Island to island

A Vineyard group reaches out and connects with Cuba.

CCCC Professor Christine Esperson and Chilmark School teacher Jed Katch share letters from Chilmark School students with students at Escuela Primaria in Havana. Photo courtesy of Deborah Maher

I remember thinking, even saying aloud to myself, “I want to go to Cuba!”

That was in January 2015, just after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced jointly that they would be opening the doors between our neighboring countries, which had been slammed shut for more than half a century.

I was not alone.

In March 2015, a small group of enthusiastic Vineyarders began meeting regularly to plan an initial trip. Our vision was to develop an ongoing relationship with Cuba where we could explore areas of common interest and potential collaborations in fields of endeavor such as education, health care, sustainable agriculture, and the arts.

Initially, as transitional rules and regulations evolved and changed, we experienced some frustration. However, we were excited and pleased to learn of a trip and course that was being planned by Professor Christine Esperson of Cape Cod Community College, titled “Language and Culture in Cuba.” It was scheduled for March 11 to 20, 2016, and it seemed to match our goals, timing, and budget perfectly.

Six Vineyarders signed on for the adventure, along with 10 other students, faculty, administrators, and friends of CCCC. Our diverse group of learners ranged in age from 19 to 84, with varied levels of Spanish-speaking ability and comprehension.

Fortunately we had a guide and translator with us continuously as we explored Cuba, and took classes in language, history, and culture at El Centro de Estudios Martianos (The Center for the Study of Jose Martí). Martí (1853-95) was a highly revered Cuban philosopher, writer, and political activist whose revolutionary social ideas did much to inspire the Cuban revolution.

Our morning lectures included topics such as “Race in Cuba,” with noted author and intellectual, Esteban Morales; the life and work of Jose Martí; the health system of Cuba; art, dance, music, and cooking. In the afternoons, we climbed aboard an iconic 1950s yellow school bus with a cracked windshield, and traveled to sites such as history and art museums, a health clinic, a cinema center, an organic farm, and an elementary school. We felt a certain sense of pride traveling the streets of Havana in our bumpy old school bus, perhaps even a little reverse snobbery toward those traveling in the more modern air-conditioned tour buses, who were clearly having a different sort of tour from ours.

Although we were primarily based in and near Havana on the north coast, a couple of us were able to take an overnight trip to Cienfuegos, a three-hour taxi ride away on the south coast. In Cienfuegos, we met with faculty at the Universidad de Cienfuegos to learn about their educational programs and exchanges, and had some time to explore that smaller city, which had a distinctly different ambiance from Havana. Cienfuegos was a more relaxed university town ,and we stayed in a lovely casa particulares, a B&B in a private home, which allowed us to have comfortable conversations with our hosts as well as a young couple visiting from Germany. We visited many art galleries, a creative community project where professional artists work with children with disabilities, and enjoyed many opportunities for informal conversations with artists and educators.

Our experiences in Cuba were varied and filled with opportunities to meet and talk with Cuban people, and to get a sense of their lives and feelings about their country, as well as their hopes for the future, especially on the eve of President Obama’s historic visit. Many with whom we spoke, professionals and laborers alike, expressed party-line appreciation for the good things accomplished by the Cuban revolution, such as free education and health care for all, and an impressive 99 percent literacy rate.

However, Cubans also told us of their frustrations with their inability to gain ground economically, as they earn the equivalent of $20 to $25 dollars a month and must survive with inadequate food rations. Citing one example, our guide and translator had previously been a teacher for 15 years, and had recently shifted to the growing tourism industry in hopes of being able to earn enough, given the addition of tips from visitors, to add to her meager salary and perhaps eventually be able to buy a car and/or a home. We also heard optimism from bus and taxi drivers when they spoke of the more open attitude of President Raul Castro and other upcoming leaders, who will hopefully allow more opportunities for freer enterprise and economic growth.

Now that a few of us Vineyarders have visited Cuba and made viable connections with some Cubans with whom we can communicate and collaborate, we feel confident that we can continue to work toward our vision of an Island-to-island relationship. We want to build on our experiences, such as our trip to a school in Havana.

One of our most touching and inspiring experiences was delivering letters written by students from our Chilmark School to students at an elementary school in Havana, Escuela Primaria asociada de la UNESCO. Not only were we warmly welcomed with delightful song and dance performances, some students there gave us letters to bring back to our students in Chilmark, and a couple of us educators had the opportunity to interview five 10-year-olds who spoke impeccable English. We are happy to have been able to launch this educational project between students in our Island-to-island relationship, and we hope to further develop that connection.

If you are interested in learning more about the Martha’s Vineyard–Cuba Island-to-Island group, on Saturday, May 7, from 1 to 3 pm, the “Curious About Cuba” reading and discussion group will be held at Vineyard Haven library. You can also email for more information.

Deborah Maher is a retired educator, who came to teach on the Vineyard in 1974, and worked in Island schools for 20 years. Deb’s fascination with Cuba goes back to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when she was a freshman in college.