban culture. But it was not during these moments that united us, but when we had independent research time where we relied on each other to navigate through Havana. Spending time together and being able to socialize strengthened the bonds between us all. We were able to not only see each other in the classroom, but also outside of the classroom where we were able to be ourselves. It was what we learned about the Cuban culture on the streets, and in different restaurants, that resided with us most naturally.

Throughout each day the group became more trusting of one another. One night we were all keen to walk along the Malecón all the way to Old Havana from where we were staying in Vedado. This walk took us roughly about 45 minutes, but every bit of it was enjoyable. It is truly a remarkable sight during the day, but it is a whole nother experience at night. It was very mysterious and ominous, only being able to look out about 30-40 yards if you were lucky. There was a calm, tranquil element to the way the waves were stirring about and crashed against the wall and rocks below. I felt like it was a hidden beauty that not many people are aware of unless you know about it and are there at the right time.

This was truly a unique experience and I could not be happier that I had signed up to be a part of it. It was not only Cuba, but the people as well who made the trip so wonderful. I am glad to say that I will be able to carry these memories with me for the rest of my life. But equally important if not more, are the friendships and the bonds that had been created as a part of this journey that will continue to thrive back in Lowell. I can confidently say that my time in Cuba would have been entirely different if it were not for those that I had the pleasure of sharing these experiences with.

Cuban cuisine

Time has passed very fast. Now, I have already traveled in Cuba for several days. Today, we finished our delicious breakfast at our residence house very early. After breakfast, a bus took us to the Centro de Estudios Martianos for Evelina Cardet’s lecture which talked about cooking. Cuba is an island country. It has its special food culture. Evelina Cardet is a faculty from the university of tourism in Holguin. She has her own cooking opinion. “Eating well doesn’t mean eating a lot. Eating well is the most important things in health maintain.” She put lots of music and songs in her cooking books to make the recipes very attractive. Cuban food is inspired by three major places: Spain, America, and Africa. Most of their original flavors are pineapple, pawpaw, guava, pumpkin, squash, yum and nuts. Most of their meat is shellfish and fish. When the Spanish moved in, they brought grain, rice, spices, onion and garlic and wine. She also mentioned that they combined Chinese food with Cuban food. They use steamed cooking, frying and Chinese sauces. They also learned that Chinese people use some vegetable to make flowers. They call that Chinese butterfly. They found that the Chinese food usually always included rice in their meals. From the French, Cubans included coffee and baking. While from the Americans they got fast food, which the Cubans include with birthday cake for their fast food.

After the Cuban cooking class, I tried to continue researching the history of Cuban cuisine. Cuban cuisine is strongly influenced by southern Spain and particularly Andalucía. In addition, it also contained strong influences from Africa, a little influence from Haiti and French, a little influence from Italian and even some influence from Chinese. This various mix of cultures resulted in delicious flavors with distinctive seasoning and spice. Cuban rum is especially popular and known around the world. They also create the unique flavor combinations within Rum cocktails and drinks.

Before I came here, I cannot believe that Cubans eat fruit, beans, and rice with almost every meal. I also feel so grateful that we have meat every day. After I came here, I compared the food’s difference between Cuba and China. Although Chinese and Cubans use similar vegetables and fruits for daily life, they still have some different. In China, we eat a lot of white rice without beans. In addition, we cook vegetable with meats and sea food, because meats and sea food are very common in China. Furthermore, in Cuba, people like boiling as a form of cooking. They offer a lot of soup, for example, red bean soup, bean corn with meat. I recall one Cuban professor telling me me Cuba’s rice is completely different from the Chinese, and he really misses Chinese rice. In Cuba, if you want some Chinese rice, you should buy it from California. So, a lot of Chinese restaurants in Cuba do not have really Chinese food because they are lack of materials. As a business student, I can understand those restaurant owners. In order to attract more customers, they must reduce the cost. Profit is the most important thing to a business person.

After learning about Cuban cooking culture, we visited a local Paladar Las Bulerias and learned about the rise of privately-owned business in Cuba. We also practiced Cuban cooking in the private restaurant. I learned how to make a sauce for meat. We used garlic, onion, vinegar and oil to make the meat sauce. It is so much more delicious than just eating fried meat. I will try the recipe again when I go back home. We also tried to fry plantain. It needs four steps. First, you need to cut the plantain. Second, you need to use low temperature oil to fry it. Third, you need to press the plantain like a cake which you already be fried on first step. Fourth, you need using high temperature oil to refry it again. I am so happy that I learned a lot cooking tips from today’s tour. I will use them after I go back.




