Shira Engel

Thinking
in
Spanglish
Cuba Society & Culture
Final Journal Project
Tulane University
Summer in Cuba
2013

Shira Engel
 

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Shira Engel

La Tortuga
 
“I am a turtle; wherever I go, I carry home on my back.” – Gloria Anzaldúa
My freshman year of college, I took a course entitled “Gender in a Transnational
Perspective.” This course was my introduction to Chicana feminism, a specific theoretical framework
that was as poetic as it was philosophical. In fact, the poesía of Chicana feminism was what made it
tangible and applicable to daily life. This course of study also served as my introduction to Latin
American Studies as a discipline. In it, we studied a type of syncretism – mestizaje – that I also saw
practiced in Cuba. In Cuba, I realized that mestizaje is more applicable to life outside of American
Latinidad than I initially thought.
The Chicana feminist writer that I most identified with was Gloria Anzaldúa and her writing
of borderlands and mestizaje identity. The above quote is a line of hers that most resonated with me.
In March, I got a tattoo of a turtle with a city on its back. I intended for the tattoo to serve as a
reminder of the quote’s specific meaning in my life: from my deep identification with New York City
(the buildings) to carrying more figurative roots/a sense of at-home-ness with me wherever I went.
Each place I have gone to since getting this tattoo, however, has projected a different and unexpected
meaning onto it, inverting and challenging some of my own.
Throughout my time in Cuba, it was crucial for me to remember that I “carried home on my
back.” This was also not easy to forget as we, as a group, were collectively singled out as tourists.
Some of us carried home on our backs literally (my tattoo, Nick’s American flag T-shirt, and Laura’s
sorority shorts). From needing to venture out for bottles of water (lest we get amoebas) to being
spoken at in broken English as we walked around Vedado we all carried aspects of where we came
from as we struggled to feel at home in a place that greatly deviated from the familiar.
To be honest, I did not know much about Cuba before we left. The extent of my studies was
Wesleyan’s Survey of Latin American History and reading “True Butch” by Obejas in Latina
Feminisms. My knowledge of Cuba was peripheral at best. My naivete revealed itself in my underpacking, leaving out shampoo, conditioner, and other basic necessities, assuming that I could simply
pick them up at the “drug store,” a brand of consumerism I realized Havana lacked. My experience
of Cuba was without expectations and, as a result, I experienced sensory overload on Havana streets
that brought only new information, which I coped with by filtering this new information with prior
knowledge. Gloria Anzaldúa’s words from freshman year rang true throughout this trip: in carrying
home on my back, I filtered my experiences through previous ones, using my unique, but also
American, perspective to try to make sense of the nonsensical, to find quiet amidst the noise, and to
use knowledge to understand place, many times to little or no avail. Throughout this trip, I engaged
in a tug-of-war of using the old to make sense of the new and then perpetually discovering that
sometimes, I have to leave the old behind in order to experience the new.
One night, Renee took Galia and I to her casa particular from the last time she was in Cuba.
The lovely couple she stayed with invited us over for dinner so that their friend could practice his
English. Upone seeing my tattoo, Oscar informed me that people say Havana “es cómo una tortuga”
because Havana is a slow city, moving – at times – at a frustratingly slow speed while simultaneously
being content with that speed because it is its nature, like it is a turtle’s nature to move slowly.
Havana “cómo una tortuga” has a plethora of meaning for me now, as I am back in New
York, the first city my tattoo meant to represent. I carry this experience in Cuba with me on my back
as I try to view my experience in a reflective and analytical lens, arriving at more questions than
answers. In the pages that follow, I hope to expose the lack of conclusions and the inability (as well as
lack of desire) to make them as I approach the elements that make Cuba this wonderfully frustrating
turtle and the elements of home that allowed me to academically and personally experience it in a
certain way.

 

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Shira Engel

   
Ciudad(anía)
“una ciudad mártir, pero también una ciudad rebeldle” – Bertillón 166 por José Soler Puig
During our last week, I crafted an analogy for Havana: it is a city falling apart at the
seams, but what it is sewn together by is a gorgeous fabric of the highest quality.
On my way to the Melia Cohiba that last week, I walked with Yordanka, Luis’s wife, and
one of the women who works at the ANAP. I struggled to understand her Spanish even though I
knew that my own had improved greatly. Unlike many of the people we had met, she did not
slow herself down for us not because she did not want to be accommodating (she was always to
accommodating and kind to us!) but because I think she honestly did not know how to slow her
Spanish down – and why should she? I wondered.
During our walk, she told me she felt bad for us because in solamente una mez (en comparación
a los estudiantes de Sarah Lawrence, por ejemplo, que van por cuatro meses), it is hard for us to know and
see a “beautiful Cuba,” a “ciudad linda.”
When my dad called me at the ANAP halfway into the trip, his calling card ran out just
after he asked me a very complicated question: “How do you like Havana?”
“How much time do you have?” I wish I could have responded.
Like a Facebook relationship status, I learned, the status of my month-long love affair
with Cuba’s capital could be described as “It’s Complicated” or “Es complicada,” the cognate
fitting an emotion that transcends place.
I didn’t have time to answer his question and I probably never will. Havana got the best
of me, and I mean that phrase reciprocally. One humid night, I wrote of that reciprocal
relationship in my journal:
Sometimes, Havana takes my best with it, swindling it like cab drivers are known to cheat us Americanos
out of our finite amount of money as I walk the crowded streets hot, itchy, and exhausted, yearning for our frequent
excursions to Cuba’s breathtaking countryside and beaches.
Sometimes, this city gets the best of me because I give it my best: my best dresses that make me feel at home
on the Malecón at sunset, my best Spanish as I learn to negotiate my way through incomparable markets with some
of the best art I have seen in my life, and my best discernment as I strive to make sense of the nonsensical that is this
city’s preciosa charm.
In a plethora of ways, I can describe Havana as hot and aggressive. Walking just a few
blocks produced a bucket of sweat, which made the catcalls all the more confusing. On the one
hand, there was stickiness and the street harassment, apparent poverty and challenging access to
basic goods. And on the other hand, Havana is a cultural hub with more quality and quantity
than any other city. The whole city seemed to beat to the sound of Reggaeton and Rumba.
There was something to do every night. The cultural pride was overwhelming, exhausting, and
breathtaking, paving the way for an absence of binaries and a multiplicity of feelings.
Oddly enough, the week that made me realize that I loved Havana (and I loved it even in
the ways that I hated it), was the week of rain before we left to Trinidad. When the rain came, all
the noise, the bustle the sweat…it all quieted and I was able to see the city in a new water-fogged
way. La lluvia siguiente was like a breath of fresh air as I was able to witness Havana’s quiet, which
produced an unparalleled kind of reflective beauty.    
Photo of Dave pointing at the Havana skyline, taken by Galia.  

