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Students examine Cuba in Black Studies

in Around Campus/Around Higher Education/News by

On Monday, March 13th, Social Sciences Associate Professor and Department Chair at the State University of New York Empire State College Nadine Fernandez spoke in McCabe Library to community members about race in Cuba. Her speech focused on the history of race among Cuban populations in relation to the family unit and relationships. In the audience were students taking Professor Nina Johnson’s Blacks in Diaspora, the directed reading course of the Black studies department this spring semester. This course also participates in the college’s Experiential Learning Program this semester as it culminates with a trip to the island. The course explores Black identity in Cuba in relation to the migration of Black people and their social movements.

Fernandez’s talk framed the construction of race in Cuban circles through the island’s history. She began with describing the island’s colonial plantation economy that imported enslaved people from Africa, led the audience through the Cuban Revolution, and concluded with commentary on the present day. The talk traced how “the sexual economy of race” in Cuba — explained in Cuba’s Racial Crucible by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Karen Morrison as how different sexual actors; their relationships; their children, if they are present; and their histories are defined by race — influenced perceptions of race on the island. Further, it defined how race mixing, or people of different races coming together in sexual relationships and in interracial relationships, helped to form the island’s layered organization of race.

Blacks in Diaspora dissects the African experience in different societies that are historically related to the African diaspora, defined by late Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi in his Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s as “the migration of Africans to the outside world under the auspices of the trans-Atlantic and other forms of slave trade.” This semester, the course considers Cuba as a society with a stratified construction and classification of Black, brown, and white people. Coleman Powell ’20 detailed how the talk helped to parse the racial system we work within in the U.S. versus that of Cuba.

“The concepts of one Cuban race clash bitterly with my own understanding of a country [the U.S.] still reeling from the legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism,” Powell said. “Cuba has a history of mixing between races and this is helpful when one is trying to understand the stratification of Cuban society [such as] the racial categories of White, Black, Indigenous peoples, and Mulatto/Mestizo.”

Part of the experiential learning course is the participation in research on the particular aspects of the Cuban experience in relation to race. Prospective Black studies major Brandon Ekweonu ’20 outlined his research intentions.

“I am very interested in studying the different ways in which different Black people around the world understand their own identities,” Ekweonu said. “I want to … gather data as part of my research on the different ways in which people understand ‘race’ and its implications if they even believe that it has implications. Again, I am most interested in who might identify themselves as Black, Black Cuban, or Afro-Cuban and how their narratives may differ from those of white Cubans.”

Powell, who is studying Afro-Cuban social movements and whether there are connections between Afro-Cubans and other people throughout the African diaspora, stated that Fernandez’s talk provided perspective into how to better approach differing encounters with race.

“The talk was helpful in helping me to think about race from the standpoint of Cubans rather than as an American,” Powell said. “I will have to be very meticulous with my word choice in interviews [for my research] because my perception of race related questions may be completely different than someone of Afro-Cuban descent.”

A key component to the course is the trip to Cuba following the Spring 2017 semester. The trip will allow students to continue research ingrained in the culture and environment they were studying. Ekweonu highlighted how the trip will provide new opportunities.

“For a while now, I’ve been particularly interested in the way race is constructed in Latin America,” Ekweonu said. “For me, [the trip] is going to be my first time ever being in Latin America, and therefore the first time I will ever have an opportunity to witness race within a Latin American context apart from experiences in Latinx communities in the United States. It is also a trip that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to make on my own.”

Powell did note that the trip, although exciting, is the product of a semester’s worth of exploration, study, and research. The trip will be contextualized by the work performed and produced by the students.

“The trip will be a culmination of this [semester’s] learning. There is a research component to this class, and before I even think about the itinerary of the trip, I must first have this research done.”

Powell then detailed his motivations for understanding the Cuban history of race.

“As a member of the African-Diaspora myself, I am deeply interested in the political implications of a group that is linked based on a shared cultural memory of slavery because the nature of our struggles for liberation have been inherently political,” he said.

Powell also made note of how the course had extensive connections to other social science fields, and he highlighted links to historical power structures in relation to the African diaspora.

“I entered the course with the expectation that I would find linkages between the diaspora and the field of international relations as well as sociology in general, and I have not been disappointed,” Powell said. “There is a clear link between imperialism, colonialism, and the scattering of the peoples of the diaspora. Imperialism and colonialism have to do with how empires were administered, and this represents some of the earliest manifestations of the field of international relations.”

In sum, Powell described his goals of connecting his academic motivations to understandings of history, contemporary politics, and intercultural relationships.