A Breath of Fresh Air


            My back cracked and mouth widened into a yawn as I forced myself to get out of bed. The cold water drops from the shower acted as a rude and abrupt awakening to my aching body. After being here in Cuba for over a week, I was starting to tire out—we all were. With the days being so packed full of activities, a week felt like a month here. After running around to so many different places yesterday (including Hemingway’s house, Cojimar, the rum museum, and the San Jose Craft Market), today was a much-needed day to relax and slow down. We had seen the hustle and bustle of the streets in Old Havana, sat next to screaming baseball fans, and danced our hearts out learning salsa, but what we had yet to really experience was the so called “island time” that the country ran on. Sure, we had experienced a lot of waiting—waiting for food, waiting for tours, waiting for the bus—but today was our day to get a sense of the slower side of Cuba and experience some of the techniques Cubans use to relax and unwind.

Pictures of the Past

            After a delicious breakfast of eggs, crepes, coffee, and fruit made by Natalia, we boarded the bus for our first destination: The Museum of Fine Arts. Welcomed by a tour guide and given a brief history of the museum, we were then let free to wander around on our own for an hour. Elaborate paintings covered the walls and various styles of sculptures adorned the floors as we explored the halls. I was drawn especially to a painting by René Portocarreo in 1961, titled Paisaje de la Habana. The canvas, covered in layer upon layer of thick, clumpy paint, depicted colorful, abstract buildings like the ones found in Havana. We joked about how the paint still wasn’t dry after all these years. I imagine for the artists, these paintings and sculptures were relaxing to create as they meticulously dragged their brushes along the paper or chiseled a slab of rock into a realistic figure. There almost always seems to be an aspect of chaos in Havana, Cuba, but for these artists, their work was a technique to withdraw within themselves for a bit and breathe. Walking through the museum can be just as relaxing as painting the pictures themselves for some people. The museums offer a quiet space to reflect upon others’ works and ponder about the meaning and inspiration behind a piece.

Illustrations of Donald Trump drawn by Cuban school children in The Museum of Fine Arts

Dancing the Day Away

            The Fine Arts Museum also unexpectedly featured a children’s dance recital. The children, mostly girls in brightly colored crop tops and skirts, were all roughly under the age of ten, but their dance moves were better than much of the people I know. Seeing their faces light up as the music began and parents pressed the record button on their phones, the recital contrasted the silent aspect of the art museum. Relaxation techniques don’t have to be quiet, however, as dancing is a great example of a way to de-stress while having fun and releasing endorphins at the same time.

Children’s dance recital

Go With The Flow

            Next on the agenda was the Santa Maria beach. Everyone had been anticipating this beach trip for a while, so when the day came, and the weather was cold and windy, we were all a bit disappointed. Clothed in bathing suits under layers of warm clothes, we took the bus for around half an hour along a cracked and bumpy highway. I could see how the beach would be a popular attraction on a typical sunny, hot Cuban day. Sand stretched along the coast, lined with palm trees and chairs. My feet sank into the fine sand as I made my way over to the water, dodging the scattered jellyfish that washed up on the seaside. Waves crashed onto the shore, bringing the water to my toes. Ironically, the water was warmer than my shower that morning. We ate our lunch on the beach, making sure to feed the two dogs that followed us onto the sand. The weather cut our trip short though, and we ended up traveling down the beach to a small drink stand serving drinks in pineapples. Although our beach day was less than ideal, we still got to breathe in the salty air and chill on the shore for a bit. Lined with beaches and coastlines, the Cubans can definitely take advantage of the geography to unwind after a stressful day.

One of the two dogs we fed on the Santa Maria Beach

Washed up jellyfish

Refreshed and Recharged

            The rest of our afternoon and night was fairly uneventful, consisting of long naps, dinner at the residencia, card games, and singing, but relaxing nonetheless. By chance, our dinner consisted of spaghetti and croquets, sticking with the “relaxation theme” and offering us a taste of home with comfort food that we absolutely devoured. All and all, although the weather worked against our plans, our day served as a way to refresh and recharge to fully take advantage of our last few days here in Cuba. With the additional rest, we were able to explore Old Havana on our own in the coming days, feeling confident in our shared sense of direction and eagerness to explore.

Preservation: What will withstand the test of time?