 

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Shira Engel

La Calle
“la totalidad de una trama henchida de posibilidades” – Bertillón 166 por José Soler Puig
 
Our first night in Havana, on our way to exchange money at the Melia Cohiba, we
walked along the Malecón for the first time. Because of the Revolution (and because many
people cannot afford private spaces), the majority of spaces in Cuba are public. My first
impressions of the Malecón were that is a place where people honestly just hang out and that
there is a gorgeous abundance of public displays of affection, which I suppose is typical in cities
that are not American. Women were propped up on the ledge, making out with their lovers.
Groups of teenagers stood next to them sharing a bottle of Havana Club. Older men went fishing
late into the night. On the street, people coexisted and on the Malecón in particular, people
seemed to coexist tranquilly.
Later that first night, at Rosana’s party, I talked to Blaugus about – liberal arts students
that we are – urban anthropology. He told me he was fascinated by chaos. As we looked over the
ledge at the streets of Centro Habana, the notion of urban chaos could not have rung truer.
Havana is a city of fascinating and rambunctious, yet tranquil, chaos.
I half-joked during various points of the trip that I experienced multiple species of
exhaustion during my time in Havana. I was exhausted because of the travel. I was exhausted by
constantly trying to come up with references for what I was experiencing and seeing, an
impossible task. I was physically exhausted from the lack of sleep and mentally exhausted from
the other impossible task of attempting to analyze the unfamiliar with the familiar. But the most
potent – and most unexpected – form of exhaustion was emotional. I was emotionally exhausted
because of a constant fear and simple-desire-turned-complicated to be safe.
A week after Galia and I were mugged and spent the night at the police station, I was
followed to the Melia Cohiba. The exhaustion that swept over me upon plopping onto the cushy
couch with an ironic excess of pillows was a specific urban and disillusioned-New-Yorker kind of
exhaustion. I was tired from constantly being on edge and guarded in all my actions. I had the
experience of paranoia with real-life implications. I learned, through la calle de Habana, that at
times, it is important to pay attention to that paranoia.
There is a part of me that wishes that my experience of being mugged hadn’t happened
that first week, that if it were inevitable, it could have at least waited until I already had a solid
impression of Havana. Yet at the same time, upon reflection, I am grateful for the experience
because it taught me that street smarts are necessary everywhere and that while it was clear by
our very late night and early morning at the police station that crime is taken seriously, I engaged
in a sort of productive discomfort with the streets of Havana and I was able to view the
transformation of my experience in Cuba through how I felt walking the streets.
I remember venturing out on my own for the first time since the mugging. I took an
absolutely lovely walk around Vedado. There were people out shopping and children in uniform
were on their lunch breaks from school. The streets were vivacious and instead of feeling like I
was being harassed when men passed by and said, “Bonita,” I actually felt honored. It felt good
and clean and sane to find my own way around the city, to pop into tiendas that used only
Moneda Nacional, to find out that the agros are closed on Mondays, and that I could still by fruit
by ordering a coctel de fruta at someone’s open kitchen/private business. I was learning.
Photo taken by Renee.  
 
 

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Shira Engel

La Casa
“la soledad y el silencio que rezumaba la casa” – Casas del Vedado por María Elena Llana
Before this trip, if you told me that I would consider a place with little to no water
pressure a haven, I most likely would not have believed you. Yet the ANAP was a total haven,
making it possible to feel at home in a place so foreign, with a staff that I felt close to after just the
first few days. I felt this wholeheartedly after Galia and I were mugged. We returned to the
ANAP, emphasizing to our cab driver, “Calle C entre 13 y 15” rather than “Calle 6 entre 13 y
15,” a point of continuous clarity and when we arrived, Barbara instantly knew that something
was wrong. When we returned at 5am after our long, long night in the police station, two guards
were waiting up for us, watching a late night/early morning episode of Grey’s Anatomy dubbed in
Spanish so that we could get in. I felt safe.
Some of the kindest, warmest, sweetest people I have ever met work at the ANAP. It
served as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. For women especially, Havana takes its
toll. Because of the harassment, I was starting to feel weak walking down the street. My New
Yorker speed walking slowed down and, while I was not in physical harm most of the time, it was
hard to feel strong while walking the Malecón.
It was around that time when the city began to first take its toll on my perception of
strength that I started talking to Luis about training with him. I am no athlete and until that
point, the only people training with him were, but Galia and I decided that we wanted to start
building up our physical strength in the hopes that it would translate to internal strength. And it
did. Luis was one of the best teachers I had ever had. Lifting weights, in a strange way, became
one of my most “authentic” Cuban experiences in that it was a routine unique to my time in
Havana. When talking about Luis with the other people who worked out with him, we called
him “The New Man,” in reference to Che Guevara’s essay. As we read in “El lobo, el bosque, y
el hombre nuevo,” this concept of Che Guevara’s seemed a nearly impossible revolutionary ideal
with little to no basis in reality. Luis taught us how to lift weights with extreme generosity of time
and energy and did not explicitly ask for anything in return. He worked for the sake of a deepseated purpose like Che Guevara described of the New Man. Yet in all the ways Luis was the
New Man, he was also not: every day, he wore a shirt from a different American liberal arts
college, a hat from an American sports team, and he told us that if he could, he would move out
of Cuba.
When I inquired as to the origins of the ANAP, Asociación Nacional de Agriculturas Pequeñas, I
was told that it used to be exclusively a residence for small agricultural businesses and farmers to
stay when they traveled to Cuba for work. In mid-June, there were some agricultural workers
staying there as well, but I think that now, for the most part, the residence is for study abroad
programs primarily and agricultural workers on the side. In many ways, this is reflective of the
change in what tourism means for Cuba and its potential for new meanings if (and once) Cuba
opens up for the United States and the embargo is lifted. The change of residents from South
American agricultural workers to American college students seems extreme, but it allowed me to
understand how difficult it is to keep a residence and business thriving on a private basis in a
failing socialist economy. In Vedado, there are beautiful houses, remnants of Havana’s
bourgeoisie class that are not only remnants anymore; they are making a come back in the sense
that the people who stay in Vedado on tourist visas are those who can afford to; it is where the
majority of the casas particulares and hotels are located and it makes sense why.
 

