Bringing Cuba Home:  Learning from the Other Side
Presented by Dr. Sandra Faiman-Silva
as Part of the Opening of the Exhibit
John Joseph Moakley: In Service to His Country
Bridgewater State College
February 24, 2003
Revised December 27, 2005 by JH-B

Thank you very much for allowing us—students, faculty, and administrators who recently traveled to Cuba on Bridgewater State College’s first formal Cuba Study Tour—to participate in this tribute to Congressman Joe Moakley, after whom this beautiful building is named.   Why, you may ask, is Cuba so important to Joe Moakley’s legacy, this, a pariah nation and for many, truly “The Other Side?”

As Joe Moakley and others are learning, including Jimmy Carter and our own BSC colleagues, President Dana Mohler-Faria, former President Adrian Tinsley, and Graduate and Continuing Education Dean, Edward Minnock, each veterans of Cuba travel, Cuba deserves to be known, not as a rebel pariah nation in the global community, but as a nation with its own unique vision of society.  If we are willing to Learn from the Other Side, we can learn important lessons about freedom, democracy, and civic and social responsibility.  

A basic but difficult difference between Cuba and the United States is how we each define “freedom.”  Whereas the U.S. cherishes individual rights and personal liberties, Cubans value collective rights and social responsibilities toward their fellow humanity.   This was poignantly pointed out by Marcos Diaz, a Cuban Physician and President of the Cuban Society of Alternative Medicine, who spoke with Study Tour participants on January 11.  He said, “To understand Cuban society we must focus on the ‘social’ and not on the ‘ism.’”  The main goal of the Cuban socialist revolution lies in two aspects.  One is the effort to improve all humanity.  And the other is to reduce differences.”  He said, “The concept of the permanent revolution is a permanent process of making things better for all humanity.”  How is this accomplished?   Diaz said, “The main goal must be the man, not the personal agenda,”   “In Cuba we understand that 1) equality is not possible [because individuals are not all equally endowed]; and, therefore,  2) Our aim is to reduce differences as much as possible.  We, therefore, strive for as even distribution--as even as possible.”  

In the U.S., on the other hand, we define “freedom” individually and personally.  We view the denial of personal freedoms as an affront to our liberties and our freedom of choice.   Cubans, on the other hand, define “freedom” as embedded in economic and social responsibilities to reduce social and economic differences; and thereby “free” individuals from the burdens of material want, by providing to everyone basic foods, housing, health care, a college education, and employment.  Citizens, then, can pursue “happiness” in their lives through music, the arts, drama, dance, and even baseball.
Cuba Study Tour participants were wary of “learning from the other side,” and they had to overcome formidable stereotypes and biases about Cuban society, its culture, its economy, and issues of “freedom” and “revolution.”  

Michelle, a BSC anthropology student, said,
“When I told people I was leaving for Cuba there were two responses:  One was, 'Why??  Isn’t it dangerous there?  What if Castro doesn’t let you come back?'  And Two, 'Can you bring me back some Cuban cigars?'  Then these individuals would proceed to coach me on what to do while I was there, and the amusing part about it was that not one of these people had ever been to Cuba!”
Michelle continues by acknowledging the problem of stereotypes:  
“My point is that Americans have a very deep rooted stereotype towards Cuba, undoubtedly a legacy of the Cuban missile crisis.  What I find amusing is that that was over 40 years ago and people are still afraid.  Why?  Well, people fear what they cannot understand or cannot explain.  Since the Cuban socialist government is radically different from the US capitalist democracy, people fear this unknown creature.”  
Michelle continues:
 “Another point which I find extremely interesting is that Cuban people have, at least from what I saw, no prejudices against the American people.  They recognize their fight is with the American government, not its people.  This attitude amazes me, because my fellow Americans have the exact opposite attitude.  Americans who have not seen the socialist experiment in progress only see the bad effects, and are blinded to the good by  their “Cuba is evil” brain washing.   Now, I am not saying that I agree with or would even like to live under this Cuban socialist experiment.  I am a very proud American woman who loves her country.  However, there are parts of the Cuban socialist experiment which I highly admire.
Michelle then describes one of her own experiences: 
"When I first arrived in Cuba, my initial reaction upon viewing the buildings was to feel badly for a people [living] in such utter poverty.  However, once I entered these buildings, I discovered a hidden world.  The insides of these dwellings were well furnished and handsomely decorated.  The owners had televisions, stereos, and many other possessions that indicated that the outside of the home was only a front.
"As curiosity often gets the better of me, I asked our guide why these individuals did not bring these renovations to the outside of their homes.  Our guide smiled and answered simply.  'This is not what is done here.'  The confusion on my face prompted him to continue.  He explained that if one man fixes the outside of his home, when his neighbor cannot afford it, it brings down his neighbor.  This was not the socialist Cuban ethic.  The objective was to bring everyone’s quality of life up and not to compete for individual success.  This example captures the Cuban socialist ethic:  We are all in this together and we shall all rise together.”  
Study tour participants soon discovered another aspect of Cuba’s socialist experiment:  the country’s vibrant music, drama, dance, and arts traditions, many rooted in Yoruba and other West African cultures brought by Cuba’s African ancestors.