Ah, finally, it was Saturday. We were originally supposed to go to the Grand Theater today. As can be anticipated in Cuba, things didn’t go according to plan. The weather forced us to hold the baseball game with the Little Leaguers until this Saturday. I was really pumped; I love baseball and I love playing baseball with little kids even more. I had brought a baseball bat, some baseballs, and baseball cards to give out to them. Unfortunately, to my dismay, the field was a mess from the rain and the coach decided to call of practice, meaning we couldn’t play with the kids. I was really looking forward to playing with them but even though things didn’t turn out as planned, we still had a busy enjoyable day. During the day, we viewed and learned about many aspects of Cuban culture that are preserved including Hemingway’s work and his home, baseball, rum, and the passionate, inviting personality of the Cuban people.

Even though the weekly baseball game was cancelled, we still visited Hemingway’s home right near the field. Talk about preserved, everything was left the way Hemingway left it, from the numerous amounts of drinks on the tables to all the books he had and even the bathroom which remained untouched. Cubans adored Hemingway and his work, and in their eyes, there would be no better way to honor him than to keep his house and possessions completely intact just the way he left them. It’s truly a sign of respect that the Cubans had for Hemingway. To me, it was great to see this. I had read many of Hemingway’s works and wrote many essays on him. I knew he was a great writer of high caliber but to see how well-respected he is in other countries proves to me how great a man and a writer he was.

A quick view of Hemingway’s bedroom.








Hemingway’s desk, where he wrote many of his famed writings.



After touring the house and the outskirts (along with his large pool and massive boat), we got a pleasant surprise from the Little League coach and his star player who was of Chinese and Cuban descent. Going through the training regiment of the Little Leaguers, the coach explained that he holds practice with his team every day, getting them ready for any challenging teams they must face, with the hope of a career in baseball in the future. Quite successful in his endeavors, as many of the players he coached and trained went on to play for Cuban national teams like the Industriales, the baseball team originating in Havana. He told us that his deep love and passion for baseball is what motivates him to keep coaching, even as he gets older. Soon after, the pair graciously accepted an array of donations from us including baseball cards, hats, balls, banners, and the bat. All donations go to the Little League team, which is a great feeling. Even though we couldn’t play with the team, we donated to the cause, which is an equally satisfying feeling. By coaching new up-and-coming players in the sport of baseball, Cuba preserves its long-lasting sport. Bringing kids through the system until they transition to the national level helps keep the sport alive and entertaining. Even as the country continues to grow and advance, baseball will remain as a dying passion of the Cubans. As an avid sports fan, I love to see this passion for a sport. Being from Boston, pride runs deep for Boston sports because of their successful, accomplished history. The same can be said for Cuban pride of baseball, it runs deep and that is something that can never be taken away and will always hold strong as long as baseball remains.

Hemingway’s 38-foot fishing boat, the Pilar.


The Industriales, Havana’s home baseball team lining up to take on Las Tunas in a playoff game.



As the day progressed, we continued to move, now heading to the rum museum. One of the most anticipated parts of our trip and now I know why. It was a blast; even before the tour started, we got to see sugar cane getting grinded to get the juice out of it and be used in drinks. We even got to be on the job and crank the cane ourselves. Our tour began shortly after: we had a nice, smart tour guide who showed us through the museum, and elaborated about the fermentation, refinement, and preservation process. Rum, of course, must be preserved, but in Cuba, it is preserved in a cultural sense as well. Rum was around in Cuba before the days of the U.S prohibition and has remained up through today with Havana Club, “el Ron de Cuba”, one of the best, if not the best brand of rum in Cuba. To the Cubans, rum is a cherished drink that has stuck through most of their history and is still around today. It is still served today in common drinks like rum and coke in restaurants and bars everywhere. For me, I see rum as another cornerstone of maintaining Cuban culture. Obviously, there are other types of drinks without rum, but the rum is so well-known that even the glasses at restaurants are marked with the Havana Club logo. That just shows how much of a prevailing force rum has in Cuban culture.

A prototype of what the rum museum used to look like.


The bar of the rum museum, where a variety of rums are served.



