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The Mass Media

Community, culture and camaraderie: My trip to Cuba

As a UMass Boston Alumni, I often reflect on my undergraduate career as I continue my education in the Critical Ethnic and Community Studies graduate program. I feel as though studying abroad was the only thing I regret not having done. In fact, I was not allowed to participate in any study abroad programs because of my status as a transfer student and because of the global shutdown during COVID-19. When I decided to pursue a visit to Cuba with Professor Tony Van Der Meer of the Africana Studies Department and my peers, I was met with resistance from some and encouragement from others. I found many people were shocked and curious as to how I could make this trip given the state of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The method of a “people to people visit” is apparently not common knowledgeessentially, a “people-to-people visit” is one of a few legal ways you can gain entry to Cuba from the U.S.—in this case, as an educational trip led by a guide. 

Before traveling there, I was warned that the Cuban people were “oppressed.” After visiting Cuba for myself and engaging in a holistic cultural experience, I have been able to witness first-hand the positive characteristics and values that Cubans embody which complicates the caricature of them as “oppressed” people. Indeed, traveling to Cuba made me realize that many aspects of life there are much more complicated than what we typically hear or are told via U.S. media propaganda. For instance, I saw directly what the U.S. embargo truly means for Cubans and why it is so problematic and cruel. I learned there are so many commodities that people take for granted on a daily basis, and realized they should not be overlooked. We should be grateful for having access to what we need rather easily, but also think critically about all of the extras that are not necessities, but rather a privilege to own. 

While everything aligned for me to take this trip to Cuba, it still required a certain courage; it’s very out of the norm for me to pursue a lastminute international travel plan with no more than two months notice. Having created and fostered a trusting working relationship with Professor Van Der Meer, he encouraged and supported me to pursue this transformative experience. I truly felt I could not pass up such a wonderful opportunity to visit Cuba—and I was right. In fact, my spring independent study is related to my visit to Cuba; I plan to engage in a comparative analysis of “community” as lived in Cuba and in the United States. My initial trip to Cuba is a starting point for my future academic research, as well as an avenue to potentially study and take coursework in the Afro-Caribbean Department at the University of Guantanamo. 

Professor Van Der Meer has been steadfast in working toward a Memorandum of Understanding—or MOU—between the University of Massachusetts Boston and the University of Guantanamo. In solidarity with his endeavors, I feel even more strongly about pursuing this course of study and research. In Cuba, my peers and I met students from the University of Guantanamo who are part of the group “Proyecto Con Mochila al Hombro”—meaning “Project Backpack on the Shoulder.” It was one of the main highlights of the trip, and I look forward to connecting with them when I return to Cuba later this year. The approval of the MOU at this historical moment would be a progressive step forward for UMass Boston in enacting their so-far performative antiracist mission.

The introduction between us students was carefully curated and catered to us as young people. Together we shared refreshments and had a wonderful time chatting and dancing. The shared love and interest for music, movement and dance created an unforgettable and undeniable connection. We learned from each other and about each other and started new friendships. I made many observations that I am interested in exploring further while I was there. The MOU between the two universities will be essential in continuing my research, as well as enabling other students in the Critical Ethnic and Community Studies program, and the overall learning community at UMass Boston, to pursue such ends. The Cuban people are resilient, resourceful and restless in their resistance, and I took inspiration in their strength and resiliency in the face of the embargo’s hardships. 

I also learned a lot about myself during my time in Cuba. When I first arrived, I could use a Wi-Fi connection for a total of six hours throughout my seven-day stay. I am still struggling to recall the last time I felt so free, specifically free from my phone, within my adult life. So, upon the conclusion of the Fall 2022 semester, I felt an urgency to disconnect in every way, especially from my phone and anything that was not physically in my presence. I began my attempt at disconnecting by removing my email app from my phone so I could truly get into Winter Break mode and enjoy feeling free of deadlines and academic duties. While being abroad, I felt a newfound appreciation of living in the present moment; it is easy to see that this new perspective is courtesy of my visit to Cuba. I found myself being very intentional about who I contacted and how I used my internet connection, rather than endlessly doom-scrolling out of boredom. The trip to Cuba was a great opportunity to connect deeply and intentionally with those I traveled with, as well as with all the Cuban friends I made along the way. 

Part of what was so magnificent about Cuba was seeing how common sharing meals at home is in their culture. Each morning of our stay, we would eat breakfast with our hosts and chat. We were always provided with a beautiful spread of food to share and indulge in together. There was not a single meal that we had to eat aloneand in those moments, I did not realize how much I would come to appreciate something as simple and meaningful as sharing a mealtime. Our dining table was constantly full of engaging conversations, laughter, pure joy and happiness. In the past few months, my mom has shared with me how much she loves being able not only to have me cook for her but also to share meals together, sitting in our kitchen for breakfast or dinner. I did not think anything of it; however, since traveling to Cuba I recognize that togetherness means much more to me. The notion of community I experienced in Cuba is something I will never forget, and it makes me value my interactions with others all the more.   

The late and renowned Ernesto “Che” Guevara once said, “As we left Chuquicamata we could feel the world changing, or was it us?” [1] This is a perfect description of how it felt to depart Cuba. I felt like I was just beginning to immerse myself and understand and experience the values and culture of the Cuban people. I am eager to return to Cuba—an island full of royal palms, hibiscus and azaleas everywhere you look—and to be surrounded again by the profound life, love, longevity and spirit of the Cuban people. 


[1] The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto “Che” Guevara