Being Caribbean in Cuba: Part 2

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 La 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 (whose interview is detailed in part 1 of this series), 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-Butler 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.

Read part 1 of this series here.

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.

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