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Cuba: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

It’s been nearly 6 months since I went to Cuba and in true procrastinator fashion I finally uploaded the photos from my trip and sent them to my friends. Cuba was more than pretty pictures and energetic music. It was an experience that was eye opening not only to the country itself but also to who I am as a person. Cuba left me with 4 gifts, that 6 months later still illuminate my life daily and change the way I look at life.

1) Normalizing being Afro-Latinaafro-cuban statue

Growing up I was always told, “your cousins in Panama are your color”. I knew that Blackness and Latinidad didn’t exist independent of each other. I knew that I was not a unique anomaly – but still I was often treated like one. Arriving in Cuba and being greeted by non-stereotypical looking Latinos was overwhelming. The border control agent who stamped my passport was darker than me with her thick coarse hair heavily gelled and pulled back into a bun. She gave the same unimpressed stare that all border control agents have and seemed unfazed my shit eating grin and wide eyes gazing upon her. Only a few steps off the plane, I felt a warmth in a Latino circle that I had never felt before. I felt like I belonged. The rest of the week continued the same – with a foreigner even mistaking me for a Cuban at one point – and even when being asked by nearly every Cuban I encountered “how did you learn Spanish?” began to take a toll on me. I was reassured again after being told, “It’s not because you’re Black. All Cubans are Black. It’s because you’re American. We didn’t know you guys knew other languages. People go to America and lose their culture”.

2) Pretty facades to hide internal scars

inside cuba homes
We all have days when we don’t want to get out of bed. Family drama, relationship break-ups, or financial woes get the best of us and we aren’t prepared to put our best foot forward… and yet we do. Everyday, you encounter someone who is smiling and put together but internally is a mess and battling their own demons. For months earlier this year – that was me. Cuba buildings are some of the most beautiful – yet simple – structures I’ve seen. Bold colors, minute trim details that add a new layer of depth to a building’s exterior. However, keen eyes and a quick stroll away from the tourist-designated areas of the city will show you the bubbling sours underneath Havana’s beautiful buildings and scenic structures lies a “middle class” that struggles to make ends meet. Dwelling in homes that they can’t afford to maintain, with cement crumbling off the entryways and mold creeping up the walls. There is a level of poverty that my Western privileged makes it difficult for me to understand.

3) Ingenuity as a way of life

cuba streets
Westerners though specifically Americans – are wasteful. We throw everything out. We throw things out because we don’t want them. We throw things out because don’t like them. When electronics break we throw them out because it’s easier, and cheaper, than finding someone to fix it. Lighters, lamps, and televisions – everything gets thrown out. In Cuba, their lack of cheap and readily available parts leads them to be resourceful if nothing else. There is a repairman for everything. When the lighter to turn on the water heater broke, our host told us it’d take a few days to fix so in the meantime, she’d leave paper we could light and toss in to light it. I’m quite expressive and my sheer confusion must’ve been showing on my face because the woman quickly replied with “Cubans don’t throw things away. Everything can be fixed”.

4) The resilience of friendship

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All of my travels, except for two trips, before I went to Cuba had been done alone. I never had to be anyone’s translator or follow anyone’s schedule except my own. I made my own itinerary – though I often didn’t follow it. I am a neurotic Type A personality and yet the vast majority of my closest friends are relaxed, laissez faire Type B’s. How we continually find each other is beyond me. But in Cuba, I brought my best Type B’s to Cuba and my Type A-dom cracked under pressure. I was the translator, the tour guide, the purveyor of the map, the key holder and the agenda creator. It was too much for me and I began to crack under pressure. My attitude soured, my anxiety soared, and my friends took notice. I was convinced this would be the end of my friendships – one of which had spanned over a decade. It wasn’t. When I finally did what I should have done days earlier – speak up – my friends did what friends for eternity have done – stepped up. They didn’t need me to take on all the responsibilities I did. They didn’t want me to be stressed. They were following me because they respected my travel experience and had no trip expectations. I have a tendency to not speak up when my emotions get the best of me and Cuba was the first step in changing such an unproductive habit.