No matter where my husband Roger and I travel, the people we meet never cease to intrigue and delight us. Cuba was no exception. Fortunately our small group was traveling with Ian Sergeant, owner of Soltura Travel, and he has many Cuban friends from different walks of life who offered their friendship and an inside view of life in Cuba. Although the US and Cuba have had a frosty relationship for decades, and the US embargo has impacted the well-being of most Cubans, the Cuban people are apparently very willing to separate the actions of our government from its people. We came away feeling embraced by Cuban warmth and inspired by the stories we heard.
We spent the most time with Mailan and Alicia, a mother/daughter pair who joined us often for meals in Havana and traveled with us on the road for several days. From them, we gained appreciation for the Cuban celebration of the arts. Mailan is an accomplished musician with a lovely voice. She sings in one of Cuba’s finest choruses and shares her gift with young musicians in an after-school program she began. All children are welcome, and they come to sing their hearts out and sample Cuba’s rich musical repertoire.
We were treated to a command performance on a rainy Saturday in a theater in the monument to Jose Marti, and we were captivated by the enthusiasm of the children performers and their mature presence on the stage. The chorus sang Cuban folk music with gusto and performed simple dance steps; solo performers played cello and guitar. Each performer ended with graceful bow and a warm smile that embraced the audience. Mailan is hoping to open a music school soon, so members of our group brought things like woodwind reeds and mouthpieces. Ian brings instruments from the US whenever he can.
Mailan’s daughter Alicia is also an artist. After completing a post-secondary computer program, she decided to study theatre arts at a university. Now she’s in her last year and busy preparing a thesis. She’s chosen to adapt the musical The King and I to make it relevant to Cuban audiences today. Although she’d pretty well thought things through, members of our travel group enjoyed tossing around ideas with her over rum drinks in the evening. By the time we left, she’d decided to make Anna (the British tutor of the son of the Siamese king in the original play) an American who comes to Cuba to help introduce a technological revolution. Sitting in the fourth floor walk-up apartment she shares with her mother and grandmother, hip hop music pounding below, she showed us some of the stage and costume designs she’d created during her studies out of materials like plastic packaging, aluminum foil and paper. Cubans are very resourceful and can do more with less than most people.
This resourcefulness was also evident as we toured the city of Havana with Jesus, our guide for several days. He’s a painter and is immensely proud of the art projects scattered throughout Havana’s neighborhoods, especially in less flourishing parts of town. With a few cans of paint and lots of artistic talent, streets and houses have been transformed by cheerful murals. Jesus was particularly proud of one project called Muralando, which had grown from a few artists like Jesus getting together to paint murals into a community project with an outdoor stage, dance and music performances and children’s art programs. The sculpture and wall art here incorporate everything from old car parts to bathtubs. Jesus and his crew are now at work in another neighborhood where they’re painting the inside of people’s houses as well as the walls outside.
You can’t hang out with people in Cuba very long without being impressed by this sense of community again and again. Conner Gorry, an American journalist living in Havana for more than a decade, has honored that desire for community in a unique way by opening a bookstore/coffee shop called Cuba Libro. It started as a free exchange English library and has grown into a coffee shop with good affordable coffee, poetry jams, art exhibitions and a pleasant patio for meeting old friends and making new ones. During a lovely morning of cultural exchange over strong Cuban espresso, we talked with young Cubans about their experiences and aspirations. If you go to Havana, I highly recommend Cuba Libro as a place to meet gregarious Cubans, practice your Spanish or help someone practice English.
Looking back on our Cuba experience, the themes of community and the arts really stand out. And they go together—people want to be wherever there is art and music. Having taught media literacy in high schools and acknowledging how technology has changed my own life, however, I have to wonder what will happen once the Internet and social media arrive in Cuba. It’s coming fast—already those with Internet access are downloading information on thumb drives and selling it affordably in the streets, and those places with access, like hotels, are crowded with people (mostly young) on the fringes trying to connect. Will Cubans continue to collaborate to create art and music, beautify neighborhoods and lounge on patios with one another? Many of the Cubans I talked with believe that their culture is strong enough to survive the onslaught of 21st century technology intact, but perhaps they’re not yet aware of how seductive it can be. I certainly hope they’re right, and I hope to return fairly soon to see for myself!
1. Often art and music are the first programs to be canceled in our schools when finances are tight. Cubans were shocked when I told them that. How important do you think it is for young people to be engaged in art and music? Why?
2. What role does technology play in your life? Do you think you have achieved a good balance of time with technology, such as your phone, computer, TV, social media, and time with family and friends, the arts, the outdoors, etc? If not, what would you like to change? If so, explain the balance you’ve reached.