Left and Top Right: CofC students participate in outdoor activities during an excursion to a former coffee plantation in the Cuban countryside. Bottom Right: Student Kelty Carson shares a laugh with Rodolfo Rodriguez, the patriarch of her host family in Havana.
The students quickly become part of these networks, growing close to not only their immediate host families, but also the cousins, in-laws, friends and random neighbors who flow in and out of the seemingly always-open front doors. After a couple of weeks, they are like members of the family, speaking in Spanish, sipping rum and trading good-natured put-downs in a heated game of dominoes or cards.
The host families, in turn, grow fond of their guests. Rodolfo Luis Rodriguez Trejo has been hosting groups of students in his home for the past few years. At first, he confesses, it was more of a business transaction, a way to earn extra income.
But over time, the experience for him and his family has become more personal, more gratifying. Through the students, he says, he and his family have become “tourists of the world.”
Speaking in Spanish translated by one of his guests, Trejo says he’s not sure he can teach the students anything valuable in terms of historical facts or details about Cuban life. What he can and does offer them is a permanent place in his heart. “It’s about expanding your family,” he says.
City of Contrasts
The country itself is also a teacher, and it doesn’t take long for the students to recognize that Cuba is a country of stark and perplexing contrasts. Away from the tourist district of Havana Vieja, average Cubans live lives of remarkable simplicity, their options only as diverse as those stingily doled out by their country’s socialist government.
While a tsunami of tourists has created some opportunities for Cuba’s people – namely an increase in government-issued licenses for Cubans to operate B&Bs and restaurants catering to foreigners – the reality is that everyday Cubans subsist on an archaic government-run food rationing system, receive sanitized news from state-controlled media outlets and can be jailed for engaging in political dissent.
In the shadows of the swanky government-owned hotels – with their gift shops full of expensive Cuban cigars and bottles of Havana Club rum – most Cubans live in densely packed neighborhoods where power blackouts, streets strewn with waist-high piles of trash, a disturbing number of stray dogs and cats and a crumbling infrastructure are a way of life. And yet, they are an enormously proud and resourceful people, optimistic, friendly and gracious.
“Everything that they have is turned into some positive light,” observes junior Jack Feeney. “There’s no negativity. And that radiates in all different aspects – in culture, in music, in dance, in food. Life here is just happy.”
For one student, in particular, the harsh and controversial legacy of the revolution that brought Castro to power hits painfully close to home.
Maggie McCartin, who is of Cuban descent, grew up hearing her Cuban grandmother tell stories about Castro’s government seizing her family’s property and leaving them little choice but to flee their homeland and build a new life from scratch in the United States.
“Being here in Cuba, I’ve been able to find out a lot about the circumstances people were under as a result of and prior to the revolution,” McCartin says. “A lot of the wealthier people in Cuba were harshly affected by the revolution. They came in and took a lot of their property from them. My abuela [grandmother] told me that they gradually came in and said this property is for the Cuban people.”
Given her family history, McCartin says she has struggled to understand why many Cubans still seem to revere Castro and his fellow revolutionaries. Even in death, his image and his defiant chants of “socialismo o muerte” grace murals and buildings along the country’s highways.