“The trip is important in fostering engaged scholarship across international borders. What I learn in the classroom will always be applicable in the real world, or at least that is my goal. The trip will also be helpful in fostering dialogue between people of the diaspora,” Powell said.

Ekweonu went on to say how the trip will provide important context in the study of Black experiences and demonstrates the importance of racial and ethnic study programs at Swarthmore and beyond.

“I’m someone who has, for a long time, been having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to pursue Black studies because of the way it seems to be undervalued by a lot of the academic community. A trip like this reassures me, first of all, that there are professors that are extremely invested in Black studies work in the world and here on campus,” he said. “Second, it reminds and reassures me that so many of my fellow students see just as much value in Black studies as I do. This goes, just as well, for areas like the Latin American and Latino studies program … It reminds me that the work I and so many others want to do is valuable. So, I think this trip means a whole lot for every single person involved.”

Powell echoed this sentiment, explaining the multifaceted nature of the program.

“It is also important to note that this is Black Studies course! The importance of Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field cannot be ignored, especially when it is contributing new and dynamic research to academia,” he said. “Black studies provides a space for discussions on identity, culture, and politics that would not be had otherwise. These discussions and the opportunities, like trip, that discussions produce are necessary if progress towards a more socially conscious state is actually what anyone really wants.”

The Blacks in Diaspora course offers students an opportunity to explore race in Cuba through research and an immersive trip. Students largely see this trip as a way to understand race in another societal context and as reason to support racial and ethnic studies on campus.

Hello from Havana

in Campus Journal by

Hi, Swat!

To all those I know, I hope your years are going well; for all those I don’t know, I hope I will have the chance to know you. In the meantime, I’m here in Cuba finding out the true definition of tropical — humid, hot, a noticeable lack of seasons, and when it rains, it pours. I’m about a month and half into my time here, and it’s been beautiful, challenging, and “just school,” too.

“Just school,” too. “Yeah,” they say, “go abroad, it will be an amazing experience!” You’re so excited, and soon, you’re in your respective country, breathing and exploring and living. You’re in a city, an actual city, not just 30 minutes outside of Philly. Then, school starts, and you’re at the beginning again. At least, that’s how this part has felt for me. The University of Havana is broken up into several carreras (careers) that you enroll in as a first year. These would be, for example, the school of sociology, history, computer science, economics. They are sort of similar to majors, but your whole schedule is predetermined; if you are in this carrera, you will take a specific set of classes. Coming in as a foreign student, you mess their whole schedule up by taking whatever you want. Hence, why I’m taking fifth year sociology of gender and third year history of the environment (oh yeah, they also have five years of undergrad here). I am, maybe a little less than at Swat, diligently studying and turning in homework, papers, and tests. It’s still college, just in a different country … but I guess you could say there are a few differences.

Challenging: I’m not sure if anyone told me it would be, but living in a country where they speak a different language that you’re trying to learn is a constant upward battle — you trip and fall a lot, especially for me because learning Spanish is fairly personal. Being adopted from Guatemala, with parents who couldn’t teach me my native tongue, I’ve had to work to be able to speak Spanish myself. Messing up 100 times a day makes you feel small, especially when “you’re supposed to be able to do this,” but you get back up. You keep trying. Then, de pronto, estás aprendiendo mucho y entiendo más.

Beautiful: I don’t know if I have the words to capture the beauty of Cuba. The malecon at sunset is something I’ll never forget. Riding in old cars is cool, but what’s cooler is getting to know the people who drive those old cars. One of the people I’ve met has been driving his maquina (the old cars that work like taxis in Cuba) since he was 15 years old. He’s 40 years old now. If you’ve never heard of La Fabrica del Arte Cubano, you should look it up now. I’m doing my final project on FAC — I’ll be spending a lot of time there. It opens again this Thursday, and I couldn’t be more jazzed. Really, the most beautiful thing is the people you meet.
An anecdote: Yesterday, I needed to find a book for my research, and I walked into a book store. There, two older folks took some interest in what I was looking for. For the record, these are all government-run facilities. There’s not much incentive, in a majority of the Cuban service industry, to do a stellar job. Everyone in Cuba gets paid the same amount each month, the equivalent to 20 USD. In my opinion, it’s not that bad when you take into account that the state is also subsidizing gas, electric, water, housing, food, etc., so why would these people even bother helping me? They love books and like people who like books, too. They were thrilled to have someone interested in what they had to offer. I was happy too; they helped me find the book I was looking for. Amplify this situation. It is something that happens across this city a thousand times a day. Living here, I am a walking, talking, studying student-diplomat. Cuba-US relations are being played out on a local level every time I walk into a cafe or get on a bus or go to the library or sit on the malecón. The Cubans know this, and I know this. It’s not as tense as you’d think — it’s really quite beautiful.

