Reflections on Cuba – Pan African gathering place

March 22nd, 2014 by admin Categories: Cuba Destinations Featured Feria del Libro Public History Programming Random No Responses

“Cinnamon Traveler at La Feria del Libro: a Pan-African Gathering Place”

by C. Wiatta Freeman.

As the first U.S. participant in Cuba’s international book fair and with the first African American book exhibition, Cinnamon Traveler certainly attracted a lot of curious visitors of various backgrounds. Soon it became a place not just to visit for the viewing and shopping of books and other cultural items, but also a place to dialogue and to share with others. Organically it developed into a space to converse and reflect about what it means to be a person of African descent in Cuba and in the U.S. 

Photo credit: Grace Lynis

Photo credit: Grace Lynis

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

There were certain books that attracted a lot of attention….Webster’s Everyday Spanish-English Dictionary was a hot item on the shelf, as was Frances Vocabulario. The Color Purple by Alice Walker was also often picked up. I was told that it is one of the books that Cubans read in school and others referred to the movie as an inspiration. We also sold out of our copies of Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Photo credit: Grace Lynis

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Books about the Obamas also drew a lot of attention: Los Sueños de mi Padre the Spanish language translation of Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama (written before he became U.S. president) and two English language biographies about First Lady Michelle Obama.   There was particularly a lot of admiration expressed for the First Lady.  Visitors frequently remarked that she is very intelligent, beautiful, and strong, and that they like the way that she carries herself. 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

I heard little discussion about Obama policies and how they impact Cuba. Yet I do remember a discussion about Cinnamon Traveler being able to participate in the international book fair because of changes in US policy toward Cuba under the Obama administration.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

I also remember an elder Afro-Cuban brother stopping by the booth asking from where were we.  We told him “Los Estados Unidos”, and he repeated Los Estados Unidos with a disapproving and sad tone.  He shook his head, and commented on how difficult U.S. policies have made life in Cuba (e.g. the U.S. embargo).  In response, we told him that we understood his viewpoint. After a brief discussion, he still left with a furrowed brow, albeit at least there was some dialogue.

A Cuban sister of First Nation descent also stopped by and had an in-depth conversation with Grace about African-American literature and socio-political issues, she was clearly well-read and well-informed. She also invited us to a monthly event at Casa de Africa (the Africa House) in Habana Vieja. Although the event was actually rescheduled, having been preempted by La Feria, the exchange provided us with an important contact for the future.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

We also had many international visitors, including from Ecuador, Guyana, Angola, South Africa and Germany. Some of our South African visitors enthusiastically purchased a stack of books.  Their purchases included three volumes of Brotherman comic books, Possessing the Secret of Joy and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Mercy by Toni Morrison, and the Talk,Talk book of Ashanti folktales. Grace also had a fascinating conversation with a engaging diplomat who invited her to visit the embassy’s office in Cuba.

A group of Cuban graduate students in education stopped by the booth a couple of times. They were eager to learn more about the African-American experience and to get English-language books to further develop their knowledge and language skills. Grace also gave them books as gifts toward the end of the fair.   

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

One student returned alone later with a thank you letter to Grace. She did not speak or write English fluently, but translated her letter from Spanish online. She thanked Grace for expressing pride about being a person of African descent. She shared the encouragement that her Jamaican grandmother had given her about Black pride. I was moved to witness this, and it deepened my appreciation for the value of the Pan-African cultural exchange that Cinnamon Traveler’s participation in the fair created.

A couple of African-American brothers also visited the Cinnamon Traveler book display and our dialogues with them led to me doing two separate interviews. One was with a Morehouse College graduate who still lives in the U.S., but who frequently visits Cuba and who met his Afro-Cuban fiancé during one of those visits.  We maintained his anonymity per his request, but look forward to us sharing excerpts of his recorded interview in a future blog post.

We also had a quite informative dialogue and recorded interview with U.S.-born Manolo de Los Santos of Pastors for Peace, who has been living in Cuba since 2006.  He talked in depth about the impact of the U.S. embargo in Cuba and the humanitarian work that Pastors for Peace does for Cubans despite the embargo.   We will also share excerpts of his interview in a future blog post, and you can learn more about Pastors for Peace and their work at http://www.ifconews.org/.

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We also had frequent conversations with Cubans working at La Feria, especially professor Eliseo Alfonso Llorente and social-cultural promoter journalist Jorge Milanes of the Havana Times. Jorge managed the media center operations and Eliseo managed system wide promotional announcements at La Feria del Libro. We learned so much from these brothers during our dialogues at the Cinnamon Traveler booth, about the significance of the Cuban experience as both career professionals and as men of African descent. We have recorded interviews with them to share with you too!  

Also upcoming are great interviews with teacher and tour guide, Sara Herrera Gonzalez and 2013 Mildred Grant Skillman fellowship recipient and Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando will also be featured in future postings.

Cinnamon Traveler’s dialogue with Cubans also spanned beyond the book fair thanks to interviews that Cuban journalists from Radio Habana Cuba, did with Cinnamon Traveler founder Grace Lynis and Cinnamon Traveler La Feria associate Diana De Brito. Diana was a wonderful representative for Cinnamon Traveler at the booth and she also did a radio interview for us at the Media Center.   

Photo credit: Grace Lynis

Photo credit: Grace Lynis

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Diana is Gloria Rolando’s niece and when not at La Feria, she is a doctor of dentistry and oral surgeon in Cuba. Her aplomb and eloquence, pride in her Pan-African heritage as a woman of Cuban and Angolan descent, and her Spanish fluency was a valuable contribution to our presence at La Feria del Libro. We also had enthusiastic and helpful daily assistance from Sara Muñiz, who is an art history major at the University of Havana, was appointed by La Feria as a student intern.  She was also a good translator. Much thanks to both of our Cuban sisters for their contributions and the opportunity for daily cross cultural exchanges!

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

In essence Cinnamon Traveler was a space for people of various backgrounds and ethnicities, to gather around a warm table for deeper conversations about what it means to be a person of African descent in the Americas. We look forward to more of such quality cultural exchange and dialogues during future visits.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman