Present-day Cuba is a country where economic crisis is tempered by a thriving arts and intellectual community. Although diplomatic efforts relaxed many restrictions on study abroad programs in 1998, a substantial amount of red tape continues to prevent U.S. students from pursuing academic interests in Cuba. However, thanks to the collaborative efforts of several University offices, last summer Fordham students participated in a monthlong study tour titled “Cultural History of Contemporary Cuba.”
The group of 10 Fordham undergraduates, one alumna, one Fordham graduate student and one Providence College undergraduate was based at Havana’s Casa de las Américas, Cuba’s foremost cultural institution founded with the onset of the socialist revolution in 1959. In addition to maintaining a rigorous schedule of attending interdisciplinary lectures and seminars, students toured the country, reflecting in a course journal on Cuban life, history and culture. Since all of the lectures were in Spanish, an advanced proficiency in the language was required.
“We wanted to give students a more complex view of the situation in which Cubans presently find themselves,” said Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, Ph.D., an associate professor of Spanish who designed and led the study tour. “Cuba is in transition. It is still a society trying to uphold certain socialist ideals about social inequality, yet it is forced, nevertheless, to insert itself in the global market in order to survive. Students were able to experience how those socialist ideals sometimes clashed with the new market realities and how sometimes they created new opportunities for Cuban culture.”
Students heard from some of Cuba’s top artists and intellectuals, including Catholic scholar Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, literary scholar Luisa Campuzano, environmental historian Reinaldo Funes and poet Reina María Rodríguez. For Fordham senior Jorge A. Vallés, meeting with Rodríguez held special significance due to the poet’s prominence within Latin America and the discussion’s intimate setting.
“[Visiting with Rodríguez] stands out because the entire group was able to go to her house, one that she built with her own hands and has served as a haven and meeting place for some of Latin America’s most influential writers,” said Vallés. “She ended the night by reading some of her poems to the group and giving us autographed copies of her book.”
Among the historic sites visited was the parish of Our Lady of Regla, a center for Catholic and Afro-Cuban religious worship. The group also explored the architecture of Old Havana that dates back to the 16th century and attended a performance by the National Ballet of Cuba as well as the premiere of a Cuban film. However, students also got a chance to witness smaller, more intimate aspects of everyday life.
“The most valuable lesson I learned on this trip was that politics and Cuba are synonymous,” said Kattia Tan (FCLC ’03). “The passion in the politics was incredible and every Cuban we interacted with had an opinion—a very well-informed opinion at that.”
In spite of Cuba’s economic and political woes, Cruz-Malavé, who specializes in the Hispanic Caribbean, believes that there are hopeful signs visible in Cuba’s vibrant cultural scene. He also sees Fordham’s historic trip as one of many encouraging signs that individuals are taking time to deeply consider the complex nature of Cuba’s political, social and cultural environments.
Upon completion of the course requirements, which also included reading assignments and weekly papers, undergraduates received four credits, and graduates received credits that can be applied toward a Master’s Certificate in Latin American and Latino Studies. The study tour was facilitated by the Office of International and Study Abroad Programs, Summer Session, the Office of the University Chaplain, Latin American and Latino Studies, and Luz Lenis, Ph.D., an assistant dean at Fordham College at Rose Hill. Administrators are already planning a return trip to Cuba next summer and are hoping to further enrich the program with additional graduate students and applicants from other institutions.