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Shira Engel

 
Lo que significa para ser Americana
“Ah, a veces uno tiene la impression de que todas las hembras de la Unión Americana,
tarde o temprano, resultarán siendo cubanos.” – Cuban American Beauty por Orlando Luis
Pardo
On May 29th, I wrote in my journal that there was a difference between cultural
immersion and what we were actually doing in Cuba as a group. During class one day, someone
mentioned that none of us really “looked Cuban” or “could pass as Cuban.” What it means to
“look Cuban” is, in and of itself, a mystery, but Ana’s response to that student’s comment was, in
my opinion, a true expression of lo que significa para ser Americana. Ana exclaimed, “No one here
can pass as Cuban; I cannot even pass as Cuban!” we were all taken aback at this remark
because, well, Ana was Cuban. She continued to say, “They move differently than we do,”
emphasizing cultural stratifications based on the very modes of living.
In many ways, our time in Havana schooled us not on Cuba writ large, but on what it
means – very particularly – to be American in Cuba. It seems to elicit two kinds of reactions:
getting picked on, on the streets because, walking in a group and speaking English, we stood out.
The second reaction it inspired was the most surprising: many of the Cuban people we met
seemed to have an American Dream of their own, asking us questions about the United States
and informing us, without the anger I assumed they would have due to the embargo, that they
wanted to travel there.
When people would hear us speaking English, they would ask, “Where you from?” It was
in this question that I was reminded of what a unique experience we were having as Americans
in Cuba; with the embargo in place, it is still assumed that Americans do not travel to Cuba and
if you are speaking English, it is more likely that you are from Canada. In New York, people
(rightfully) assume that my ethnicity is Jewish, my curly hair and darker skin marking me as a
more specific kind of Caucasian. In Cuba, however, my ethnicity seemed up for public debate
and, in general, discussing that sort of thing in public with strangers was a much more common
cultural phenomenon in Cuba than in the United States. People guessed Portuguese, Spanish,
Argentine, and even Gypsy, before they guessed American, potential evidence of the rarity, lo que
significa para ser Americana en Cuba.
In general, I expected the political ideology of Cuba to be more aligned with the popular
ideology of Cuba. This was my biggest misconception; I was proven wrong throughout the whole
trip. While I did not go to the American Intersection, my classmates did tell me that the Cuban
government was very wary of Americans because, in many ways, it had been wronged by the
embargo and the fraught political history between the two countries. I assumed that it would be a
point of national pride to be anti-American in Cuba, but in the conversations rooted in daily life
that I had with people, I learned the opposite. The United States and its associations with
freedom, wealth, and technology overrode any political misgivings the Cuban people we talked
to seem to have. To be American in Cuba was valorized and taunted at the same time and, at
times, created an American Exceptionalism from within as we were treated differently because of
where we came from, making it impossible to separate our experiences of being in Cuba from
our experience of being American in Cuba.
 
 
 
 