So here I am, immersed in a country that speaks Spanish, where the government doesn’t acknowledge racism, where education is completely free — yes through college. Where a Coke costs 1.50, but a national soda costs .80; where the beach is 25 minutes away; where you eat eggs everyday; where women are cat-called relentlessly when not accompanied by a man; where abortion is free; where the US embassy has walk-in hours; and you can vote (highly recommend this point, but I think over there, as they say in Cuba, you don’t need to go to the embassy). Where you walk in the streets blasting Cuban rap from your jam box at 2 in the morning, where the sun and the rain beat down, where a picture of Fidel is in almost every house and business, where you can buy juice box-esque cartons of rum, where you literally drink three or four cups of Cuban espresso everyday. This is Cuba, some things may never change.

New Diplomacy Impacts National Pastime

in Columns/Sports by

Over the past several years, the United States’ relationship with Cuba has undergone some dramatic changes. Although the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships with Cuba may hold great political implications, it should not come as a surprise that this new relationship has a direct impact on Major League Baseball. Many MLB executives and organizations have actually expressed excitement toward these recent changes and have noted that these changes could represent a significant alteration in the way MLB organizations acquire Cuban players.

International players in general already play a major role in baseball, as 224 international players made opening day rosters in 2014, accounting for 26.3% of opening day roster players. It is undisputed that the Dominican Republic and Venezuela dominate the international player pool. Combined, the two countries made up 63.4% of all international players and 16.6% of all players in general in 2014. Although Cuba comes in a respectable third, players that defect from the country tend to make ginormous impacts. Five Cuban players were selected to play in the All-Star Game in 2014: Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Alexei Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, and Aroldis Chapman. Abreu and Cespedes have established themselves as two of the most feared hitters in baseball. In Abreu’s rookie year in 2014, he led the American League in slugging percentage and OPS+ while batting .317 with 36 home runs and 107 runs batted in. Abreu not only won the Rookie of the Year Award, but also was awarded Silver Slugger and came in fourth place in MVP voting. During Cespedes’ four years in the major leagues, he has averaged 30 home runs and 103 runs batted in per full season while setting career highs in both categories in 2015. Chapman has established himself as one of the best closers in baseball and holds the world record for fastest pitch ever thrown at 105.1 MPH.
It’s pretty clear that Cuban players have made themselves known in the game of baseball. However, getting players from Cuba to come play in the major leagues is a difficult and sometimes painstaking process. In fact, MLB organizations have to jump over several hurdles before signing international players in general. Signing players from Cuba can be even more difficult. Because of Cuba’s communist regime, Cuban players seeking to sign a contract with an American club must either defect from the country or undergo a very long process to leave Cuba legally. Most players choose to defect. In fact, MLB.com reports that infielder Yoan Moncada, who is currently in the Boston Red Sox organization, “is the only known top player to leave the island legally.”

Defecting is a risky process. A “defector,” according to Wikipedia.org, is one who “gives up allegiance to one state in exchange for allegiance to another, in a way which is considered illegitimate by the first state.” Players must first find a way to escape Cuba. Many players have reported finding their way onto a boat to any other country that isn’t communist or escaping while playing on the national team in another country. Once the player has escaped, he has left Cuba illegally. In order to be eligible to sign a major league contract, a player must establish residency in another country. If a player establishes residency in the United States, he becomes eligible for the First-Year Player Draft, where he will most likely receive a significant cut in his signing bonus. Although it may seem like the process is simple enough, defecting players are forced to hire a “front man” who plays the role of agent to the player. The front man, who sometimes provides services for players to escape, ensures that the player is able to completely defect from Cuba and transition into the United States. However, the player is usually held captive by his front man until the front man has been compensated for his services, which a player usually pays for by sacrificing a fraction of his contract. After establishing this residency, he must petition for free-agency from the MLB, which usually takes several months but is not a very hard process go through, and requested to be unblocked by US Office of Foreign Assets Control. Once a player has done all of this, he may sign a contract and begin playing baseball in America.

The process is never guaranteed, as some players do not receive sizeable contracts and/or can’t reach the major leagues. Should a player fail to reach the major leagues, he is not allowed back into Cuba. Cuban players often defect from Cuba knowing that they may never see their families again.
It’s easy to see how diplomatic relationships with Cuba affect baseball. Inspired by recent progress, the MLB and Cuba have agreed to let the Tampa Bay Rays travel to the island to play an exhibition game against the Cuban National Team on Tuesday, March 22 of this year. This will be the first time a major league team will be allowed into Cuba to play since the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. This historic game marks a step in the right direction for giving Cuban players a smoother, clearer, and safer path for pursuing the game they love.

