For the past five years, one of the cornerstones of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) Program on Cuban Studies has been the undergraduate course History and Culture of Cuba that includes a class trip to Cuba during spring break. This year Professor Reinaldo Funes Monzote, CLAIS Visiting Professor and Professor of History at the University of Havana, taught the course with Teaching Fellow Alison Kibbe, a doctoral student in American Studies and African American Studies.
Like most things this year, the 2020 History and Culture of Cuba class trip turned out unexpectedly. This was the fourth spring break trip associated with the course, which is at the center of the Program on Cuban Studies. This year marked a year of transition. It was Professor Reinaldo Funes Monzote’s last year teaching on Yale’s campus, as he will return to Havana in June. This does not mark an ending, but rather a beginning. CLAIS Chair Claudia Valeggia joined the trip to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jimenez, an agreement that has been years in the making and will make it possible to continue to expand Yale’s Program on Cuban Studies.
The theme of transitions, endings, and new opportunities marked the trip for the students as well. We landed in Havana on Sunday, March 8th with plans to stay until March 20. As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, it became clear that we would need to change our plans. On Wednesday, March 11, after three full days of lectures and cultural visits in Havana, CLAIS administration and faculty made the difficult decision fly home on Thursday, March 12.
The Cuba trip has been led over the past four years by Professor Reinaldo Funes and Professor Albert Laguna. Although Professor Laguna was not able to join for this March trip, the spring break program he helped to design remained much the same. The trip began in Havana with lectures by Cuban historians, economists, environmentalists, and sociologists, as well as cultural visits to places such as the Museum of the Revolution, the Museo de Bellas Artes, Old Havana, the colonial Morro Fort. The goal is to give students a chance to experience as much of the history, culture, art, architecture, and environment as possible, to expand and build on what we explore in the seminar.
This year, some of the highlights included the opportunity to talk with Afro-Cuban activists and scholars, such as Norma Guillard and Victor Fowler, attend the concert of a popular hip-hop group La Reyna y La Real, and visit Beyond Roots, a new Afro-Cuban store and community project in Old Havana. Students also had a chance to explore the city during their free time, walking the streets of the Vedado neighborhood, building relationships with their host families, and exploring music and cultural offerings.
After this urban experience, the planned itinerary took students outside of Havana to experience the differences between Havana and the rest of the island, a distinction that we explore throughout the 500 years of history and culture that we discuss in class. These experiences include visiting Finca Marta, a sustainable farm, environmental projects, and tobacco farms in Viñales, the 500-year-old colonial city of Trinidad, and walk through the ruins of 18th-century sugar plantations. We want to allow students to see, smell, hear, and taste the differences across these varied cultural and ecological scapes of the island. We were very sorry that we did not get to have these experiences with our 2020 group of students.
Experiential learning is at the heart of the Cuba trip. It is a chance for students to step outside of the classroom, to practice observation, and to hold various complexities that resist dichotomies and easy answers. As a graduate assistant on the trip last year and as the Teaching Fellow this year, I always encourage students to “Experience now, analyze later.” As our wonderful tour guide, Norkis Iglesias always tells students upon their arrival, “Enjoy my country, but don’t try to understand it.” The point being, when we jump to categorize and analyze, we might miss the most important details.
Cuba is a place that teaches us to listen and observe with openness. Our students dove in headfirst to the experience, asking astute questions and grappling with the complexities of both Cuba and their own biases and perspectives. Our readings, lectures, and discussion in class in combination with our time in Cuba pushed them to re-think and see their home countries and societies in a different light. This year, we had several students who were of Cuban heritage. Their experiences ranged from never having visited the island, to having traveled with their families to Cuba, and one student who was born and lived in Cuba until age 15.
All of our students, no matter their previous engagement with the island, continually stated that the course and the trip allowed them to experience Cuba in new and unexpected ways, which required that they question their assumptions. As rising senior Jason Contino stated, “Everything that I thought would be the same was different, and everything that I thought would be different was more similar than I had imagined.” Cuba is full of surprises, for all of us.
The one surprise that we of course did not expect or want to experience was the COVID-19 pandemic. We all lamented our trip had to be cut short, even though we knew it was the best decision for everyone’s safety. As is always true of the trip, even in its full two-week format, it is meant to be an introduction, not a comprehensive experience. We hope the experience on the island sparks more questions and curiosities, and for those who hope to engage Cuba in their future studies and careers, we hope they plant seeds and begin relationships that they can expand upon in the future.
Our 2020 group of 18 eager, curious, and dedicated undergraduates had to leave just when they started to get fully immersed in their experience. Their Spanish was improving, their confidence in engaging with their host families and guest lecturers increasing, and their curiosity was piqued with every new complexity. While there were many parts of the planned itinerary we could not experience, the group took full advantage of every moment they did have. As Eric Foster, Class of 2020, stated, “I actually think that we enjoyed some of the benefits of a two-week trip even in just four days because of the efforts we put into our relationships with Cuba, the hosts in our casas particulares, and each other. We treated each of those relationships like they were going to be the focus of our lives for the next few weeks.” This open-mindedness, respect, and commitment to building relationships are how I hope all students approach immersive learning experiences. It was a joy to spend the semester with this group and I look forward to continuing to learn from them as they continue with their journeys.
With the agreement between Yale and the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez, I hope that we can expand on the opportunities for students to engage Cuba in their research and studies. We will miss having Professor Funes on-campus teaching in New Haven, but we look forward to the opportunities that will be possible with him back at the University of Havana and the Fundación Antonio Jiménez, such as opportunities for Yale students to travel to the island for study abroad and research.
To our students who had to fly back with us and finish the seminar via Zoom; I was inspired by the ways you took advantage of every moment you had in Cuba and used it to fuel your research questions and projects. Your flexibility and grace at adapting to new and unforeseen circumstances served as an example to us all.
After the trip, our students completed research projects which they presented via Zoom at the end of the semester. Topics ranged from the history of the internet in Cuba, Cuban classical music, the history of the mob in Cuba, Cuban international relations, and historic and contemporary questions about race and identity. We hope that CLAIS and Yale can continue to support their curiosity and their desire to build connections and bridges.
While our trip had to be cut short, it was not an ending, but just a beginning. I hope that the door has been opened and as CLAIS continues to expand the Program on Cuban studies, students will have even more opportunities for on the ground immersive learning experiences.
As we continue to move through these difficult and unprecedented times, I send best wishes to all our collaborators in Cuba and all of our students who are across the world.