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Shira Engel

La Revolución
“no pareció excesivamente malo al principio, cuando solo era dable atenerse la teoría” –
Tiempo de cambio por Manuel Cofiño
DEFENDEMOS NUESTRA ESPERANZA
LA REVOLUCIÓN SOCIALISTA
TODO POR LA REVOLUCIÓN
MÁS SOCIALISMO
SOCIALISMO O MUERTE
I wrote the above words in my journal on that first bus ride from José Martí airport to the ANAP. These were the
words on the walls, on the billboards, my first impression of Cuba’s romanticized revolution.
It is impossible to separate the romanticizing of the revolution and the romanticizing of
Che Guevara. It was en route to and being at the Che Guevara memorial that I realized that he
has a total Jesus complex in Cuba. The revolution, I learned, was for all intent and purpose,
Cuba’s religion. Everywhere that I have been abroad before has been religious in one way or
another. The social order has been dictated by that religion: In Spain (Catholic), everything
closed on Sunday. In Israel, the entire city of Jerusalem unplugged and turned off the lights for
the Saturday Sabbath. Cuba is the first country that I have been to outside the United States
where there is no explicit religious identification.
But when exposed to countless memorials, monuments, and shrines, I had to question
that. To have someone outlive their death through people who worship them is how religion is
practiced and promoted. Che Guevara far outlived his mere 31 years alive. We went to this
memorial in a city renamed “La ciudad de Che.” The memorial, museum, and mausoleum that
we went to were by far the most polished place I had been to in Cuba. It was air conditioned,
which was rare and there were plaques with actual computerized typography, which was also
rare.
While the interior was small, it covered a wide variety of aspects of Che’s life: an adorable
blown-up photograph of him as a toddler, a report card from elementary school, his beautiful
diploma from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, which brought back memories of when I was
there just over a year ago, walking along the university steps in Recoleta. And, while these
memories shaped how I interacted with the memorial, I thought of how incredibly strange it was
that the two places in the world where Che Guevara is worshiped the most are Cuba and
Argentina, two countries which seem to me to be so incredibly different. Cuba rejects most
European values; it is socialist, impoverished, and fuses elements of Africa into its cultural
syncretism. Meanwhile, Argentina is a cosmopolitan hub of Latin America, shaped by Italian
culture, and recognizable by a valorized bourgeoisie class.
I left the memorial more fascinated by Che than when I entered, which, I suppose, was
the purpose. His rhetoric, like that of Castro, is poignant to say the least. I am grateful for the
constant encouragement by our professors to be cognizant of how the memorials and museums
are structured to make us think and feel a certain way about the revolution. I chose to
personalize the memorial with the background photograph of the yoga pose peaceful warrior
because the visit left me with an abundance of questions: Was Che the “peaceful” warrior he is
portrayed to be? And, can one be a warrior of the people, of la justicia, and still kill hundreds?
How would this revolution have been different if he did not live on only through a memorial?  
 

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Shira Engel

La Economía
“Haremos que en Cuba los pobres vivan cómo personas decentes” – Bertillón 166 por José
Soler Puig
I am no economist. In fact, if you asked my mother, she would say I am not even
financially literate. Yet oddly enough, the point of greatest fascination for me during my time in
Cuba was the economy; it became a means through which I could understand everything that
came about as a result, a tangible way to see the effects of the Revolution, Soviet assistance, the
Special Period, and the current situation.
Problematized since taking my first sociology class junior year of high school, I never
thought that I would use the term “underdeveloped” to describe a country. Yet, to be honest, as I
walked the cracked streets of Havana, declined men holding ration cards at the bakery simply
because I was not carrying their form of currency in my pockets, and passed by half-demolished
yet still residential houses, I found myself drifting into that politically incorrect lexicon. Then, my
metaconsciousness or conciencización, would turn on and I realized that any time I use a
comparative term, I have to both think of and criticize who or what I am comparing to. In this
case, I compared Cuba to the United States, but even that category was too broad because most
people on the trip represented only a particular component of American national identity.
The Cuban economy fascinates me because it explains the country’s intense
contradictions and complexities. It has a representative economy that leaks into the most minute
of daily experiences. At one point, I ran out of AA batteries and I half-joked that being in Cuba is
like being in sleep away camp; you have to pack all you need and the only things you can buy
there are akin to what you would get at the canteen (i.e. what they sell at the supermarkets:
candy, crackers, and water). My friend pointed out, however, that in Cuba, unlike at camp, you
cannot send a letter home due to an embargo that would make it difficult to get there.
It appeared that the primary reason why the economy leaked into daily experiences in
such a crucial needs-based way is because there are two forms of currency: Moneda Nacional
and CUCs. The exchange rate of MN was unfathomable to me at first because it is so cheap.
There was a café run out of someone’s home down Calle C that sells a cafecito of espresso for 1
MN, roughly equal to 10 cents. Máquinas are 10 MN per person and sandwiches can cost
anywhere between 20 to 40 MN, making food wildly cheaper than water. This averages all basic
life necessities to cost under a dollar each, which, while exciting to the American tourist, is
reflective of a crumbling revolutionary economic solution that does not seem to be working.
In the pre-reading, “30 Days as a Cuban,” we learned that it was impossible to actually
live off Moneda Nacional; the American who tried to ended up malnourished and losing ten
pounds in 30 days. His experiment, while simultaneously informative and extremely politically
incorrect, was also incredibly naïve in that it was un-Cuban. While Cubans receive ration cards
in MN, they still need to buy razors, cleaning supplies and so many other basic necessities (as well
as pleasures) that are only sold in CUCs and therefore the “black market.” This led to a creation
and surge of entrepreneurialism and black market side jobs yet it seemed that the government’s
attempt to control the black market in Cuba is like Wesleyan’s attempt to control weed
consumption; when everyone does it, you cannot really penalize anyone for it.
I think it fitting to leave this entry on a confusing note, reflecting my sentiment of my
involvement as a tourist in the doble economía.
Photograph of a senior thesis at ISA Escuela de Artes Plásticas

 

