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Stories From Inside the Blockade: CWRU in Cuba

“This is a place without time,” said artist Rolando Estévez Jordán.  A place where vintage American cars are used daily as taxis; where college students have never accessed the Internet; where pay phones are common, and cell phones do not have data plans.  This is where the students of SPAN 306: The Cuban Experience spent the first three weeks of Summer 2012.

This was the first time Case Western Reserve University students travelled to Cuba, and also the first time that Ediciones Vigía hosted American students.  They have previously hosted Spanish and Canadian students.  Damaris Puñales-Alpizar, professor and organizer of the course, was excited to be able to show her students what her home country is like first-hand.

“When you offer a program in another country, the students learn the most about the culture. When the class is at the university in the United States, it’s a ‘cold class…’ But when students go to another country for even three weeks, it changes their lives. They confront things directly instead of reading and believing what something in class says,” Puñales-Alpizar expressed.

The pioneering class was meant to open students’ minds and break down stereotypes that both cultures have for the other.  By allowing us in to their lives, we were able to see a side of Cuban culture we may have never been able to in the United States…and vice versa.

Out of the many cities and cultural institutions visited, publishing house Ediciones Vigía served as a home away from home.  There we found an honorary abuela cubana (Cuban grandmother), a snack in between lessons and presentations, and people who invited us to dine with their families later in the evening.

“They treated us like family. They invited us into their homes, spent family time with them… All of the people in Vigía worried about us,” says Puñales-Alpizar. “They worried about whether we were homesick, had contacted our families… They really took care of us.”

The editor-in-chief, Laura Ruiz, and director, Augustina Ponce, of Ediciones Vigía organized many trips during our stay.  The first and one of the most memorable was within a few days of landing in the not-so-far country, called “El Proyecto Corazón,” or, the Heart Project.

Proyecto Corazón is meant to open the eyes and minds of visiting intellectuals to Cuban culture.  To live in the country, to truly experience the culture, and to use it as an inspiration in writing and art, is what the project is all about.  Although it has not come into fruition, the organizer uses the future home for other purposes.  It houses local artists after long days in the meantime.

The bus that we took from the city to the remote campo would have been condemned and probably pounded into a little square to be stacked with the rest of the too-old cars a long time ago in the United States.  Planks of wood covered the unfortunate areas that time wore away.  The spare tire was a spare seat.  The driver coaxed the engine to start, and with a roar, we began our journey to el campo.

The “guagua” stopped to pick up members of the theatre troupe.  Gymnasts, jugglers, storytellers, painters, and musicians climbed on to become teachers for children in the rural areas around Matanzas.

The children gathered around the room in matching uniforms of maroon bottoms and white button downs to watch a magician make a broken fan fixed and a narrator tell the history of an old orange tree.  Across the street, a painter, musician and comedian humored an old person’s home with jokes and songs of Che Guevara.

They gathered to educate and entertain, and to relish their culture.  Once the school day finished, we traveled to the place that the leader of the troupe hoped would soon be a home to visiting writers and thinkers.  The musicians continued the concert that began on la guagua while surrounded by fields of sunflowers.

While the meal, a hodgepodge of almost anything you can find in a kitchen thrown into a pot, boiled and bubbled, we were all asked to sign the walls of an old building.  We wrote messages in Mandarin, French, Spanish, and English, the four languages the five could say one phrase in — “I love Cuba.”

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About the Contributor
Katy Witkowski, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Katy Witkowski is a senior political science and Spanish student with a minor in English. Along with serving as the arts & entertainment section editor, she is a programmer at WRUW-FM 91.1 Cleveland, a box office attendant for the theater department at Case Western Reserve University, the treasurer of the University Media Board and an editorial intern at Cleveland Magazine. She also has a social life, despite this laundry list of responsibilities. The most important thing in her life is her dog, Lily.

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