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Cuba Today: Sydney Scarlata, Winter Fellowship for International Travel


Sydney Scarlata, senior political science major and recipient of the Winter Fellowship for International Travel, reflects on her time in Cuba, using photography and mini-interviews to  capture a moment of life in Cuba at a crucial transition point at the end of decades of animosity but before the floodgates of U.S. capitalism fully open.

Author’s note: I’ve never been very articulate so this may be the hardest part of my project.

On January 1st I left snowy Chicago for a country whose language I could not speak and whose relationship with my country was unsettled, at best. This project started as an attempt to capture the wide-ranging impact that the Cuban revolution has had on the country and its citizens 55 years after the fact. And yes, I have several photographs of the many monuments, street art, and the propaganda posters (because advertisements don’t exist in Cuba). However, my project quickly morphed into something much great and infinitely more complicated. I found myself exploring the depths of what, and more importantly who, is Cuba. What I found (besides delicious food and cloudless skies) was a community of people who were so excited to share a piece of their everyday lives with me. Obviously there were some exceptions (I know I would be more than a little skeptical if a U.S. tourist asked me if they could take my photo). Cuban students, for example, always refused a photo op. Generally, however, I found that my camera was a conversation starter.

Telling the Cuban Story: A President’s Summer Fellowship Project

During my time in Cuba I came to learn many of the country's realities of life. Some were hard to face, but others were truly amazing. Simply unbelievable! For example, racism and class division just simply do not exist in Cuba. In terms of race relations, everyone is so mixed, and has been mixing for so many generations that it is difficult to tell what most people's ethnicities are. The concept of race did not exist for the Cubans that I spoke to. When I would ask people about racism, they seemed confused as to what racism would consist of, and as to why I was asking. When I explained the United State’s race relations, they seemed to struggle to conceptualize the idea, because it just didn't exist in their world. I got looks of shock when I explained the United States' history of racism and the racial divisions that continue today. It was fascinating to see a country that shared in having a history of racism, but that had experienced such a different outcome. Cuba's racial blindness wasn't just apparent in words, but in action too. Cubans of all colors did everything together, everywhere. My family had blonde haired, blue-eyed neighbors stopping by, as well as dark-skinned friends. There weren't any neighborhoods segregated by race as there are in the United States. People explained to me that on average there were more black doctors than white doctors in every hospital. Most police I saw were black or mixed, to my surprise. I encountered no visible signs of racial division. It was quite incredible.

Intimately tied into this racial peace is the fact that everyone in Cuba is the same class (excluding military and government officials). In this way Cubans' social relations were even more unbelievable, because there were no divisions based on class, clothing, visible signs of wealth, class customs, or any other usual causes of segregation. No one looked down upon anyone else for not having money, because everyone struggled all the time. Just like racial divisions, class pretension and class shame between Cubans does not exist. As an American, there were times I felt I had found a social utopia.

Streetside Cuba

Experiencing Cuba: Sophie Naranjo-Rivera, President's Summer Fellowship Student

Arriving in Cuba was crazy. I had had a near nervous break down the day before, because I had been dreaming about Cuba for so long, and it was finally coming. It was the first time I had ever accomplished anything that big and important to me. I hadn't gotten much sleep and I was freaking out when the plane landed at the José Martí airport in Havana. Everyone was speaking to me in Spanish and I couldn't understand their thick Cuban accents properly. I was certainly not in the U.S. anymore. When I finally reached the other side of security, my family was waiting for me outside the exit among all of the other Cuban families. They recognized me right away, even though they haven't seen any recent pictures of me, because I look just like my grandma when she was younger, as I later came to find out. Driving through Havana for the first time was unreal. I was in a state of shock for the entire first day, as I spent the day talking with my family and taking naps. They were all so excited to have me there.

trees

The strangest thing about Cuba was that everything was exactly as I expected. I had prepared for the opposite-I told myself not to expect anything and that everything would probably be different than I thought. Ironically, Cuba was just how I'd seen it, in my dreams at night, in books, in other people's stories. It was like I had been there before, and it felt not only incredible but very comfortable. Not to mention that everything there was absolutely beautiful. I thought maybe it only looked this way in pictures, but realized that photos of Cuba in tour books and on posters are actually extremely representative. Everything is tropical, there are fruit trees everywhere, pastel colored houses, old cars of bright colors with thick black smoke coming out of the tail pipes. I absolutely loved it. It truly was like going back in time 50 years, not just in how Cuba physically looked, but also in the country's abilities. For example, there was hardly any internet connection at all; it was just not apart of people's daily lives because it costs so much money there. Few people had cell phones and when they did they were not used often. Everything had to be done by phone or in person. Most people did not have cars. People walked around from house to house in their spare time-socializing, having fun, drinking coffee, playing chess or dominoes.

Telling the Cuban Story: Interviewing the Last Generation of Cuba as We Know It

For my President's Summer Fellowship, it is my dream to collect the stories of the Cuban people before the huge political changes soon to occur in Cuba actually take place, including the oncoming takeover of a new president in five years, and the consequent ending of the famous 60 year Castro dictatorship. Soon the political climate will undergo enormous changes, taking old Cuba with it; and the generation that lived through the Cuban revolution will be gone, taking their stories with them. This is a critical time in Cuban history.

The goal of my project is to document as many stories as possible from the dying generation in Cuba that lived through the Cuban revolution in the 1950s; and as many Cuban perspectives of present conditions as I can.