Their hearts are in Havana: Oxford students take a revolutionary trip to Cuba
By Michelle Floyd | Emory Report | May 1, 2018
Oxford students Elana Shebat and José Amador pause to take a selfie while enjoying the streets of Havana.
For some students at Emory’s Oxford College, traveling to Georgia to attend school is an adventure in itself. But for a handful of Oxford students, experiencing a spring-break trip to Cuba was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Bridgette Gunnels’ Spanish class, “Evolution of Revolution,” deals with the Cuban Revolution, teaching Cuban history through the study of film, literature, in-person interviews with the local Cuban-American population, and historical texts. The class began in January with discussion of these topics, and then in March during spring break, students saw the land for themselves — a first for the school.
“This was my first trip out of the country, and I expected it to be incredible, amazing and completely mind-boggling, all of which Cuba was,” exclaims Erin Carter, a sophomore from Valdosta, Georgia, studying Spanish. “I feel like part of the college experience is to travel, and I wanted to go to a country I did not know much about and learn about Cuba’s experiences and history from the perspectives of the Cuban people.”
The class studies how Cuba has evolved and changed from around 1900 through the revolution to the present day, which still includes censorship and lack of technology.
On the trip, 10 students, Gunnels and two other Oxford faculty traveled to Havana for a week, staying in a residence that usually houses small community farmers who are traveling for business. They ate at restaurants most often at lunch when they were traveling around the country, but the staff at the residence cooked them breakfast and dinner using food mostly from the small farmers who stay there.
For one student, the trip was extremely personal. Amanda Rivas, a sophomore from Orlando, Florida, is studying neuroscience, behavioral biology and Spanish. Her dad was born in Cuba, and he and his family fled to the United States in 1979 as political refugees. Now with the political situation between the U.S. and Cuba, she says visiting Cuba is extremely difficult for her, her dad and their Cuban-born family members.
“My family was torn on me going (on the trip),” Rivas admits, adding that visiting Cuba through her school is basically the only way she could do so. “(They said) it would be very anti-American and (the Cubans) wouldn’t be happy to hear that my family was from Cuba.”
Although her grandparents especially were against her going to Cuba and her family told her not to mention her family history to anyone in Cuba, Rivas decided to take the trip and even share with a few locals her heritage.
“It was the opposite of what I expected,” Rivas says, adding that the first person she told was one of their tour guides, who was brought to tears because she felt there is hope that other Cubans would return to the country, too. “It was a very eye-opening experience. They were incredibly welcoming and loving. I knew I had to see it for myself.”
Rivas, co-president of Olé, the Oxford’s Hispanic organization, says the trip was extremely emotional and life changing.
“From the moment I got off the plane, I was crying because I was there and my family wasn’t and couldn’t be,” she recalls. “(A trip like this) really gives hope to Cubans.”
Uniquely Cuban perspectives
While on their trip, the students and faculty heard from government and academic officials, a Cuban sociologist, an art historian from the University of Havana, Cuban artists and religious healers, among others.
“They weren’t hearing from the American voice. They were hearing from an actual Cuban and that is critical,” says Gunnels, assistant professor of Spanish. “We were able to interact with uniquely Cuban voices and perspectives, from the talks with dignitaries to the Cuban-produced video montages about Playa Giron. These resources are unavailable on U.S. soil, and thus contribute greatly to the caliber of the experience.”
In addition to taking day trips to the Bay of Pigs and Matanzas, they also visited the Cuban Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Revolution, which Gunnels feels students benefited the most from seeing.
“All of the exhibits are curated from the Cuban perspective, which presents students with optimal opportunities to compare historical perspectives and narratives,” she says.
Daniel Huff, a sophomore from Denver, Colorado, majoring in Spanish, physics and astronomy, says the trip gave him a more realistic experience — something more concrete than hearing about Cuba in history class or in the news. He enjoyed seeing the culture, hearing music that he especially loved, talking to people that he otherwise would never meet, and exploring the land.
He says one of the most surprising things was how much the Cubans socialize and how mobile they are.
“They spend a lot of time outside of their homes and interacting with one another,” Huff notes.
For two students, this was their first trip outside of the United States.
“I had only heard it was a great vacation spot before I took this class,” says Niah Thomas, a sophomore from Addison, Illinois, who studies Spanish, German and linguistics at Oxford. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I had heard about the underdevelopment of the country, I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. I saw so many old-fashioned cars. It was surreal.”
Before taking the class and visiting Cuba, she felt ignorant about the problems of other countries, but she admits she felt free and relaxed while she was on the trip.
“While the first day without Wi-Fi was tough for me, after that, I preferred not to have it,” she recalls. “I had so much more fun, and I learned so much more when my head wasn’t buried in my phone.”
She says she enjoyed getting to know the locals, who were nice and willing to share their feelings.
“I liked getting to know them and talking about what was normal in their culture and what they valued,” she says, adding that they weren’t consumed with their appearances. “They also were very interested in learning about American culture, so I was happy to share my experiences as well.”
The class continues at Oxford until the end of the semester.