To end the day, we went to a Cuban market, the Almacenas de San Jose Arts Market. Filled with booths full of tacky souvenirs, fascinating ones like ceramic mugs and glasses, and even some art, this market had everything imaginable for markets. The market really embodied Cuban culture because of the products and the atmosphere. Back home, I’ve seen vendors try and drag people into their store but never like this. At every row, every step you take, they’re shouting offers to you, pulling you in, telling you to look. As their motto goes at the market, “Looking is free”. Not only do they do it but they are persistent too. If you wanted to Cuban personalities, look no further than the market. It’s a true embodiment of the relentless, passionate personality and character of the Cuban people. As long as the market remains, that personality will forever live on. This is truly important as a place is commonly described by its people and the people have so much passion and energy, they exude it and you can feel it talking to them. It helps make Cuba such a unique and special place. There is no other place like Cuba in the world. As time moves forward, Cuba will as well. Some things will stay, and some will go but the Cuban culture will never disappear, it will be forever preserved.

The Endurance of a National Musical Tradition: A Brief Examination of Cuban Music

While I legitimately enjoyed all of our guest lectures at the Centro de Estudios Martianos during this trip, my favorite was, unsurprisingly, Rubén Moro’s guest lecture on different styles of Cuban music. My musical studies at UMass Lowell have emphasized the importance of text to Western musical practice, but not to so great an extent the importance of dance. Considering that we had a separate dance class, I was a bit surprised to see just how much Rubén incorporated dance into the music class. In hindsight, perhaps I should not have been surprised; Cuban music and dance cannot be divorced.

The popularity of a piece of culture does not necessarily predict its ability to endure, and it appears to me that multiple factors have coalesced to make Cuban musical traditions both popular and enduring. The United States has seen many dance fads gain brief popularity only to be immediately forgotten. What sets Cuban song and dance apart is Cuba’s stronger sense of a national cultural identity. José Martí wrote of Cuba’s need to remain independent of any other country, and the persistence of this Martinian ideal has resulted in the embrace and preservation of those cultural elements considered uniquely Cuban. Another important point of contrast to consider is the diversity present within each style of Cuban dance, with composers exploring the possibilities of each dance’s respective rhythms across many songs; at least in recent decades, American dance crazes typically revolve around a single recording.

The Cuban musical tendency towards a strong national identity extends to instrumentation, and the music of Cuba thoroughly incorporates a number of instruments seldom found in the United States, such as the tres, one of which I was able to acquire during my trip and bring back to Lowell. In a manner suggestive of the close ties of Cuban music to dance, stringed instruments such as the tres and laúd tend to play syncopated arpeggiations rather than the strummed harmonies of a guitar. I haven’t had much time since returning to Massachusetts to immerse myself in the technique and literature of the tres, but I certainly hope to be able to incorporate it into my ensemble performances during my time at UMass Lowell.

Here I am experimenting on the tres that I was fortunate enough to bring back to the U.S.

I appreciate the relative complexity of some of the rhythms that Rubén showed us, such as the punto clave, which alternates between compound and simple meter, and the cinquillo cubano of the danzón. Undoubtedly these rhythms derive from the dizzying polyrhythms of traditional West African music, such as Ghanaian agbekor. The origins of the Cuban rhythms are even referenced in the language used to describe the music: música afrocubana. Perhaps that is just an extension of the Latin American tendency to make liberal mention of race, but a part of me wishes that the United States honored the African origins of much of its music in a similar manner. Despite the prevalence of certain chord progressions in Cuban traditional music, such as I-IV-V-IV or its minor variant, it was refreshing to hear music not based on the i-VI-III-VII progression, which was used in almost every single reggaetón track that I heard in Cuba. You may recognize it as the chord progression from Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” and a number of other reggaetón songs. (Linked recordings are of me playing the tres I bought.)

Rhythmic notation of the punto clave.

Rhythmic notation of the cinquillo cubano.

Being a jazz musician, I’ve pondered why America’s classical music doesn’t have the same sort of mainstream appeal anymore as traditional Cuban music, and I have arrived at a few conclusions. Swing music, intimately connected to swing dance, was the “pop music” of its day. Bop artists like Charlie Parker intellectualized the idiom of jazz, distancing it from its roots as dance music. Without any socio-political reason to hold onto swing, and with artists like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane pushing the boundaries of jazz further and further, it was inevitable that jazz would lose popularity despite achieving higher and higher levels of artistic greatness. In other words, despite the great beauty of bebop and free jazz, the people who most fully understood and enjoyed them were always going to be other musicians. Cuban music never strayed from dance, and in never straying from dance it never strayed from its mainstream appeal.

Despite the brevity of his lecture, Rubén Moro did manage to change my perspective on musical evolution. That, and after his demonstration of the dance to the guaguancó, I will never be able to hear the word “vaccination” quite the same way again.