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Shira Engel

Ritmo de la Vida
“Sin ritmo hay nada.” – Alexey Rodriguez de Obsesión
Everything in Cuba moves very slowly (with the sole exception of the cabs). For every
place we went, I had to remember to say, “¿Ultima?” to make sure that I was, in fact, getting in
the back of the line (many Cubans also have a fierce sense of fairness, making this experience
very different from waiting on the lines in New York). Havana is a city that operates on the
unspoken, invisible urban planning of lines. As a result, everything takes longer than it would
elsewhere. The interesting part was that I did not mind the lines at all. Some might call it
inefficient. Others might say that it is part of the island’s infrastructural and socioeconomic
problems. But it has a sort of charm to it. And a refreshing one that is incomparable to the streets
of New York or the clean briskness of Western European cities. Havana runs on a slow sort of
chaos.
Our first night in Havana, I was schooled in Cuba’s ritmo de la vida: dance, music, and
rhythm are like breathing; everywhere we went, when I made an effort to be conscious of it, a
beat seemed to follow. That first night, at Rosana’s party, I met Frank, a professional Cuban
dancer who came up to many of us with a fierce determination to teach us cómo bailar. Exhausted
from the two days of travel, I zoned out at one point and Frank pointed to my head and said,
“Necesitas irse tu cabeza.” He wasn’t the first person who has ever told me to get out of my head,
but in this context, with people clearly listening to their bodies first and foremost, it seemed more
like an imperative than ever before. Next, Frank pointed to his hips and started moving them,
indicating that if I were to truly enjoy myself on Havana nights, I would have to get out of my
head and into my body, to feel and move with the pervasive rhythm, from the long lines to the
beat of Reggaetón, Rumba, and hip hop.
Later that week, on Friday, Suzanne took us to see Yudenia’s Rumba group perform at
Palacio de la Rumba in Centro Habana. The music was spirited, deep, evocative, and
incomparable to anything I have heard before. We ordered mojitos, watched the band play for a
little and, because when it comes to music and dancing in Cuba (which are so inseparable that
they necessitate one another), there is no such thing as spectators (only participants), we soon
joined in.
I developed a theory based on some inadvertent primary research I conducted while
going out in Havana: when Cuban men see me on the dance floor, they think, “Ay, she has no
sense of rhythm!” Then, their immediate next thought is, “I must teach her – right away!” I
learned so many different kinds of dancing during my time in Havana and had so many different
dancing partners that all of them muddled into a confusion of steps and beats that actually threw
me off even more…but in a way that was so incredibly fun and made me want to keep learning.
At Palacio de la Rumba, I received the best compliment from a Cuban dancing partner. “Bailas
bien,” he said.
“¿Yo?” I responded.
Photograph taken by Laura at 1832 in Havana

 

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Shira Engel

Campesino y Turismo
“Hay que creer en algo que sea bonito aunque no sea.” – El Cuentero por Onelio Jorge
Cardoso
When we went to the countryside, I deeply welcomed the respite from Havana’s heat and
stickiness with open arms and a record-breaking six showers a day.
Carolina told Galia and I that a former student on the program remarked once, “I love
Havana, but I don’t love how Havana makes me feel.” While Havana is a spectacular city with a
lot to learn from, I do not think I would be able to stay there for an extended period of time (but
then again I wonder – is that just because I applied a short-term I-am-only-staying-for-a-month
mindset to a city that deserves more than that?). In Havana, there is too much aggression with
too few places to escape to. I am a New Yorker to my core and I am the first to acknowledge that
I do not live in the quietest city in the world, but it is filled with havens and, more often than not,
agency is involved in day-to-day interactions because I am the one who approaches people when
I seek a service, rather than the other way around, the latter all the more prevalent in Havana.
Usually, when I travel, I filter my experience of a new place through doing what I
familiarly do at home, in a new environment. But in Havana, that was nearly impossible becaue
all the places/institutions/social locations that I am used to were either nonexistent or had a
totally different function. As a result, I had experiences that I would not have had otherwise. Yet
in Trinidad, I found myself oddly in my element: cute cafes that we could actually sit in, streetlined markets, vegetables. And then I realized that it was no accident that I was in my element
here; this was a tourist destination. I was being marketed to feel in my element.
Driving by the countryside of Cuba for over five hours straight made it challenging to
believe that we were merely hundreds of miles away from Miami. On the road, there were
sugarcane fields that spanned for miles, horses, cows, pigs, deer and other wildlife. Our
Havanatur bus was juxtaposed against the horse-and-buggies, which emphasized Cuba’s
reputation in America of being in a “time warp.”
Our first night in Trinidad, we went to Casa de la Música. The dancers were
phenomenal and we were part of a large crowd, which felt energizing, but also slightly offputting. These cities along the countryside of Cuba are financed by these performance sites for
tourists. Two days later, on our first night in Cienfuegos, we met a group of Cuban men just a
few years older than us. They heard us speaking English and sauntered over. The one who spoke
the most English was a teacher in Cienfuegos. His friend used to be a teacher as well, but he then
decided that he needed to make a living wage and wanted to learn English so he switched over to
the tourist sector, which provides him with English classes and an ample salary. His story broke
my heart in more ways than one because, as he taught me salsa and rumba and more dances
along the Malecón and later when we went clubbing, I realized how good a teacher he was and
how many more like him there probably are who cannot afford to teach children and instead
teach on tour buses.

 