Steve, another BSC student and a geography major, notes the many images he sees, on his third day in Cuba:  a statue of John Lennon in a park, memorialized for his song, “Imagine” and a formidable black outline of Che Guevara on a high rise hotel.  Steve said, “Walking around you cannot help but see the abundance of art everywhere.  Cuban art is evident on the walls and in the hallways of buildings.  Their art seems to reflect a lot of pain and also victory.”  

Later, of the AfroCuban neighborhood along Callejon de Hamel (Hamel Alley), Steve said,
“The street was glowing with AfroCuban culture and personality.  The streets were littered with people and art.  The walls of the buildings were covered with murals . . . . There was an artist studio [belonging to the internationally known artist Salvador Gonzalez, who incidentally was there*] . . . and the street was full of locals and street musicians, mainly drummers.”  
Students visited Lajas, outside Cienfuegos, a center of AfroCuban Santeria religious traditions.  Steve describes a moving Santeria ritual performed at the Lajas Community Center, “This was the most visual church experience I have ever had.  A [large Cuban] flag was used to draw out evil spirits in the church.  Drummers were playing and all doors and windows were open.  The flag was violently waved in the air and pushed toward each door and window.”  

Peter, a philosophy major, and Jennifer, a graduate student in education, were delighted to have the opportunity to attend a Cuban baseball game.  Jennifer describes her encounter with Cuban baseball:
“We wanted to go to a baseball game since we arrived in Cuba, but no one was able to tell us when the next game was.  [In Cienfuegos] we saw the stadium lights and . . . . we went to the game. . . . We got great seats, right between home and first base.  The game was between Cienfuegos and Guantanamo.  
“As far as we could tell, Pete and I were the only tourists.  It was a peculiar feeling being the only foreigners in a stadium full of local Cubans . . . . At first the people seemed unsure of us, sneaking glances but not wanting to talk to us . . . . As the game got going and they saw our enthusiasm they became very friendly. . . . They wanted to know if we were Italian and nodded their heads when I told them we were from the U.S.
“They especially liked to explain who was playing and what the score was. . . . It was neat to have a whole group of us working together to try to communicate with each other.  The interaction was so wonderful and unique. . . . . Although they were cautious around us at the beginning, the longer the game went, the more comfortable they became.  
“They really do enjoy their baseball games.  There were a lot of people there for a Tuesday night.  And they really got excited!  There’s a constant buzz of voices until the pitcher throws the ball and then there’s silence until the batter hits it or its caught; and then the stadium erupts.  And once the eruption settles, there’s an afterbuzz of exclamations and discussion of the play.  I’ve never seen so many grown men jumping up and down.  It was so much fun!
In their commentary, both Jennifer and Peter display their growing adeptness at the cross-cultural perspective, a basic technique of this anthropology study tour:
Peter said, “Baseball is, in fact, an American tradition.  But I now see that a broader definition is meant, or should be meant, when people say “American.”  I have heard much talk throughout my life as a baseball fan, when the game had a certain purity. . . . Then, baseball players were regular guys who would take the subway home after a game.  There were no 20 million dollar salaries and no whiny players associations threatening strike. . . . I have grown up in a generation of angry fans . . .Yet, I still hear stories from aging fans that there was a time when players would gladly sign a kid’s glove and chat with his father before a game. . . . Until my trip to Cuba those were only stories to me. . . .

