Works and Days

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

Of course, all of the social peace comes at a cost. There were many ugly realities amidst the social beauty. The economic situation there is somewhat dire. Cubans live in small houses which they often built themselves and lacked many necessities. Everyone talked about wanting to go the United States. My second night there I learned a lot about how the economic situation in Cuba plays out in real life for Cubans. Life is really hard for most people, because salaries for every occupation (except military and governmental positions) are set at the equivalent of $10 to $20 U.S. dollars per month. The average Cuban makes $10 U.S. dollars in one month. This was hard for me to swallow, as I came to realize that what each of my family members makes in a month, I can make in an hour.I was told the salary is barely enough to cover the necessities of food and soap.  People were constantly pointing out was that doctors made the same amount of money as everyone else. "There are doctors poorer than I am!" many would say. Information you definitely can't find in a textbook. 

It was hard for me to hear from so many Cubans' discontented with Cuba. I found it so beautiful, but when I would express them this, many people would respond with, "We don't see the beauty in Cuba that foreigners see." It was hard, to say the least, but I could understand the desire to leave on an economic front. Many would say, "No hay futuro." Translation: There is no future [here in Cuba]. I can understand how the reality that no matter how hard you work you will still struggle could be hard to live with.

What was most amazing about the whole experience was the insider view being able to stay with family provided. As I originally intended for this project, I allowed Cubans to have their own voices throughout. I hardly spoke and mostly listened and asked questions. I was not a tourist going there and putting my take on their experiences. What I have written here is a combination of my own observations mixed with things that people told me on a day-to-day basis. I feel truly blessed to be able to get information that tour books, Wikipedia, and textbooks can't tell you. I truly think Cuba is incredible. From what I saw, it is not a wasteland of communism, poverty, and conflict. There are beautiful things there, even though Cubans don't always see it that way. This is the beginning of an amazing journey for me. I hope to go back to Cuba this Christmas, and continue gathering Cuban voices and stories. I will definitely want to put together a book or movie of the information I've gathered at some point, but I know this will take years and many trips before I truly have a full and comprehensive view of Cuba. I can't wait to return once more the motherland.


Tags: presidents summer fellowship, cuba, journalism, cross-cultural, travel