The World Capitol of Pride


Cuba in Her Veins

We started Thursday off with a lecture from the director of CEM Ana Sanchez, a prominent female figure who exemplifies what it means to be Cuban. Her topic was on Cuban education and its improvements since The Revolution. Under President Batista illiteracy rates were at 25%. When Fidel took power he vowed to eradicate illiteracy and was able to accomplish his goal by 1961. Cuba has limited natural resources and is incapable of receiving aid from the United States because of the strict embargo. Fidel recognized this struggle and declared human capital his most important resource. “If you know, teach. If you don’t, learn” was the slogan during the campaign against illiteracy. The Cuban people never questioned this mentality.

With United States presidents continuously bullying the nation of Cuba in an attempt to force them out of socialism, it only brought the people stronger. When asked how they have survived such hard times, Ana simply responded “We are Cuban”. She was proud of everything she has had to endure and says it only has made her stronger. When the socialist block fell in 1991, Cuba lost all of its allies. Fidel called for a meeting with the people of Cuba. He explained what this meant to them and how it may potentially force them out of socialism. Cuba received its oil and machinery from the USSR, food from Czechoslovakia, and clothes from Poland. Ana was in the crowd that day when the people of Cuba told Fidel they did not care how hard it was going to be on them, they were not going to be bullied out of socialism. Fidel admitted to the people supplies will be scarce, food won’t be guaranteed and life will brutal at times, but as Ana said “We are Cuban”.

From 1991-2005 Cuba endured some of its worst nightmares. In what is now known as the special period, Ana explained her everyday life. She had to walk 25 km everyday too and from work because of the shortage of gasoline. She needed to walk up 368 steps every night to get to her apartment because they could not afford to maintain the elevator. She ate rice and beans essentially every meal for 10 years. When teaching, she made her students reuse paper because it was such a scarcity, and every exam needed to be given orally. But she prevailed. Ana knows she could go to any nation and receive a healthy salary. With a PhD and her years of experience, she is very valuable. She explains, however, that so many people like her stay because of the morals the Cuban people preach everyday. Lessons from Jose Marti have been passed down generation to generation and Cuba is like no other nation in the world. Though the majority of Cuban people feel the same way as Ana Sanchez, many Cubans have left in the past in hopes to seek more financial security and a better life for their families. On April 20th, 1980, Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel for the Cuban people to freely emigrate to the United States. It is estimated 125,000 Cubans fled to Florida during the time of the Mariel Boat lift. Though this was a significant emigration from Cuba, it was only 1.3% of their population of 9.835 million in 1980. So why did the other 98.7% of Cubans decide to stay if times were so tough? Above all, the Cuban people pride themselves on strength through culture. Yes, they may have shortages of food and resources, but they make up for it in pride. They look out for one another like brothers and sisters would, and unite together to stand up to bullies across the world.

From Horror to Amazement

After class we headed to the bus for a group lunch. Greeted by our bus driver Elio’s large smile everyone was in good spirits. Not far from the CEM on a major road, I felt our bus starting to drift left. The roads of Cuba are not ones I would like to drive on and Elio needed to swerve around people all the time to avoid accidents. But this was different. Our bus continued to swerve and aggressively drove up onto the median. Elio instantly went flying laterally across the bus and hit his head extremely hard on the floor. Julian and Ilene escorted everyone off of the bus and brought us to the side walk to wait. Within seconds, random pedestrians were pulling over to help us. From directing traffic to helping Elio recover after fainting, I had never seen anything like this in my life. Two minutes passed and Elio was already in a taxi on his way to the hospital with another pedestrian.  Ilene called Helene, the API director that lives in Cuba to notify her of what happened, and she was on site with a new bus within five minutes. Police responded to the accident in what seemed like record time, and we were on our way to the restaurant 10 minutes after the accident happened. I have never seen such unity in my life. The people of Havana treat the entire city like their home, and if something happens in their home they need to make sure it is resolved. Luckily, Elio was ok and made a full recovery after fainting. I knew Elio would be ok, though, because as Ana says “we are Cuban”.

A Party Like No Other

At night we went to a Cuban Baseball League playoff game. The Havana Industriales were playing the Las Tunas in the third of a best of seven game series. We sat directly behind home plate in seats that would have cost hundreds at Fenway. We were warned to get there three hours before the game because it was going to be a spectacle like nothing we have ever seen. There was a retirement ceremony in Carlos Tabares honor after playing for the Industriales for 22 years. Sure enough, the ceremony did last just under three hours long. From speeches to live performances from famous singers right in the stands, it truly was like nothing I have ever seen. Everyone in the crowd was singing and dancing the entire time. The energy carried right into the game where the Industriales won 4-0. After every play, the crowd gave the players a response MLB players don’t get from their fans after winning the World Series. From blow horns to infinite waves, the crowd was proud to be at the game. The MLB has something to learn from the party that is Cuban baseball, and the American people have much to learn about pride from the Cuban people.