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Shira Engel

Mestizaje
“Hemos descubierto (o construido) entre nosotras una afinidad peculiar.” – El viejo, el
asesino y yo” por Ena Lucía Portela
The concept of mestizaje I had been studying in Chicana and overall more American
contexts at school meant something entirely different in Cuba. The moment during which I
realized this for the first time was at the Museo de Bellas Artes Nacional. The whole museum is
set up to convey the evolution of Cuban nationalism and the mestizaje that serves as a vessel of
expression for that nationalism. The museum was organized to show how artists, over time, tried
to represent Cuban identity and gave us a snapshot through paintings of lo que significa de ser
Cubano por edades diferentes. Our tour began with a section of colonial art, followed by art with an
increasingly political message that had roots in impressionism. It ended with modern art designed
to perpetuate the rhetoric of the revolution in the new millennium. The structure of the museum
reminds me of the structure of our Cuento Cubano class, which Patricia designed, in a more selfcritical way, I believe, to use the short stories chronologically to convey a progression of Cuban
national identity.
I was most fascinated by the middle section of the museum because it was in that section
that my ideas of the differences of mestizaje in Cuba were crystallized. Mestizaje, the mixing of
races to create syncretic cultural practices, means something very different in Cuba than it does
in the other Latin American countries I have studied at Wesleyan. This is because, in Cuba,
mestizaje refers to Afro-Cubanidad, which makes up the majority of the population since the
exodus of Mariel, where predominantly white Cubans left to Florida, having more resources due
to a global brand of racism to which Cuba with its socialist ideals is no exception, than the AfroCuban population. The mestizaje of Afro-Cuban life has been part of the culture for so long that
its ability to carry with it a kind of political clout is stunted by its longevity and lack of newness. In
the middle section of the museum, there was a mestizaje of art as European art forms
(impressionism, surrealism, cubism) were imbued with aspects of Afro-Cuban culture and, in
many ways, ironically translated from European aesthetic to Cuban culture in order to become a
political statement during and after the revolution.
The survival of the African elements that have been inserted into Cuban culture at large
is fascinating to me because these are the very elements that have withstood so much oppression.
Simultaneously, I realize that there is power in numbers and I wonder if, then, the proliferation
of Afro-Cuban mestizaje in art and culture can be directly attributed to the proportional rise in
Afro-Cuban numbers relative to the rest of the population as immigration out of Cuba remains
relegated to the wealthy and racism (as well as the government’s “post-racist” attitudes, which
end up counterproductively perpetuating racism) keeps Afro-Cubans from becoming wealthy.
Mestizaje and its manifestation into syncretic cultural practices, it seems, has become a way of
(re)claiming Cuban society and culture for those who plan on being in Cuba permanently and
subversively, but also publicly, claiming ownership over key elements of social and cultural
practices.
In the past and in my course of study, I have understood mestizaje as living on the border
between two worlds, neither fully in one nor the other so as to actually occupy both. In Cuba, the
metaphorical lands on either side of the figurative border are more integrated than that and,
from my peripheral view, it makes the mestizaje of Cuban cultural identity, more successful in its
implementation and influence.
Photograph taken by Renee

 

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Shira Engel

Santería
“hambre del espiritú y del cuerpo” – La guardarraya por Luis Felipe Rodriguez
A key manifestation of the aforementioned mestizaje is Santería. When Suzanne gave her
lecture on Rumba and Santería, I felt like everything was coming together in a synchronous way.
The common thread of Cuba that weaves its way through all the land, spanning from Havana to
the campesino, is the spirituality that inserts itself into every element of society and culture: art,
fashion, dance, and religion. This spirituality is, like everything in Cuba, a product of syncretism,
the bringing together of the various elements of life and people that give Cuba this unique
mestizaje I am fascinated by. Suzanne’s lecture represented a true moment of syncretic
synchronicity. From day one in Cuba, on our tour of Habana Vieja, where we stopped and saw
dancers of all ages in Parque Central dressed in white, we were seeing Santería practiced around
us. We just did not realize it.
In the background photo of this entry is a depiction of Yemayá, the Santería goddess I
gravitated towards the most, the fierce mama ocean goddess. During the trip, we ventured
outside Havana to visit some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. When surrounded with
new daily experiences and when lacking Internet and an iPhone, it is difficult to feel connected to
that which is external from the immediacy of those experiences. When I am in the ocean,
however, that sense of connection comes in full force and it is for that reason that I think I am a
daughter of Yemayá, if I had to choose one for myself.
The Santería lecture was appropriate preparation for Thursday, when we all attended a
Rumba workshop. We moved our bodies to the various orishas as we learned their dances. Two
days later, Renee and Galia brought back Santería bracelets for some of us from the markets at
La Rampa. Cuba, in an effort to disseminate a thriving tourist enclave economy, has resorted
(pun intended) to spiritual tourism, selling potential knock-offs of sacred spiritual objects for
CUC’s to tourists who are learning their meanings at the time of purchase. Galia brought me a
Yemayá bracelet and I wore it proudly the first few days. Renee and I soon began to realize that
people were treating us differently upon glancing at our wrists. For example, our cab driver
during our second visit to ISA lowered his price upon seeing that we were both wearing the
bracelets customarily on the left wrist. Our last day in Havana, we went to lunch at El Carmelo,
a restaurant with an extremely garrulous wait staff, and our waitress grabbed my wrist with the
bracelet and started rapidly questioning me. From what I was able to comprehend of the fast
Spanish, it is customary of Santería orisha priestesses (the women who can determine your orisha
for you) to wear the bracelet and that was the reason, I inferred, for the heightened levels of
respect we received. After lunch, I immediately removed the bracelet and have not worn it since.
As fascinated as I am by Santería, I do not have a right to claim it as my own.
On Friday night, after returning from the beach and to round out this week of
experiencing el espiritú de Habana, I decided to go back to my own spiritual roots and check out a
Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Sephardic synagogue on Calle 17. It was a mix of old and new,
tunes that I have heard before and those that were (literally) completely foreign to me. My
roommate and I joyfully broke into a smile when Lecha Dodi, the song to welcome in the
Sabbath, was interspersed with Spanish (“Shabbat es mi novia…”). On our way back to the
ANAP, we talked about beliefs and religion and spirituality and familiarity. We talked about
mestizaje and syncretism.
Mujeres
 