Finding womanhood in friendships abroad

in Campus Journal/Postcards from Abroad by

Disclaimer: I am a Swarthmore student studying abroad in Havana, Cuba for the semester. My experience is not representative of the experience of actual Cubans or anyone else living on the island right now, nor any/all people who identify as women or who have experiences or claims to “womanhood” (besides myself), especially since that term is so variant and precarious anyway.




Last week in my Cuban film class, we watched a film called Amor Vertical (Vertical Love). To crudely summarize the plot: the protagonist, a young woman named Estela, attempts to find a quiet, private space in Havana to have sex with her new boyfriend. What the movie – and Havana – does time and time again, is fail her, spectacularly, in her search for privacy.


Perhaps it isn’t the “point” of the film to draw our attention to the private and public spaces of intimacy, and more specifically, womanhood in Havana. But watching this woman flounder in her escape from everyone – from her family to the environment to the state – invites reflection on bodies, identity and space in the city.


I thought about my own experience here, and specifically the ways in which I, a person who identifies as a woman, visiting and studying in Havana, understand the space I am so lucky to take up here this semester, and who I am in it. What constitutes my womanhood here? And how do two things fairly particular to Cuba, socialism and the decrease in what I consider “private space,” alter my womanhood?


The fact is there’s a lot less private space in Cuba than there is at Swarthmore College, my other impermanent home. It’s hard to compare these two places, Havana and Swarthmore, because they are so vastly different. But I’ll try.


I’m not sure that I have an entirely private space here in Cuba. I live with a roommate and housemates; the closest I get to alone is sitting by myself on the Malecón, the seawall that stretches alongside the city, and conveniently lies a five-minute walk from my apartment. My already uncertain sense of safety and solitude is interrupted in my moments of attempted privacy. I feel myself turning hostile toward that which is outside of me, but also inside of me, including my identity as a woman.


My study abroad group was warned before our arrival about the culture of “machismo” in Cuba, the kind that would seep from private interactions into public ones, on sidewalks and in bars, and bleed into all of the territory in between. We were told about the piropos (catcallers) and the emotional burden they could impose, how it might be grating to hear as much catcalling as is normal on the streets of Havana. And a lot of times machismo is an invasion of my space, whether public or private, and, by extension, my sense of self, especially as a woman.


But machismo and the unfortunately frequent moments of discomfort that, for me, shape what it means to be a woman, don’t disappear when I’m in the U.S. or at Swarthmore. In both places I find challenge and joy in womanhood, and often find womanhood defined by the specific challenge of trying to find joy in being a woman. In both places, that which acts against women creates situations of discomfort, vulnerability and violence in all sorts of space, both public and private.


There is a very special place, however, created by the tension between public and private in Cuba– the physical space of disrupted privacy that Estela in Amor Vertical can’t flee. Unlike Estela, though, I have found a different sort of relationship in distorted privacy that has allowed me to celebrate the part of myself that I define as “woman.”


The unique publicity of so many parts of life here opens up a third space within the context of womanhood that doesn’t feel like a challenge or an invasion. During my time here, the space of female friendship has been able to bridge the gap between public and private life, and has created space for me to be a woman, and be happy about it.


At our program’s group meeting last week, over sweet cake and hot coffee, my friend raised her hand and said something to our program directors that we’d all been humming about for six weeks, but had not yet addressed together: it is very hard to make platonic friendships with Cuban women. The rarity of these friendships has been frustrating and disappointing. But suffice it to say, for reasons that are too complex to summarize here and that are certainly no one’s fault, we were struggling to find, amongst a sea of other extranjeros and men, something a few of us had experienced and found invaluable: girl friends.


Myself and others have been fortunate to have found female friendships, though, and the result has been rewarding. The promise of common ground and understanding, the novelty and implicated trust within these female friendships, and within the constant exposure of Cuban life, engenders a different sort of exposure that I can most closely define as “private.”


Inhabiting a place defined and created by women (friendship) in the physical, hyper-public environments in which we so often find ourselves – the University of Havana, where we take classes all together, Coppelia, the state-run ice cream parlor, bars, the Malecón – help us feel excited about taking on both our interiority and the outside, private and public worlds, together. For me, this has been one of the happiest and most comfortable iterations of womanhood I’ve experienced.


I’m thankful to be learning from my discomfort and am glad to have found this liminal public-private space, where I can finally delight in womanhood – in safety and autonomy but also in, fundamentally, something shared. I haven’t been in Swarthmore in a while, but I wonder if this third space exists there, too.


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