Waking up to our fifth day in Cuba, I noticed that being here no longer felt bizarre. The routine of waking up to Natalia cooking us a delicious breakfast and then hopping onto the bus for our day’s adventure seemed normal by now; and today’s adventure certainly did not let us down. It all started with a lecture at the CEM on student movements in Cuba. Despite our group obviously showing signs of being tired, the topic managed to captivate us and the two hours flew by. It was interesting to learn about how students just like us had managed to stand up against dictatorships and fight for what they believed was right. They put their lives on the line and many were lost because they held their beliefs above themselves. It was a very inspiring topic to learn about but we still had the whole day ahead of ourselves. After the lecture we then went off to do our organized community service work. This was an eye-opening experience that certainly changed my perspective on the privileged lives that so many of us live. While we left this community service project feeling as though we had done some good in aiding those who were much less fortunate than us, we also left with a somber and depressed feeling at what we had just witnessed. However, the day was not over yet and our next activity certainly aided in alleviating some of this sadness; even if it did result in some headaches.

Johnny and Ilene showing us how it’s done

As Honors College students, our group has proven to have some academic prowess. Whether we are electrical engineering majors or fine arts majors, we all have obtained and maintained a certain level of excellence in our academic careers. However, today’s class proved to be something rather new and challenging for some of us. While we are used to listening to lectures and taking copious amounts of notes, being told we are going to learn how to salsa dance in class was a bit different than most of us are accustomed to. The majority of our group has really only known each other for five days at this point so being expected to salsa dance together was a little out of our comfort zones. Despite this, we were all up to the challenge and were eager to get it right. While some of us picked up the steps rather easily, the task proved to be more formidable for others of our group. Our dance teacher, Johnny, made it all look so easy and was very patient with us. While we were all able to watch him and understand what we were seeing and what he was telling us to do, it was much harder to replicate his actions than we had anticipated. Despite being honors students from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, we found ourselves sounding childish as we slowly counted each of our steps. Even moving slowly we found ourselves messing up and, with most of us being perfectionists, this was slightly frustrating. We had to remind ourselves that practice makes perfect and repetition is key. Hours went by of doing the same basic moves over and over and slowly but surely we started to get it down and found ourselves becoming overly determined to get the moves perfect. Our dance teacher would come over and do the moves step by step with us until we would do them correctly. We finally had one pair get all of the moves right without assistance and we were all so excited by it. By the end of our session, we found ourselves much more comfortable with each other and not as embarrassed to look dumb dancing in front of each other. We left the classroom slightly tired with aching feet but in high spirits; ready to bust out our novice moves whenever and wherever the occasion calls. This experience showed us that we may not be perfect at everything but to not be afraid of trying new things and to push our boundaries. When you explore outside of your comfort zone you are able to learn a whole lot more about yourself and what you are capable of accomplishing.

An Experience Far Beyond a Google Search

As I prepared for my trip to Havana, I wondered what local attitudes would be towards same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community as a whole. Although I read about Cuba’s policies online, I was surprised by how much I still did not know. On January 9th, my peer group and I were fortunate enough to visit CENESEX, which is also known as the National Center for Sexual Education. Upon arrival, it was clear that Cubans have been making great strides toward acceptance and equality. Inside CENESEX, the walls were cover with artwork depicting same- sex couples and inclusive themes. There were some rather erotic-looking sculptures found in the outdoor patio space as well. The building and its contents were strikingly different than what one would expect to see in the United States. Needless to say, Cuba takes sexual education very seriously. There are 44 sexology chairs located at different universities throughout the country. CENESEX itself has several branches that deal with education, legal issues, research, and support. For example, if a transgendered individual feels as though his or her rights have been violated, he or she could go directly to CENESEX as opposed to a law enforcement agency. Throughout the entirety of the day, it was made apparent that although the USA has become extremely progressive toward LGBTQ policy, it is still lacking in other areas compared to Cuba.

