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Being Caribbean in Cuba: Part 1

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As an Asian American woman, I spend a lot of time thinking about race, racial perception, and ethnicity, and how each of those words means something different in the United States and in Cuba. Here, racial and ethnic identities have a much stronger impact on day-to-day interactions between both strangers and close friends here than they do at home. Nicknames based on skin color and facial features are inevitable, even when the nicknames—often “negrito” or “chino”—do not correspond to that individual’s actual identities. I wanted to understand more about how this dynamic has impacted the Latina students studying with IFSA-Butler this semester, and how they feel their experience differs from the overwhelmingly majority white American demographic of our program. I reached out to two students to learn more about their first month and a half in Cuba.

An Evolving Ethnic Identity

I spoke with Shantal Taveras (pictured above) first. She is a Dominican-American from the Bronx who attends Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She began by telling me that the way she identifies herself in Cuba is different than in the States. At home, she tells people she’s Dominican, because it is obvious that she is also an American. Here, however, she begins by identifying herself as American, and Cubans often recognize her Dominican accent.
The color of her skin, too, has impacted her interactions: “I was initially told I’m not tan enough to pass as Cuban,” she said. “But as I get tanner, I am perceived differently.”
She continued to say that this differential treatment based on the color of her skin has been frustrating as her self-perception related to this part of her appearance has changed. However, there are many parts of her experience here that she recognizes from her previous experiences in the Caribbean. She has found Cubans and Dominicans very similar: both are very Americanized and the influence of Western culture is evident. When she travelled with her host parents to a more rural community outside of Havana, she said it reminded her a lot of her family in the Dominican Republic. “Everyone in the town is family, or they might as well be,” she tells me. Later in our conversation, she returns to these points to explain what it means to study in Cuba as someone from the Caribbean: while the political structure makes it different from other countries in the region, she feels that a basic sense of “familiarity” remains the same: the food, the culture, the people are all as amazing as she expected them to be. Shantal tells me that when she was talking to her brother about where to study abroad, he told her, “You should go to Cuba, not Spain—you are passionate about your roots, so you should go to the Caribbean, not Europe,” helping her to decide which study abroad path to take.

Observations of Latino Culture

While Cuba feels familiar, traveling with IFSA-Butler has allowed her to gain a wider perspective of Latino culture. In the States, she says, most of her friends are people of color, and as she spends more time talking to non-Latino Americans, most of whom are white, she has learned how others perceive and think about Latino culture. This, in turn, has revealed her own “American bias.” In her interactions with the other IFSA-Butler students, she has noticed the American tendency to call differences between the countries “backwards” in both herself and others.

Academic Culture: Home and Abroad

Her “Americaness” has also impacted the way she approaches her classes—another unique perspective she has gained by studying in, rather than traveling to, Cuba. Because of the way the Cuban university system is structured, jumping into a third-year classroom can be difficult even for a third-year student from the States. The Cuban students have been taking the same, specific set of classes for the past two and a half years focused exclusively on their course of study. This gives them a unique set of vocabulary and knowledge that Shantal feels she is missing, making participation difficult. This is a realm of Cuba in which her American identity, rather than her Caribbean Latina one, is at the forefront, helping her to challenge herself and grow as an individual. Shantal ends our conversation by trying to decide whether her “Spanish-language self” or “English-language self” has changed more in the past weeks. While Spanish is the language, of course, that she uses to negotiate her daily life, she tells me that it is as an American that she has been challenged and, therefore, grown the most. This perspective—not whether or not she had changed, but, rather, which part of her had done the growing—was one I hadn’t experienced or considered before. As we talked, I could sense my own perspectives about Cuba and my place in it changing shape. I was looking forward to speaking with Gaby, whose interview will be discussed in part two of this series. Kellie Chin is an International Relations-Global Health major at Tufts University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at La Universidad de La Habana in Cuba in Spring 2017. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.