Putting the “Casa” in Casa Particular

I opened the heavy wooden door of Mama Emma and Papa Vega’s house in Havana’s tree-lined Vedado district with two suitcases in my hands and no idea what to expect. Mama Emma smiled when she saw my oversized suitcases stuffed to the brim and said “No tefalta nada” (You’re not missing anything)! After being greeted with a hug and kiss by my new host parents and an afternoon snack of guava, cheese, and bread, I knew everything was going to be just alright.

Emily with Mama Emma and Papa Vega

Emily with Mama Emma and Papa Vega.

It turned out to be far better than “just alright.” The two other girls who lived in the house and I quickly became a part of their family. Even to this day, Mama Emma’s sister will write to me on Facebook Messenger asking how her niece (aka me!) is doing. We were invited to family events like Mama Emma’s daughter’s birthday party, who affectionately called herself our older sister, and were treated to lunches at Papa Vega’s cafe. One day, we got to ride in Papa Vega’s vintage Chevy and go to the countryside to visit their family in Mayabeque. It was an amazing, immersive experience to see el campo from an insider perspective, and we ate some of the freshest and most delicious food I’ve ever tasted.

Speaking of food, we were spoiled by Mama Emma’s cooking. She prepared breakfast and dinner for us every day, and even though the diversity of food in Cuba can be lacking due to the blockade, she would always try to invent new dishes. She even taught us how to cook some Cuban dishes, and now thanks to her I know how to make fried vianda. I also message her sometimes before I try to cook to ask for her advice! 

One of my fondest memories is the birthday party they hosted for me. My birthday was right at the beginning of my semester abroad, and I was feeling a little bummed about not being able to spend it with my friends and family. They surprised me by inviting everyone from the rest of the IFSA program over to the house, hanging up decorations, buying a cake, and preparing snacks like croquetas and ensalada fría. It was so reassuring to know that there were people who genuinely cared about me so far away from home.

Just to show how strong our relationship became, Mama Emma and I still talk all the time. I actually even messaged her before writing this article to see what she wanted me to include. She told me to make sure that I added a picture of her cooking, so please see the photo below!

Mama Emma's cooking

I know from first-hand experience that it can be terrifying to participate in a homestay program. You’re living with people you’ve never met before, eating new foods, and following new rules. However, please don’t let this fear stop you from doing one! I specifically chose IFSA because of their homestay option and don’t regret it in the slightest. There is so much that I would have missed out on had I not done a homestay. I wouldn’t have learned how to dance son cubano, or listened to Mama Emma’s firsthand experience of surviving Hurricane Flora, or received Papa Vega’s help on my homework assignment analyzing Jose Marti’s poems. A homestay enriches the study abroad experience and immerses you completely in the culture; there is really no other comparable way to gain such insider knowledge so quickly. I hope this encourages you to consider a homestay program of your own so that you can find your own Mama Emma and Papa Vega. 

from left to right: Papa Vega, Katie, Mama Emma, Emily, and Gisel.

 Emily Mitrione is an International Studies, Affairs, & Relations major at Tufts University and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad de La Habana Partnership in Fall 2019.