Black American in Cuba Parte Uno: Checking American Privilege
My husband and I decided we wanted to explore Cuba after former President Obama opened travel to the country under specific categories. Since we live in Miami, our travel would be relatively inexpensive and the journey short. Plus, we were interested in the motherland of so many of the people we encountered everyday in Miami.
We put the trip off three times - for finances and our wedding - but decided to go in December for his 30th birthday.
Even before we got on the plane, I was hesitant to travel there. As a person who works in communications at a nonprofit heavily focused on immigrants’ rights and racial justice, I couldn’t figure out why I was hesitant. Some of my experiences in Miami with Cubans had been iffy - but I chalked that up to Miamians in general being rude particularly considering my southern-bred hospitality culture. But, it wasn’t that. I was a communicator but from my own experiences in Miami, I knew I would struggle to communicate in Cuba because I didn’t know the language and that made me feel embarrassed and awkward.
After we arrived to the tiny airport in La Habana, I looked around and felt a familiarity to similar airports I had visited in Curaçao and the Dominican Republic, though much more orderly and with less people. After we struggled to exchange our currency from Euros to CUC and finally figured out our Airbnb was actually an hour from the airport, we made our way in a taxi across the island. As I looked out the window and saw the iconic 1950s Chevy's riding up and down the highway, I was also pleasantly surprised to see people riding in carriages and buggy’s pulled by horses. Cows and goats dotted both sides of the highways and clear signs of poverty. Abandoned buildings, shacks were prevalent as we drove across the island. I reminded myself to check my preconceived notions. There are certainly places in America that look just like this.
Juan Carlos, our taxi driver who my husband had been skeptical was a government employee, pointed things out to us along our journey. Though he spoke no English and we barely spoke Spanish, we managed to piece together the tour and became excited about the possibilities of what we could see in Cuba outside of La Habana.
When we arrived at our Airbnb, our host’s dog Suki greeted us with friendly barking and immediately came over to be patted. Hortensia, a small woman with dark hair and tanned skin, greeted us in Spanish with hugs and immediately showed us to the guest house we had rented for five days. Her husband, Mario, a tall man with graying hair and kind eyes, greeted us loudly and immediately made us laugh. They showed us around their beautiful garden, decked out with hammocks, a pergola and the makings of an outdoor fireplace. They asked us if we were satisfied.
“Muy bonita,” I said to Hortensia who smiled enthusiastically.
Hortensia and Mario then gave us the rundown of Cuba with maps decked out with restaurants, cafe’s, museums, night clubs. “The taxis from here to La Habana are one CUC,” Hortensia said. “But if you take the bus, it only cost five cents,” she exclaimed.
Five cents? We couldn’t buy anything by in the U.S. for five cents and especially not an hour-long bus ride to a major city.
Though we all barely spoke each other’s language, we pieced together what we knew and enjoyed discovering Cuba in the maps accompanied by Mario’s “friend” the rum.
We decided to check out the restaurant we saw on our way to Hortensia and Mario’s home. It was an outdoor restaurant, covered by that old tiki material. Buick’s and other cars surrounded it in an unruly manner and a heavy crowd of people inside and outside the restaurant stood around laughing and talking and drinking beer.
We arrived and struggled through asking for the menu. “La comida,” we said and a familiar look took over our bartenders face as he brought us our menu. We ordered our food to-go, paired with two Presidentes and sat down to take in the scene.
“If this were a bunch of black people I bet the police would be all over this restaurant telling people to get inside or leave,” I said to Corey.
“Well, imagine if this were in Jamaica, or another predominantly black space, do you think this would happen?” Corey asked.
“I mean in the context of American police. This kind of place would be shut down. I wonder how tolerant the police are here.”
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that there were places that existed like this restaurant where people were undisturbed by the police. But then again, we had only been there for thirty minutes and didn’t understand the history of the place.
“What are you trying to get out of being in Cuba?” Corey asked me.
I knew what I wanted to say but I didn’t want to say it out loud. But if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to break through my own preconceived notions of Cuba or its people.
“I want to understand why people live in a communist country. How people survive without Internet, how people stay connected.
“I want to understand socialism in a way where I don’t judge it for being right or wrong, but just to understand it. I want to not try to understand everything just in the context of Americanism or capitalism,” I replied.
I had all of these preconceived notions about government abuse, communism, working hard and not getting paid for it. I told myself to check my own privilege, which was relative in the states, but here as an American made me privy to opportunities like working at a nonprofit that consistently checks the government.
I was excited for day two and what our trip to La Habana would bring us.
This is part one in a five-part series of Casey Bruce-White's adventures in Cuba.