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.

Havana vs. Lowell: a comparison

Waking up to muggy tropical rainfall was quite a change this morning compared to the blizzard that greeted me forty-eight hours ago. After a spectacular breakfast of fried eggs, bruschetta, papaya, muffins, fresh orange juice, and coffee, we boarded the bus to drive into Central Havana. “El Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso” was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been to. Marble could be seen everywhere one looked and it was a place which fostered the arts. The building’s theater was newly renovated, and our tour guide told us a plethora if information about its history. It is strange to me how Cuba prioritizes its restoration projects, and its aid to citizens; theaters get renovated before some neighborhoods or roads. I imagine it all has to do with the image of the nation, its history, and its need to rejuvenate itself.

The difference between seeing the regal and palace-like theater, then walking through Vedado on our tour with our guide, Ana, was rather unbelievable. Both places were a juxtaposition of beautiful and expensive restoration, and then crumbling buildings that were empty and overgrown. Never before have I been to a place where the difference between the rich and the poor are so highly visible. Yet here, I would not necessarily have expected it to be so, because of the country’s communist politics and the fact that everyone receives money from the government. Although it is not a large sum, and certainly not enough to live on, I would have imagined that the stipend would lend a different outcome. I find it sad that many people make only enough money to survive, and not to maintain their homes or neighborhoods from further deterioration. Nevertheless, the things which I encounter here make me ponder Cuba’s rationale for restoration.

Knowing that Vedado was once the neighborhood of mostly professionals and other affluent figures, it is amazing to acknowledge this with much of what I have seen, while still appreciating the eerie beauty that it brings in its current state – despite its disrepair. I try to imagine what it was like in its prime, and how glorious it was compared to the rich, yet desolate forms which remain today. The chipping paint and crumbling stucco draw me in unlike many of the things I see around home. All of the scenes we pass are eye-catching to me, but the deteriorating architecture grabs me like nothing else. Perhaps it is the abstraction of the things with which we are so familiar. We, as students from Lowell, encounter very few dilapidated buildings compared to what we see here in Havana, and certainly not to the same extent. Peeling paint versus crumbling stucco aren’t exactly on the same parallel, never mind the complete collapse of a home or business. Seeing those forms in their rubble-like state due to disrepair, weather, and neglect are reminders of what it takes to maintain a nation governmentally, yet also physically.

In some ways, Lowell and Havana share similarities in their histories. Both were once places of innovation, growth, wealth, and development. Lowell during it’s years of industrialization and the Industrial Revolution, and Havana after its independence from Spain. These cities bloomed with business and population, growing and expanding more than ever. They were the pride and joy of regions, and they were cared for by those who sought value from them. However, both eventually fell into disrepair, never (yet) to make a full recovery. Lowell still struggles with its image as a dangerous city, and Havana still crumbles as much as it is restored. As I walk around Havana, I cannot help but see similarity after similarity between Lowell and Cuba. Both places have managed to harness nature’s powerful waterways in engineering feats such as the Malecón (a massive sea wall in Havana) and Lowell’s many canals from the Merrimack and Concord rivers. The cities strive to make themselves better, more attractive, and restore themselves to their prior glory, yet the element of their peril still remains. In Cuba, it’s the collapsing buildings, disjointed sidewalks, and flooding streets. In Lowell, it’s the nearly constant sirens signaling crime or danger, shady neighborhoods, and bumpy roads. While the cities are making great strides in repairing themselves, their pasts still linger as a reminder of what was. Cuba has been absolutely fascinating to me so far, and I cannot wait for what will come.

Statue of Alicia Alonzo, by Sculptors José Villa Soberón and Gabriel Cisneros

Deteriorating home in Vedado