By Glen MacDonald ’18
During my freshman year, President Obama announced plans to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba. The news was surprising, but didn’t concern me too much. For most of my life, Cuba had been obscured by complicated, passionate politics. The advocates and critics of Cuba had drowned each other out over the course of my education, leaving me with no strong opinion of the island nation whatsoever.
Three years later, however, I embarked with nine other students on a journey to Cuba, aiming to deepen our understanding of the country. As I found out from my professor-guides, Cuba is often called “the land of contradictions.”
Professors Margarita Sánchez (Spanish) and Philip Cartelli (film) led the study abroad trip, along with a spring semester course, entitled “Desire, Nostalgia and Agony in Cuban Literature and Film,” part of Wagner’s Expanding Your Horizons program. For two weeks, we would immerse ourselves in Cuban culture via documentaries, short stories, poetry, and extended meetings with authors and filmmakers. We would stay at two vastly different locations; for the first week, we would study at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in the rural Artemisa province. There we would participate in a brief course on the history of Cuban documentaries. The following week, we would travel 90 minutes to Havana and experience cultural opportunities in the city.
As our plane flew from JFK toward Havana’s José Martí International Airport, I skimmed a generic travel guide. It was full of trite information, such as the best bars and nightclubs and where to eat around Malecón, Havana’s famous waterfront promenade. The author cautioned that Cubans could be shifty toward tourists, especially American ones. He praised the daiquiris at Hemingway’s old haunt, El Floridita.
“The El Floridita isn’t worth it,” Dr. Sánchez had told us before we boarded the plane. “It’s out of our way, and the drinks are overpriced. It’s like a tourist trap.”
Unlike the writer of the travel book, Dr. Sánchez did not aim to define Cuba in lofty adjectives and explicit warnings. When pitching the trip to potential students, she simply said, “You’re going to love it!” She was the only one in our group who had already been to Cuba, so her previous knowledge of the country, plus her fluent Spanish, made her an expert guide.
Before we landed, trading New York’s blizzards for Havana’s frequent (but brief) bursts of rain, I decided to empty my mind of all preconceived notions about Cuba and its history. I planned to return to the States with some kernel of truth about the country, even though I knew that task would be near impossible to complete within two weeks.
Horses tied to a post along the roadside calmly grazed while we zipped past sun-kissed farmland. The roads were mostly clear, save for a horse-drawn carriage. Farther down the road, a lone cowboy led a herd of cattle. From his hip hung a machete, glinting in the afternoon sun. A 1956 Chevrolet zoomed past them, leaving a trail of thick exhaust smoke.
Someone in our group blasted Rihanna’s “Work” from their speaker. The familiar pop song played as our taxi drove through unfamiliar pastures and palm trees. The song tethered us to the moment, reminding us that the States were only 106 miles away. So close, yet so far.
We arrived at the school beyond exhaustion, too tired to sleep. We explored the grounds instead, daring to follow a path into the fields or behind fences surrounding a drained swimming pool, all illuminated by a fiery sunset.
The locals smiled at us, and I tried to communicate even though my Spanish was lacking. We feasted on rice and beans before finally heading to bed.
Before I fell asleep, my suitemate Jeff wanted to show me something. On the back of his bedroom door was scrawled a message in English: “DON’T TRUST THE STORYTELLER. TRUST THE STORY.”
I developed new habits in Cuba. In restaurants I ordered coffee and water, a Cuban custom. I hankered for the fresh tomatoes grown at the school’s farm. Also, and most bizarrely to anyone who knows me, I began to wake up early on a daily basis.
A nightly chill would still linger as rays of sunlight peeked out from behind the distant mountains in view of our dormitories. Breakfast was served early. Workers from nearby villages would bike over the to campus to chat with film professors and other staff members over coffee and bread with butter and sugar.