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Shira Engel

“Eso es lo que complete la mujer: una familia.” – Alguien tiene que llorar por Marilyn Bobes
I am hesitant to write this entry because it is a subject that I am still having trouble
processing on both a theoretical and personal level. I think I will begin with the theoretical and
move onto the personal because that is a reflection of how I have understood sexism in practice:
at school, I study it daily, but I am in a bubble of like-minded people who air always on the side
of political correctness, sometimes to the point of it being tiring. So I learn about sexism in the
classroom and rarely see it practiced explicitly outside of it. In Cuba, it was the opposite. Sexism
was pervasive because it was embedded and entrenched in the daily cultural practices so much so
that I cannot envision a clear path to its eradication.
The background image of this entry is the logo for FMC, Federación de Mujeres
Cubanas, an organization that claims to be feminist, but is part of the government that puts into
practice what the above quote from “Alguien tiene que llorar” asserts: what completes the
woman is the family. If I look at solamente la ley, Cuba is light years ahead of the United States
when it comes to a very particular kind of women’s rights: family rights. The laws that the FMC
has put into place are just what I am writing on: theoretical. The fact that they claim to be
women’s rights is ideologically sexist in and of itself because it asserts that family rights belong in
the category of women’s rights, the legal association keeping women in the domestic sphere
insofar as that will serve the revolution and men in the public sphere that does not have to do
with the daily life of the family.
When comparing US women’s rights laws and Cuban women’s rights laws, it is clear that
the United States is less eager to approve legislation of the same progressive spirit as Cuba’s yet
ideologically, there is more progress in that area than there is in Cuba, emphasized in the higher
rates of paternity leave in the United States even though it is not drafted into universal law
whereas in Cuba, a country where it is a legal right across the board, it is not taken advantage of.
The disparity between legal rights and daily reality makes me think that the FMC is not an actual
feminist organization; it is merely a governmental vessel that addresses what can be made
tangible in law rather than what can be enforced in daily life.
As not just women, but as American women in particular, I feel like the girls on our trip
got a fair exposure of machismo culture. The “tss-tssing” cat calls on almost every single street
and the grabbing of our arms as we walked in Centro Habana took their toll and we found
ourselves complaining pessimistically about our experiences, those daily interactions effecting our
moods more than any other aspect of our time in Havana. I am hesitant to write this entry
because I do not want to seem superior and I also do not know if my answer is the correct one; I
have no idea if harm is meant by the “tss-tssing;” I just know how that makes me feel and I do
know that it did effect me less and less as I strived to “get used to it.” Yet I also have a serious
problem with the notion perpetuated by the guys on the trip who did not deal with the “tsstssing” that we should “get used to it.” It seemed that every time we complained, that was their
response, and I honestly started to wonder if some of the machismo of Cuba translated itself into
our Tulane group dynamic. I instantly felt more comfortable walking around and going out with
the guys at night and at times, I felt like that gave them license to dictate where we would go.
The machismo culture, the socialist patriarchy of Cuba, became less distant and a part of a
“different culture,” and instead brought out the machismo of our own culture. It made me
realize, above all, that to systemically change women’s rights in any country, we have to redefine
masculinity and femininity simultaneously.

 

13

Shira Engel

Educación
“Se hallaba tendida boca abajo, con la cabeza entre los brazos cruzados.” – Aletas de
Tiburón por Enrique Serpa
During our time in Cuba, through our readings, lectures, and classes, we have learned a
plethora of fascinating facts about the revolution. We have learned that there is universal
healthcare and universal education and universal employment. We have learned that what was
once private property such as elite golf courses and mansions and estates have now been turned
into universities and museums and galleries and school buildings. We have learned that Cuba
had the most dramatic increase in literacy rates within the shortest period of time than any other
country in Latin America and possibly the world. We have learned that there were literacy
campaigns during the first two years of the revolution that made this possible.
We have learned all these facts and both laudatory and fault finding statements about the
what of the revolution. I found myself continuously searching for the how. How were universal
social services even possible? How did Castro and Che make all these decisions and immediately
implement them? How did a hugely illiterate countryside suddenly become literate? How were the
literacy campaigns so effective? The readings did little to answer these questions and not to their
fault; for many of my questions, there are no direct, clear, or concise answers. It is also incredibly
challenging to find information on Cuba because of the lack of Internet, the government
censorship, and the resulting lack of reliance on external publications.
One major area of post-trip continuing education on Cuba will be the how of the literacy
campaigns. In class one day in the beginning of the trip, we discussed what I refer to as the
group’s major struggle: the desire to compare everything to America and assert that Cubans
should do as we do. Yet we don’t have it all right either. This game of “Would you rather?” that
I wrote about in a reflection is a dangerous one. Especially when it comes to universal healthcare
and universal education, the United States has a lot to learn from Cuba’s socialist revolution. I
want to continue studying the efficacy of the literacy campaigns to see what worked. As someone
who wants to go into teaching, I want to learn what these most effective practices were.
On the cab ride back from ISA, we talked about the intersectionality of educational
movements with the social movements they not only coincided with, but actually made possible.
Education (in the form of both the literacy campaigns and institutions of higher education like
ISA) mobilized whole sectors of the population that were previously ignored, repressed, and
oppressed, namely women, the poor, and teenagers. It created a more inclusive society, which
conveys the potential for education to be a vehicle of social transformation. (Now, if only I could
get my hands on a literacy campaign workbook…)
What was also interesting to me was how we were educated while in Cuba. Even though I
did during the first few weeks as I struggled through seemingly incomprehensible short story after
seemingly incomprehensible short story, I now deeply appreciate the opportunity we were given
to compare Cuban and American education simultaneously by having one class at the University
of Havana and then our Tulane class at the ANAP. The biggest difference was in the mode of
teaching and pedagogy used on us. At the start in Patricia’s class, there was minimal discussion.
We were given a lot of information rather than reacting to it whereas in Cuba Society and
Culture, much of the class centered around our reactions. The polarity between the two courses
emphasized that ways of educating are cultural and the emphasis on the perpetuation of the what
rather than the how of the revolution that I mentioned earlier is even reflected in Cuban
classroom life where information can feel at times slightly more quantified than qualified.
 

