When I told my father, a son of the Depression-era Jim Crow South, that I was going to Cuba, he was bemused by his daughter’s spirit of adventure and simply replied, “Cuba?”
As an avid traveler, Cuba, a land many consider “forbidden” or “mysterious,” has always been on my list of places to go. When an opportunity to tour Cuba from the Afro-Cuban perspective, I signed up. The group of 13 was comprised of mostly women, professionals primarily of African descent hailing from NYC, DC, St. Louis, and Atlanta.
My realization of traveling to another time began at Miami International Airport when I stood in line to receive my paper airline tickets.
Not often am I American before being Black or a woman. I never feel American until I leave the country. In Cuba, we were recognized as Americans and welcomed. The Cuban people were warm and eager to talk. Often their English was better than my Spanish. Everyone knew someone who had either emigrated or had a family member living in the US.
The tourist experience is plentiful with food, easy access to Internet, and first-class accommodations in a country where the coffee is phenomenal and rum flows like water. Ordinary Cubans, on the other hand, travel by bus, receive ration cards for staples such as milk, beans, and flour, and apply to the government months in advance for permission to travel.
The neighborhoods spill out of Havana and feel like many middle-class enclaves of Miami with manicured homes and tidy streets. As my tour group shopped with a jeweler, the gentleman next door lovingly worked on restoring his beautiful red MG. He invited me into his garage to see how he fashions parts from other cars. In my broken Spanish, I shared, “Mi padre esta mechanico.” This ordinary conversation drove home the interconnectedness of all of us.
The Cuba presented on television is of Caucasian Cubans or superstar baseball players. Rarely do Americans see the beautiful diaspora that is Cuba, much less remember that all the country’s rum comes from sugar grown in plantations established by enslaved people from the continent of Africa.
The relics of Spanish colonialism remain in both architecture and colorism. The guides, tourist bus drivers, classic car drivers, and independent restaurateurs called Paladars are white, while brown and black Cubans are housekeepers, cooks, and bathroom attendants. This is very reminiscent of America’s history of unequal treatment of People of Color.
Communism up close and personal was confounding. Cuba is frozen in time, straddling the line between the 19th and 20th centuries. I didn’t expect modern European and Asian cars alongside crumbling homes, or that our modern tourist coach would share the road with men on horse and buggy, bicycles, and relics of cars. We passed skeletally-thin people sleeping on the streets while billboards functioning as public service announcements or propaganda, depending on one’s perspective, rose above.
I was struck by the power of an individual person—Fidel Castro—exacting a profound effect on an entire nation and the lives of its citizens. In the vastness of Revolutionary Square with Che’ Guevara and Jose Martin looming down, I could hear the echoes of speeches. The presence of the North Korean Embassy was jarring, and the flag poles erected in front of the American Embassy, reportedly to hide messages posted in its windows, was profoundly felt.
Still, it’s a rare pleasure to have the experience of being somewhere so different and reexamine your place in the world. Go to Cuba soon before too many cruise ships dock and planes land with hordes of tourists to forever change the culture, tone, and landscape.