Works and Days

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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.

Research: Pictures Big and Small, President's Summer Fellowship Final Reflection, John Young

There is something deeply rewarding about setting up a plan and then executing it. Thought the “heist” metaphor was perhaps a stretch, and though I would never want to implicate myself or my colleagues in “theft” (--though, my brief walk through the British Museum suggested to me that historians, archeologists, and anthropologists have perhaps done their fare share of that, under different names--), finding what I was looking for where I looked for it was a satisfying experience.

What was I looking for? And what did I find? I was looking for the correspondence of Robert Swinhoe relating to Natural History. His “day job” as it were was as a diplomat in the British Foreign Service, and he produced volumes of material related to his work in the consulate. I wasn’t incredibly interested in all of that work, however, and I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I would find in his diplomatic writings with respect to his natural historical work. I did manage to locate all of his archived diplomatic writing. The day after arriving in London I went to the National Archives and spent the morning and afternoon browsing microfilmed catalogues of Foreign Service Office material, looking for things that Swinhoe produced. I spent the whole of Saturday and Sunday at the National Archives—it was the only one open over the weekend.

I had planned to do the archival work here over my first weekend because, although of lesser importance to my overall research interests, it would give me the opportunity to “practice” doing the work of a historical researcher.