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Shira Engel

La Gente
“todo ha cambiado y puede ser la gente se olvide…la gente tiene mala memoria. Hay que
oírlos hablar nada más y uno se da cuenta” – Tiempo de Cambio por Manuel Cofiño
My most formative day in Havana was that second Wednesday. In those 24 hours, I both
got my hair chopped off and mugged and, for the purpose of this entry, those two experiences go
hand-in-hand because they were both occurrences that can rest in the realm of the exceptional
rather than in the realm of daily life.
Before Cuba, I had never been in a country with so many curly-haired people so I
thought that it would be a great place for me to try something new. I asked Barbara at the ANAP
if she had a place she would recommend. I also want to use this entry to briefly comment again
on the kindness of the women at the ANAP. They follow every remark with “mi amor.” “Hola,
mi amor,” “¿Cómo estas, mi amor?” “¿Cómo dormistes, mi amor?” I suppose that they say that
Spanish is a romance language for a reason.
Barbara told me of an “estilo particular” down the street. I asked her what “particular”
meant in this scenario and she told me that, while the majority of hair salons – and everything,
really – is owned by the government, some people have set up their own businesses out of their
apartments because self-employment is truly the only way to make a living in Cuba, leading to an
entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes mucha de la gente en Cuba. Before class that day, I walked
down Calle C to “Peluquería Karisma,” knocked on the door of Apartamento 8, and was greeted
by a man who reminded me of home the most of anyone I had met thus far: he was flamboyant,
gay, the absolute friendliest, and immediately told me that I had to do something about my hair.
He took out a picture of Taylor Swift, pointed to her bob, and said, “¿Eso?”
As he cut, he wanted to know what I was doing in Cuba and where I was from. He told
me that he is a psychology student at a university right outside of Havana in another province,
which was when I realized that education in Cuba is not seen across the board as a way to make
a living; it is not a means to an end. Higher education is, rather, a mode of pursuing interests,
normative as an experience because it is universal, and done while pursuing work that earns
money.
A ponytail’s worth of hair cascaded onto the floor of his apartment, his mother brought
me a shot of espresso, and he randomly declared, “All Cubans love America.” “¿De verdad?” I
prompted, not believing that Cuba would love a country that put a ban on it. He confirmed and
it was then that I realized that there was a difference entre la gente y el gobierno, una diferencia entre
Cubanos y Cuba.
Our final week in Havana, we finally met a group of Cuban college students who were
exactly our age. We realized, through being the only people at clubs, that it was a relatively
inauthentically Cuban nightlife experience to go clubbing, seeing as that was not what the
majority of college students spent their money on in Cuba. Instead, it was more authentic and
socially productive go the Malecón with a bottle of rum and group of friends. The group of
friends that we made seemed to have a very different point of view on Cuba and America than
we had heard previously – was it generational? Socioeconomic? Regardless, when someone asked
them if they planned to stay in Havana after college, Pablo, one of the boys said, “Siempre. Es
más tranquilo aquí que en su país.” At that moment, as we leaned against the Malecón and
watched the sunset, I had to agree.
Photograph taken by Galia at Plaza de la Revolución

 

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Shira Engel

El Vuelto
“La urbanidad tiene sus límites.” - Alguien tiene que llorar por Marilyn Bobes
1.
2.
3.
4.

Since returning home, the questions I have been asked the most are:
Do you now appreciate America more?
What do you think of communism?
What do you think will happen to Cuba?
Do Cubans want to live in the United States? Are they happy?

I have no answers. There are as many Cubans as there are people living in Cuba. There are
many aspects of Cuban identity, culture, politics, and policies that the United States could learn a
lesson or two from. Based on some of the lectures we heard in Cuba Society and Culture and
based on receiving a cogent and concise definition of socialism as the transition stage before
communism, I cannot even call Cuba communist. And I repeat, over and over again to ethnocentric family members there are as many Cubans as there are people living in Cuba. This comes across
simplistic and condescending, but I honestly do not think that everyone realizes this because it is
expected that there is one national identity and one way of experiencing life. The word I can use
the most to describe this trip is “complicated,” which implies a multiplicity of experiences not just
of my own, but also of the people and culture I was learning from.
My initial thoughts were that the revolutionary rhetoric is deeply embedded into the
infrastructure of the city so much so that it lives on more in the urban planning than in the actual
day-to-day lives of Cuban people. Towards the end of the trip, I did a 180. I realized that it was
not that daily life was devoid of the politics of the revolution; it was so entrenched that we could
hardly notice it. I realized that this country was impossible to write about without being, as my
dad referred to my blog as, “overly political.”
The last week, as I thought that my blog had gotten shut down and some paranoia set in,
it started to seem less and less interesting and more and more frightening. On the bus ride from
the airport on our first day, I was wide-eyed as I pseudo ethnographically wrote out the signs on
the walls. “Socialismo o muerte,” I scribed into my journal, fascinated by the “rhetoric.”
There is no clear line to delineate where the rhetoric ends and the action begins. Instead
of thinking in my internal high-pitched voice of naïve interest, “Socialismo o muerte,” I began to
think with a deeper voice of anxiety and trepidation, “Socialismo o muerte?” And I was ready to
return to America where Orwellian fears (which may or may not have had a basis in reality; I had
no way of knowing) would not translate into how I went about my day-to-day life.
Now that I am home in New York City and situated in a café with not just my iPad, but
with headphones, a laptop, an iPhone, a bathroom with toilet paper, water I do not pay for and
coffee that I paid way too much for, I feel a far cry away from Havana. Sometimes, it feels like I
returned a year ago. Other times, it feels like I never left New York; there is nothing here that
reminds me of Cuba. The stark differences between Cuba and the United States are precisely
why I wanted to go, but they make it difficult to process a month of a lack of familiarity with very
little to compare it to. I do not like the music playing in this café. I miss Rumba. The drawling
English that surrounds me is frustrating and I yearn for the rhythmic rapido pace of being
surrounded by Spanish.
When I got on line to order my latte, I opened my mouth to say, “¿Ultima?”
 

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