That being said, Cuba is not quite on the same page as us when it comes to LGBTQ individuals. Despite the incredible progress Cuba has made over the last ten years, the LGBTQ community still faces exclusion from certain night clubs and marriage rights. In 1993, the film “Strawberry and Chocolate” was released. This film helped introduce homosexuality to the public and began the movement towards a more inclusive Cuban nation. However, due to the strong Machismo culture in Latin America, homosexuality is considered taboo in the majority. It is clear that the Cuban people fully embrace their sexuality and implement it into their dances and artwork. However, when it comes to marriage, only heterosexual couples are permitted to participate and be considered legitimate. I was shocked to learn this since there seemed to be such a wide acceptance of teenage parents and single parents shown through parades and events in Cuba. These roles can sometimes be seen as shameful in the US, and yet gay marriage is legal in all 50 states. In regards to the trans population, reassignment surgery is extremely unpopular. This is completely different than the United States, where we have celebrities such as Caitlin Jenner who proudly elect to get the operation.


CENESEX also shed some light on the wage gap between genders (or lack thereof). In the United States, women make about 87 cents for each dollar a man makes. This is just about equal to the difference between the USD and the CUC. In Cuba, however, if a man and woman are doing the same job and have the same qualifications, they will both earn the same pay. I find it humorous that many American citizens consider themselves to be more developed than Cuba, and yet we still continue to fail to close the wage gap between the men and women of the work force.

Later in the day we visited the Museum of the Revolution. We were able to view actual articles of Castro and Che’s clothing, weaponry, and other items. Because of our tour guide’s persuasion skills, we were able to enter into the presidential office. Here, the Cuban flag was preserved and placed beside the desk. Ana, our guide, inspired me when she told me that her daughter was not only the sole worker who preserved the flag, but that she was also the one and only female worker in the textile industry. Afterward, we entered a large conference/dining room across the hall. Here, there was a beautiful mural covering the entire wall. One of the subjects of the piece was named Ana Betancourt. She was the first woman to stand up and decide that she wanted women to be able to join the men during the war of independence from Spain.

Several times throughout the day, we learned about some rather empowering Cuban women. The experiences from this day really allowed me to refresh my perspective of the American workforce and women’s rights. I feel as though I just accepted the fact that I will earn less than my male co-workers, but now I know the USA as a nation can strive to do better. As it turns out, we are not as ahead of other countries as we thought. We may have a surplus of material goods, but we could really take a lesson from Cuba in regards to equal wages. Looking back on this day, I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to learn far beyond my original Google search.


The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Long live Jose Marti. While sitting in the classroom within Marti’s only son’s residence, the ambiance was overwhelming. Dying at the early age of 45, Marti’s life was more fulfilled and impactful than most will ever have. Poet, writer, and political leader, Cuba preserves the residence of Jose Francisco Marti to dedicate a center to the studies of his father’s life work and impact on Cuban culture. Today, the center is used to welcome students from all over the world and educate them on the Cuban history and what it means to be Cuban.

The Man

The study center, which has been successfully running for the last 40 years,
dedicates its existence to keeping the adventures, hardships, teachings, and examples of Marti’s life alive. Comparable to America’s George Washington, Marti represented the ideal ethics and values of the Cuban people. Born January 28, 1853, Marti was the oldest son of two Spanish immigrants. Though his life was short lived, it was rich with traveling to seven different countries due to his ‘radical’ political ideas. His travels enabled him to have modern knowledge from various parts of the world and have similar thinking’s of America’s enlightened like Emerson and Hawthorne. His ceaseless creativity drove Marti to author two novels and compose thousands of other short writings. The center has preserved 2,000 of his works and expects there to be thousands more of undiscovered pieces out there. Jose Marti is such a core element to Cuba that it is often said Marti is a religion, something that all of Cuba believes in and worships, like a God.

The Legacy

Aside from the Jose Marti studies center, Cuba has a memorial in honor of their revolutionary hero. As the tallest building in Habana, the Jose Marti memorial captures the beauty of the entire city in five points. The building resembles a star shape, like that of the Cuban national flag. Fulgencio Batista personally oversaw the assembly of the monument, collecting one day’s pay from every Cuban citizen; however, never disclosing how much money was collected. The interior wall of the structure displays quotes from Marti written in twenty-two carrot gold imported from Venice Italy surrounded by twenty eighty columns with gold plating as well. The number twenty-eight is symbolic of the twenty-eight camps that Marti stayed in before the first battle of the revolution, that he died in. One quote of Jose Marti’s that I personally loved was written on the wall of the Museum of Arts in Cuba; it read “Un principio justo, desde el fondo de una cueva, puede más que en ejército!” Translated in english it means “one just principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army”. This quote is symbolic on the Cuban culture because it signifies the ideal ethics that Marti was so passionate about. Reading the quote, I interpreted it as a just idea, like ones belief in freedom, is an idea more powerful than army. This is symbolic to the fight the Marti started for Cubans freedom.

