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Being Caribbean in Cuba

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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 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.

Conversations with Shantal Taveras

An Evolving Ethnic Identity

I spoke with Shantal Taveras 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 traveled 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 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 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.

A Conversation with Gaby Lomba Guzman

Exploring Identity Abroad

I met Gaby Lomba Guzman for lunch after class one day to challenge her to explore her identity abroad. We are studying abroad together this semester at the Universidad de La Habana in Cuba. She is Puerto Rican, born and raised, and attends Haverford College. As a Caribbean person studying in Cuba, like Shantal, she has found many cultural similarities between Cuba and home: she recognized the accent and expressions, the way people interact, the dancing, and the music. However, she noted the important difference between the capitalism of her own country and how socialism has made Cuban culture unique. The importance of free institutions, like education and health care, and the ideas of working for your country and making sacrifices for the collective are not prevalent in Puerto Rico.

She has found here a strong sense of Cuban national identity, while at home, she feels that her country is upset with the political situation and people long to be “more American.”

Gaby has found herself in Cuba primarily because of her major. At Haverford, she studies Comparative Literature with a focus in the Caribbean, and she is planning a thesis about Black Caribbean poetry. She feels strongly that in order to best understand the literature she is studying, she has to understand and experience the culture out of which it emerged. She is looking forward to having access to more works by Cuban authors, as many texts about Cuba available in the States are written by non-natives. Furthermore, she felt that Cuba would be “different enough” from Puerto Rico for her to have a unique and new abroad experience.

Navigating Unexpected Barriers as a Non-Cuban Caribbean Individual

Sure enough, there have been unexpected barriers she has had to overcome as a non-Cuban Caribbean individual. On the one hand, she is greeted warmly by Cubans—“¡Las dos alas de un pájaro!” they all exclaim when they realize where she’s from. A quote by Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, which calls Puetro Rico and Cuba “two wings of the same bird.” She is also often questioned about her political stance in Puerto Rico—whether she is pro-statehood or pro-independence. Her identification with the latter warms Cubans to her even more as they feel a sense of solidarity. She wonders if she were pro-statehood if their reactions would be the same. This acceptance—“Like how you treat a cousin,” she tells me— has had its frustrations as well. In many situations, she feels that certain “Latina” or “Puerto Rican” actions are expected of her, and when she does not meet these ideals, she’s told that she’s “acting like an American.” 

Even more, there is an assumption that she will “get” the culture, making it hard to criticize jokes or cultural norms that she feels are wrong. “That’s how Latinos talk,” someone told her once, making her feel like she was, as a Latina, the one making a mistake. These frustrations are not ones I had considered. As an Asian American, definitively an outsider in this country, there is often an expectation that I understand even less than I actually do.

Fitting in with Cubans

However, there are other norms that make her life much simpler than in the States. As someone who identifies as both ethnically Latina and racially White, she finds that she often has trouble explaining this dichotomy to Americans. However, in Cuba, she feels less of a need to “explain herself”— many Cubans fit a similar ethnic and racial profile, so she is immediately understood and her Latina identity is never questioned.

When, towards the end of the conversation, I asked her if all these ups and downs of being Caribbean in Cuba would, in the end, recommend the program to other students with similar identities, she said it would depend more on the specific person. “Being a woman is much harder in Cuba than in Puerto Rico,” she tells me. Catcalling culture here has been frustrating to many of the women studying with us this semester, and it isn’t mitigated by ethnic similarity. However, in the end, she decides that if you’re willing to have a more difficult and challenging experience, it’s worth it— and the community of support offered by IFSA has been helpful to her in many ways. Talking with Shantal and Gaby has, as I hoped, opened my eyes to the ways other students with racial and ethnic identities different from both from the majority and from my own have experienced this semester abroad so far. The interactions they’ve had with Cubans and the ways they’ve processed them and shared them with me gave a glimpse into situations someone who looks like me will never experience here. I am grateful for the opportunity writing this blog post has given me to sit down and talk about this with each of the women I had the privilege of interviewing, because it has given me a new perspective to take with me as we all continue to make Havana our home away from home.

Kellie Chin is an International Relations-Global Health major at Tufts University and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad de La Habana in Cuba in spring 2017. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.