Peter then notes several differences between the two baseball traditions, from the use of aluminum bats which, he says,

“explains the inordinate amount of home runs I witnessed at the game I attended in Cienfuegos.”  
"Another difference is the custom of throwing the ball 'around the horn' after each strikeout—seven or eight times among Cuban ball players.”  Peter was further intrigued by how, “In Cuba the players are constantly engaging the fans.  I was surprised to see the coach of the opposing team taunting the local fans whenever his team made a good play.  This playful attitude would be greatly discouraged in the States.  Across the field, I noticed some of the players getting a chant going as the game came to a crucial point.  This sort of thing made the experience a better one than I have had in the U.S.”
Greta, a psychology major at BSC, took a walk in Old Havana on a Saturday afternoon just before the end of the study tour.  Whereas early in the Tour, she was concerned about kakhi-uniformed police at the airport, her ease with Cuba is evident: “I wandered into the quiet neighborhoods behind the tourist areas.  People were going about their Saturday business.  Women sat on steps talking; a soccer game in the street; families returning from shopping; a man washing his car.”  

Michelle notes how friendly and open Cubans are to share their musical traditions with strangers:
“One day while we were waiting for our tour bus, two men with guitars and other  instruments approached us.  They offered us the instruments and encouraged our group to play with them.  Street playing, as I learned later, is a popular activity in Cuba, and the fact that we, as Americans, were invited to join was a great compliment.  We danced, sang, and played with these two total strangers on a busy street in Old Havana.  After that event, we were invited many more times to join the Cuban people and to dance.  We danced in nightclubs, in their performances, on their stages, on their boats, in restaurants, and at every opportunity.  The Cuban people taught us how to salsa and would pull is out onto the dance floor to dance with them.  Cuban music and dance became embedded in our hearts and souls.  Yet, I truly believe that the Cubans with whom we interacted were even more pleased to have the opportunity to share and teach about their cherished and unique way of life.  In a way, by dancing and performing with them it rebuilt a bridge that had long since been burned down."
Greta ends her journey with short terse sentences:  “Walked on the Prado, a beautiful promenade one street from the Plaza Hotel.  Breakfast.  Said my formal good byes to Cuba.  Harder to leave this place than others I have been to.  The country gets under your skin.”  

Michelle, whose voice resonates with youthful wisdom, on going home, “I am sad.  I love Cuba.  The people, the culture, the music, the art, the architecture—I love it.  I love that it takes three hours to do anything, especially to eat.  And I love that there is music everywhere.  I know I will be back.”  

We are very pleased to share our Study Tour experiences with you.  We hope you have enjoyed our photographs as well.   The college plans to continue our Cuba Study Tour Program next year, and we hope to establish other formal ties with Cuba.  One is to explore with Town of Bridgewater officials a Sister City relationship between the Town of Bridgewater and a similar Cuban community; and a second proposal is to assist in the renovation of the many historic and architecturally significant buildings throughout Cuba, by “adopting” buildings for renovation.  This proposal is currently being introduced locally to Cienfuegos Provincial authorities.   We sincerely hope that you will journey to Cuba, and that the barriers to travel and exchange will soon be lifted, as Joe Moakley worked so hard to achieve.  

* Note: Thanks to William Rasdell for providing the correct name for this artist, Salvador Gonzalez. Mr. Radsell is organizing a Callejon de Hamel exhibit for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to take place in 2007. Although people from throughout the world visit the alley, this exhibit will be a rare opportunity for U.S. citizens to view some of the work.

Return to Dr. Hayes-Bohanan's Cuba page
Return to Dr. Hayes-Bohanan's home page
Return to Dr. Faiman-Silva's home page