The Legend

Standing within the luxurious memorial, overlooking the beautiful colonial city, there is an enlightenment that hits you. This is Cuba. Self-governed, despite all the obstacles they faced and countries who denied their sovereignty, their patriotism persisted. Jose Marti sparked this sense of identity and made it all possible. His face is displayed everywhere (literally everywhere, whether it be abstract, sculptures, or captured in a quote), because Cubans are forever inspired by him. Today, Marti continues to drive the people’s determination to remain independent and sovereign. He set the standard of what it means to be Cuban, to be honest, kind, passionate, and to hold your values high. To be Cuban is to be resilient; to persevere in the hardest of times. Having the opportunity to learn about the ‘special period’ was both eye opening and heart wrenching. The struggles put on the Cuban people due to the trade embargo are unimaginable. The distances that they had to walk everyday just to work or get an education, the shortage of food, and the cloud of darkness that loomed over what the future would hold, yet they pushed forward and created a culture that believes in helping those around them and creating a type of community that I have never seen before. Marti set the standard and inspired this type of nationalism, and will forever be a massive part of their culture.

A Walk Through Time

Waking up and realizing I was actually in Cuba was still surreal even after more than 24 hours because the country was so different than the United States. The day started with an amazing breakfast at our residencia, which included eggs, various fruits, muffins, coffee, and juice. The breakfast was way better than what I would eat for breakfast at home any day. After this wonderful meal, we departed for a walking tour of Old Havana. While driving into Old Havana I noticed that the majority of the buildings on the way were very old and were deteriorating or had already broken down. I found this to be very interesting because I do not see this too often in Massachusetts, at least not around my area. Also on the way to the city we caught a quick glimpse of El Malecon, the sea wall that runs along the coast of Havana. At El Malecon waves can be seen crashing into the wall and if the waves are large enough they crash over the wall and into the street which would then close the street to traffic. When we saw it on this day the street was closed and the waves were massive. Seeing El Malecon was captivating to me because I enjoy seeing different things that involve the ocean and El Malecon is so unique that I could spend days there just watching the waves crash against the wall.

This is El Malecon and a wave crashing into the wall.

Once we arrived in Old Havana we entered Plaza de Armas, which was the first plaza to be laid out in the city. The plaza was surrounded with old but beautiful buildings including an old spanish fortress. The older buildings made it feel like we had traveled back in time and seeing the city in the past since none of the building have been changed old restored. While in this plaza multiple people came up to our group and tried to sell different things including a man who drew a picture of me and another student and told us they were for us to remember Cuba. After seeing this plaza we made our way to see Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is where Ernest Hemingway would stay before owning a home in the country. We could not enter this hotel due to the United States’ regulations with American travelers in Cuba, so we looked at it from the outside.

The hotel is a very brightly colored pink building with white trimmed windows and amazing architecture. From outside, Ernest Hemingway’s room was pointed out to us by our guide, Ana.

We then walked through other plazas in Old Havana and took in the breathtaking scenery and architecture including, churches, boats, hotels, and restaurants.

One of the churches we saw was La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana, which is a Roman Catholic church. Inside there is a statue of Pope John Paul II, or Juan Pablo, and Saint Christopher who is the patron saint of Latin traditions. The facade of the church was beautiful with two bell towers and a very elaborate design, which I found very aesthetically pleasing.

La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana

Ana told us numerous fascinating facts and stories about old Havana as it pertained to the buildings we saw in each plaza and those points of interest we encountered while walking around.

While walking around Old Havana I noticed these weird tunnel looking entrances into the ground. Ana went on to tell us that these strange holes in the ground were the way that the city transported water in the city’s early years.

Old Havana’s old water transport system

After our walking tour we were able to get lunch, and some other students and I decided to go to a restaurant that served Italian food like pizza, pasta and other dishes. It was interesting to see how Italian food was from another country. I thought the pizza I got was decent but not as good as pizza from the United States.

Old Havana was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen with its vibrant colors and fascinating architecture. The history behind the city is also very interesting and full of many facts people may not know of. These together make the city of Old Havana one of the most fascinating places to see and to experience.