Cuba has interested me since fourth grade. I’m a Floridian. My first boyfriend was half-Cuban. He never wanted to talk about Cuba or the individualized and collective circumstances that led to his mother fleeing to Florida. And with the American economic embargo spanning several decades, Cuba has often seemed closest to and farthest from the United States.
Back to fourth grade. My teacher was terrified of anything Cuba. During a geography discussion, a classmate asked a question about the island. She stumbled through some response. She also apologized to the air, raised her hands and said she hoped the classroom wasn’t bugged. It was weird and above my nine year old brain.
As a law student, now closer to the finish line than to the beginning, Cuba is of interest for other reasons. The country’s constitution is beautifully written. The outright acknowledgment of being a diversified people—and celebrating that fact in its law—resonated with my “cotton black” self and global aspirations.
There’s also the fact that Cuba has routinely honored political asylum by keeping freedom fighters free, and allowing them to live in Cuba. The nation has disregarded pressures from westerners who would better serve their constituents with education funding and summer job programs than expired calls for extradition. (We love you, Assata. We also love you, Cubanos who transport her throughout the island and protect her.)
Anyway, insert Mississippi College School of Law. Their law school has had a spring break Cuba study abroad program for two years. For street cred’s sake, I Googled spring study abroad programs and applied well before President Obama announced, last December, the American and Cuban goal of normalizing relations between the nations.
This spring break, I was blessed to visit Cuba with MC Law and study comparative constitutional law with students from The Sip (Mississippi), Washington state, New York and Arizona. Our professor, a J.D./Ph.D, kept substantive and philosophical queries on deck. My classmates represented different walks of life. The academic portion was squared away.
The cultural component that remained was satisfied and exceeded expectations. Cubanos could not have made me feel more welcome. We had substantive and random conversations. Shoutout to the men whose response to my Floridian origin was a conversation about rappers Flo Rida, Wiz Khalifa and Tyga.
Cuban artists sold handcrafted pieces, spoke passionately and told jokes. One vendor, a soft-spoken woman with blond hair, lured me into her booth with decidedly African art. She reminded me that March 8 was International Women’s Day. We took a picture together.
The natives patiently listened when I fumbled through Spanglish 2.5, apologized and grasped for cognates. They seemed to appreciate sincere effort and cultural humility. When I wasn’t talking, or too close to loud westerners, they thought I was a native. Nope. Just cappuccino skinned with an affinity for colorful clothes and people.
Of course, our trip was not free of the Obnoxious Gringo American stereotype, as such arose in the form of a loud man who said things like “Book. You know, boo-kuh?” True story, cross my heart.
Some natives seemed as excited to try their English on me as I was to try my Spanish on them. Others saw my struggle and threw lifelines. One vendor, whose cadence sounded more Houston than Havana, laughingly said, “I speak English,” and negotiated a fair price with me for a knitted shirt.
Our study abroad group ate frijoles soaked in goddess tears, rice simmered in utopia and drank mojitos that never seemed to run out. We heard people say they love America. Some shouted “liberty” when we were around.
One night, we walked for an hour through areas our bus carefully avoided and saw inside tiny, tidy homes with colorful decorations, rousing discussions, barbershops and family and friends.
Cuba reminded me of the diversity of people of color. Some looked undeniably white. Others looked black. Others’ traits skimmed from many people, like the copper skinned boy with brown eyes and bright red, straight hair who skateboarded past us.
I did notice an unspoken colorism. Whiter looking, mixed or brown skinned people with long hair or light eyes often greeted tourists, handled money and held prominent positions. The people with the dark cocoa skin, dark eyes, broad features and coarse hair often worked service jobs. Many live in other parts of the island.
In critical race circles, the light-is-right ideology in Latin America is called pigmentocracy. It’s an iteration of colonialism seen across the globe.
The trip, however, was still amazing. We visited the home of Jose Fuster, an artist widely regarded as the Caribbean Picasso. His relative and I shared a moment, and fist bump, because we both have tailbone length dreadlocks that represent our eight years with matted hair.
Our group visited a beach. We saw musicians. We met an American diplomat. We met a Cuban international lawyer. Both were women, just saying. We learned that wifi was expensive and not always dependable, so we ate meals where everyone made eye contact and listened instead of scanning phones for updates.
Our tour guide bridged the gap between the natives and us. We saw lots of pretty things, and areas with infrastructures reflecting a need for progress into contemporary times. We saw the old school vehicles that baffle international scholars, as Cuba has patents and secrets that keep classic things as good as new.
Hopefully, as relations improve the US will respect what Cuba brings to the table and their willingness to be autonomous and unbothered. The nation that expects everybody else to bow down, whether American exceptionalism ideas are warranted or not (hello, #blacklivesmatter), should learn to kiss their ring.
Ultimately, I am not a Cuba expert. Or a legal expert. Yet. But, I opened myself up to Cuban and Cuban American people who shared more with me than I could ever record.
I chopped it up with a Canadian Millennial who shared that many Canadians and Europeans say Cuba will remain wonderful as long as lazy Americans who don’t eat real food or appreciate real culture can’t get universal access. As it stands now, Americans can only visit Cuba if they satisfy at least one of the enumerated reasons to visit. (Reasons include having family members there, cultural exchanges or academic purposes.)
This Cuba trip felt like an appetizer, one that reminded me of my family’s time spent in Mexico and Costa Rica. But, it was also distinct.
Thankfully, global good faith is afoot. As seen through President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban president Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, global politics are becoming more inclusive. We need others. And others need us. America can also remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list amirite?, but that is for another day.
For what it’s worth, a study abroad classmate told paladar employees, “Here’s to the end of the embargo!” The Cuban restaurant, he said, erupted into cheers.