The first morning I ate alone, reading a book of Cuban short fiction. After a small breakfast, I was joined by Alejandro, a retired producer who now worked at EICTV. During our stay, Alejandro acted as a liaison between our group and the school, making sure we had everything we needed, from toilet paper to bushels of lettuce for the vegetarians. His English was sparse and his face weathered from the cigarette smoke typically billowing between his fingers.
After an exchange of polite nods, he asked me if I spoke Spanish. I replied with an unfortunate, “No.”
We sat together in an awkward silence. Alejandro calmly buttered his toast as my eyes went back to my book. I flipped to the table of contents. Gesturing to the list, I asked Alejandro if he could recommend any writers to me. He selected two: “The Horizon” by Abilio Estévez and “Puerta de Alcala” by Leonardo Padura, a writer we planned to meet later on in the trip. I thanked him — “Gracias!” — and smiled, unsure of how to further the conversation.
Alejandro returned the smile and grabbed my plate along with his own.
“Oh no, you don’t have to …,” I began, before realizing that responding in English was pointless. Alejandro made a beeline to the breakfast counter and returned with a second helping of toast, placing it before me. I was grateful and surprised by Alejandro’s hospitality, as I certainly didn’t prove myself to be the most interesting or tactful breakfast companion.
I found myself having a standing breakfast appointment with Alejandro each morning before class. Sometimes, Alejandro would also join us for dinner. Our conversations were always brief, but each day I had more words to say to him — frío, leche, lo siento.
At every meal, Alejandro would wordlessly get up and return with seconds. One night, he brought over several dishes of goiabada, a sinfully sweet guava puree so rich most of us couldn’t finish a single helping. At this point, I felt confident enough in my limited amount of Spanish to tell Alejandro, “Gracias pero no mas, mi amigo!”
He smiled before responding in English, “No more!”
Through Dr. Sánchez’s translations, I uncovered some details about his life. He had not had milk since he turned seven years old, the age when the government stops supplying Cuban families with rations of dairy products. His family is poor, and he admits he was unable to provide his granddaughters with gifts for the recent Feast of the Epiphany. Years earlier, he had been sent off to a work camp for political reasons after being outed by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Cuba’s notorious neighborhood watch.
Now in his 70s, Alejandro has seen many changes throughout his lifetime. His face at rest seems distant and weary. However, mere seconds into conversation with him, his eyes light up behind a veil of cigarette smoke and a faint smile returns. He quietly nods, letting you know he’s partially able to decipher your pitiful Spanish.
Despite our differences, Alejandro chose to sit with me that first morning and stick with me through the awkward beginnings of a tourist in a foreign land. In some respects, Alejandro represented most of my experiences with the Cuban people — accommodating and ready to forge a relationship with Americans.
We met the writer Leonardo Padura in the city of Havana, blocks away from the touristy areas. The streets were cracked, and a gray, overcast sky masked the sun. The buildings were painted with cheery, tropical colors, faded from years of exposure to the relentless spray of the nearby sea.
Padura joined us at a restaurant, New Georges. The place was a repurposed apartment building, with narrow staircases and a large balcony that surveyed the street. The restaurant would become a favorite in our group. It would always take us a couple of hours to properly savor a meal at New Georges.
Padura’s face was round and grandfatherly. He shared his lengthy history as a writer in Cuba in near-perfect English. When he spoke, his eyes would always focus on one fixed spot on the table.
I asked him about his writing process, and he gave a puzzling response.
“You have to start with the essence of a novel. The novel is a lie that I’m telling you is true but you know it is a lie,” he said. “We live in a reality of lots of contradictions. I study these realities to find stories that become novels.”
Most of Padura’s work features corruption and criminality, a world kept hidden through Cuba’s strict censorship. Through his fiction, Padura is able to critique subjects deemed taboo in Cuba’s press. While his work could be categorized as detective fiction, Padura does not consider his mystery thrillers to be conventional pulp fiction. Rather, his novels explore the darker side of Cuba — the illnesses of Cuban society.
