Horns meet world. World meet Omar Gamboa. Omar is an English and Latin American Studies major at UT, and he spent last June abroad on the Cuba in Question Maymester, UT’s first study abroad program in the country since the United States’ break of diplomatic relations during the Cold War. The program explores Cuban art and literature in order to understand a perspective that has been silenced in the United States for decades.
“Cuba… the final frontier,” I told myself in the months prior to landing in Havana. While UT’s first undergraduate study abroad program in the tropical Communist island nation would be my final academic project with the university, I realized that subjecting it to “grand-finale” status was not doing it justice. Instead of seeing my month abroad as a graduation trophy that tickled my novice Latin American fancy, I chose to see Cuba for what it is: a premier frontier, and one that continues to play more of a part on global and U.S. politics than meets the eye.
The spring weekly seminar of study that came prior to the actual “abroad” portion to Cuba in Question, led by program director Dr. César A. Salgado, was critical to the purpose. How could anyone question Cuba if its 500 years of history and promises went neglected? We began with the literary, reading Julia Cooke’s account of youth culture in Raúl Castro’s Cuba and Richard Gott’s comprehensive history of the island since the conquest. We also reported on contemporary art and issues within a class setting and were invited to participate in art exhibits, film screenings, and guest presentations by Cuban and American archivists, academics, and artists. At one point in the semester, Dr. Salgado even dedicated the LLILAS Benson panel, “Imagining Cuba in a Post-Embargo Era,” to his study abroad students. By the end of the spring semester, we knew very well that Cuba, the key to the new world, wasn’t always synonymous with Castro. Although many of the countless Europeans and few Americans that get to visit Cuba believe it to be a country stuck in the past, most of my peers and I were educated enough to see that Cuba has changed. Even in the last half-century — but mostly since the 16th century — the island and especially its people, architecture, and internal opinions towards the United States have changed.
I chose to see Cuba for what it is: a premier frontier, and one that continues to play more of a part on global and U.S. politics than meets the eye.
The only reason I can confidently make such a claim is because of the program’s focus on art. We were taught and guided through the streets of Havana, Camagüey, and Santiago by the world-class staff and partners of Casa de las Américas, the government’s center of arts established in 1959. While some argue a country as troubled as Cuba may benefit greater from a group of agriculturalists or engineers (though I know at least one Cuban man who proudly responded, “ah, pero ya tenemos esos” [“ah, but we already have those”] to that), the truth is that Cuba, its people, and its economy suffer more from American misinterpretations of who they are than from a lack of anything else. Now more than ever, Cuba needs to be understood and labeled a neighbor rather than a foe, an “Other.”
By exploring art, we were able to warp through time to experience Cuba from the perspectives of the first Spanish colonial prospectors, of incredible Santero descendants to the African slaves that built the country’s wealth and molded its 19th century politics, of pro-independence 19th and early-20th century Cubans, of pro-Castro thinkers (many of whose opinions retrograded 30 years after the Revolution), of anti-Castro thinkers, of contemporary citizens reaching an arm or gaze towards Miami, and of so many other opinions that I could only keep listing here. The art was endless and it had the incredible effect of helping me ignore political stances to be able to see the crumbling city streets for what they were to Cubans — endless memories and now possibilities.
So the beauty of Cuba in Question was in the understanding that it fomented rather than the opportunity to walk through paradise or to marvel at a paradise lost. Aside from the exceptional art, we looked at a fraction of the places and events that chronologically came between the inceptions of European colonialism in the western hemisphere to what has become one of the longest-lasting games of chess (that being Castro versus Uncle Sam). We had the opportunities to meet some of the most intelligent people you will meet that no one has heard of, to walk through streets filled with some of the most gorgeous dancing and music you’ll ever see or hear, to visit the unforgettable locales frequented by Castro or Hemingway but only now catching the eyes of Beyoncé and Anthony Bourdain. But the best part was interacting with some of the world’s humblest people, some who clearly have less material wealth than you could think of but who have lived through the most legendary periods in the Latin American saga. Their stories and general lack of resentment led me to question my own day-to-day exploits within a month to the point that no classroom could ever teach within a semester. Rather than some Orwellian society, Cuba was presented to me as a counterpart to westernized Latin America or to the United States. Intense intellectual conversations could be held with others of a completely different worldview.
I still think it fascinating that the Cuba in Question program was going to occur regardless of whether presidents Obama and Raúl Castro announced their plans to normalize relations last December 17. Sure, it made some of us irritated to think that, soon, everyone would flock to Cuba researching how to open the next McDonald’s franchise or small business. But in less than 2 months from now, December 17, 2014 will have been a year ago. I feel that I should be grateful for the steady flow of news indicating progress between our nations, but I know how fickle governments can be. Instead, every step of progress made simply indicates another shaky investment in our future normality with Cuba. The truth is, the future is uncertain, and this is terrifying. Too many mainland Cubans are too hopeful for what a warm relationship between nations can bring. Many issues await — either related to tourism, class, or race — but it is difficult for much of it to be worse than what many Cubans have already experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the last few months and in the years that follow, I will remain thankful for our experiences in Cuba that now make me part of the discussion.
If you enjoyed reading about Omar’s experience discovering art and culture in Cuba, then remember to check out the Maymester in Cuba and our other summer programs! Additionally, if you’re also a Latin American Studies major like Omar, check out study abroad scholarship opportunities for LLILAS students. And as always, be sure to check in next week to see where in the world our Horns pop up next.