Research Fellowship – Destination Cuba

February 17th, 2014 by admin Categories: Cuba Destinations Feria del Libro MIldred G. Skillman Fund Public History Programming No Responses


Destination Cuba

by C. Wiatta Freeman


This weekend, I arrive in Cuba for my first visit. I am beyond excited!   I am also honored and enthused to be the 2014 recipient of the Mildred Grant Skillman Educational Scholarship. In this capacity, I will be working directly with Cinnamon Traveler throughout the year.

As my field study research assignment, I am traveling to Cuba to help document Cinnamon Traveler’s participation in the international book fair (La Feria del Libro) in the capital city of La Habana. Reportedly, 320,000 people attended last year and 37 countries and 390 authors showcased their literary offerings.

It is an amazing experience when you carry a long, deeply held desire to visit a place and the opportunity arrives.  As a writer and avid reader, to go at a time of literary celebration is all the more exciting.

 Cuba has engaged my intellectual and sentient palate for some time. There is the lingering impact of momentary engagements with Cuban culture and history that have left a thirst to explore more.  There are memories of colorful photos of Cuba’s eclectic architecture, palm trees and vintage U.S. cars accenting the landscape, and the beauty of Cuba’s ethnic diversity and cultural expressions.

A lover of music and dance, there are my remembrances of joyful moments in Afro-Cuban music’s embrace at cultural festivals and performances. Fond ones from dance classes and salsa clubs, of playing the music as a radio host, or listening at home to artists like Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club, the rap group The Orishas and others.

There are my memories of enjoying Cuban cuisine nearly everyday during visits to Miami, FL — black beans and vegetables with rice or yucca, empanadas, platanos (plantain) and mango, guava and papaya juices…and now and again, just a little, of that strong café cubano! — various tastes of a place of which I have wanted to know more…

As a woman of African descent born and raised in the U.S as the daughter of West African immigrants, Cuba has also intrigued me on a deeper level.  I am one who enjoys continually exploring the diverse yet connected histories and cultures of people of African heritage around the world (i.e. the Pan-African Diaspora).

I have been intrigued by Cuba’s retention of African culture, and how it intertwines with Spanish, First Nation and other cultural influences. After seeing the film When the Spirits Dance Mambo during a conference at my alma mater Spelman College, I became all the more aware of African spirituality’s influence.  La Regla de Ocha is Cuba’s retention of Yoruba/West African spirituality (also commonly referred to as Lucimi or Santeira), and it infuses and informs the daily life in both spiritual and secular ways.  

 My Pan-African studies have also led me to discover and appreciate Cuba’s key role in African independence movements, including its decisive role in Angola’s victory at Cuito Cuanavale, which contributed to ending South African apartheid.  The late Nelson Mandela in his 1991 speech in Havana said “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character…Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation!”
I also have been impressed that Cuba as a small, developing country has successfully sustained free and universal medical care, emphasizing preventive, community-based healthcare and reportedly has the best doctor-patient ratio in the world.  Despite the many challenges it has had politically and economically as a developing nation living under U.S. embargo, it has made these advances and then used its expertise and resources to benefit other developing countries via its medical brigades.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last month during a speech in Havana, “I have seen for myself as the Secretary-General traveling around the world, how hard and how generously Cuban doctors are helping people live.  Just a few years ago, in Haiti, [the] Cuban Medical Brigade came, and they saved tens of thousands of people who might have died.  In many African countries, it is the Cuban doctors who really save lives.” 

As an advocate of women’s equality and host of Womanspeak radio program on public radio station 89.3 FM WRFG, I also was glad to learn of the high percentage of women in Cuba’s Parliament (43%), among professional and technical workers (60%), and in higher education (60% of university faculties).

Cuba’s commitment to literacy and lifelong learning is likely a significant factor in such advances. The opportunity to attend the international book fair inspired me to research Cuba’s history in addressing illiteracy, and I soon learned about the 1961 National Cuban Literacy Campaign. 

Thousands of adult and youth literacy “brigadistas” traveled throughout small towns and the countryside as volunteer teachers.  This nationwide mobilization after the Cuban Revolution to end illiteracy helped more than 700,000 Cubans learn to read and write within the same year, and the island’s continued efforts since 1961 has culminated in today’s approximately 99% literacy rate.  In 2006, UNESCO also awarded the King Sejong Literacy Prize to Cuba for successfully applying its innovative literacy methods in 15 other countries.

Ultimately, all of this has given me an abiding curiosity about Cuba and a desire to engage with its society more directly to learn and appreciate more.  And here it is, in just  a couple days, I’ll be in Havana for my first visit!

I invite you to share the journey with me and Cinnamon Traveler.  I’ll be writing daily blogs and sharing photos of our experiences in La Habana and at the book fair.  Hope you enjoy!