Another of Padura’s interests (or, as he calls them, “obsessions”) is an individual’s place in history. Witnessing the sharp political turns throughout Cuba’s history, Padura is fascinated by the idea of how a single day can change entire lives.
Yet, Padura does not let the past limit him.
“The historian has to be completely loyal to what happens,” he said. “A writer has to tell the truth.”
During my last days in Havana, I found myself walking aimlessly through the streets with Jeff. Odors of cigarette smoke, the ocean, and rum wafted toward us in the breeze as we walked alongside the Malecón, listening to the waves bombard the coast. The overcast sky returned. Cuba was sending us off with a gloomy goodbye. Still, the locals didn’t seem to mind.
A pair of Cubans approached us. The first man wore a stylish seersucker suit and thick-rimmed glasses. Black dreads hung from his head, contrasting with his white suit. His friend followed him, comfortably dressed in jeans and T-shirt.
“Can I ask you something?” said the stylish man. “What do you think of Cuba?”
The question took me back a bit. I wasn’t sure if I had an answer. My entire quest to uncover truth about Cuba seemed to be in vain.
“It’s unlike anything everyone told me about,” I said, which was at least true.
Jeff remarked about the man’s fashion sense. “You could fit in New York, y’know?”
He chuckled and thanked us, and we parted ways. A few yards away, another man called out to Jeff and me. This man was elderly, bearded, and didn’t move from his relaxed position on a park bench. He must have heard me complaining to Jeff about a leather cowboy hat I was pressured into buying. (Don’t ask.)
“Relax, man!” he called out, smiling. “Cuba is love, man. Cuba is love.”
We smiled and kept walking. The horizon threatened the shore with ominous storm clouds, but the old man did not look worried.
We returned to New York on my 22nd birthday, and my final college semester began the following day. The stresses of internships, essays, and graduation made Cuba seem like a fading dream. The tropical sun felt farther away than ever amid the ice and snow.
Family and friends have asked me about Cuba; I still struggle to find a response that captures the complexities of the nation. In our class reflecting on the trip, Dr. Sanchez frequently used the word “ambivalence” to describe Cuba. This constant state of contradictory ideas leads many Cubans, at home and abroad, to declare their own truths about Cuba: It is paradise; it is punishment. Castro is a saint; Castro is a devil.
Months later, I still think about Padura and his duty to tell the truth. Padura believes that, while historians must focus on facts and figures, a writer must tap into an individual’s feelings at a particular time. To Padura, these feelings express something greater than history: a human experience.
After my two short weeks in Cuba, I am unable to tell you about the “true” Cuba. I can tell you about some of the key players in the story of the island, characters like Alejandro, Padura, the stylish man at the Malecón, and many others I have neglected to mention. These individuals come from different backgrounds yet still reflect the same Cuban spirit of openness and hospitality, despite their country’s frayed diplomatic relations with the United States. When discussing the exploits of large nations, we often forget about the individuals and their experiences. The Cuban people are more than a political talking point but rather a nation of artists, revolutionaries, healers, dreamers, and much more. To view them as only communists or Fidel’s people is limiting.
While tensions remain with Cuba under the Trump Administration, Americans should not abandon attempts to understand Cuba and its people. Currently, a new chapter of Cuban history is being written. Miguel Díaz-Canel was named the president of Cuba during the waning days of my senior year. For the first time since 1959, a Castro is not in power. This event offers new opportunity for Cubans to redefine themselves and for Americans to redefine their views of Cubans. An entire people’s culture has been barricaded from us by Cold War Era fears. After traveling there, I realize just how much the American perception of Cuba has been warped.
Yet, my opinion is just that — an opinion. Do not trust me but trust my story, my story about the Cubans who welcomed an American onto their shores.
In this film, Renata Pastuszak ’20 and Glen MacDonald ’18 reflect on a poem by José Martí (1853–1895), a Cuban national hero who was also a journalist, political philosopher, and independence fighter. The poem, translated “From Form to Form, Star to Star,” is from the book Versos libres, translated by Keith Ellis.