Just before summer vacation, an invitation arrived to travel to Cuba with a group known internationally as NAME – National Association for Multicultural Education. NAME is a nonprofit organization with a mission of social justice and equity in education. This two-week journey was a learning adventure with a tightly-packed schedule of educational and historic stops, and topics such as inclusion, sustainability, literacy, and indigenous populations dominated the conversations aboard the guided tour bus.
In the past two years, more than a million Americans have visited Cuba, which is a 60 percent jump over previous years. Tourism isn’t new to Cuba – in fact, there are beach resorts filled with Canadians and Europeans enjoying Cuba’s signature mojitos and magnificent sunsets.
On warm evenings, Cubans populate the Malecón, the seawall and walkway that serves as a collective front porch for people seeking fresh air and relief from their warm and often overcrowded homes. Many refer to this as the Cuban living room or the world’s longest sofa, where everyone comes to socialize and debate.
The cars along the Havana seafront are colorful and classic but the result of a 1962 embargo on U.S. imports. We enjoyed a taxi ride in a maroon-colored 1948 Chevy Deluxe, our own personal experience of being trapped in a time warp.
While Havana is the main destination, visitors are also eager to see places such as Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Playa Giron, and Santa Clara. Almost every city in Cuba offers public hotspots, which requires purchasing a two-dollar access card for about an hour of Wi-Fi. Across this 800-mile island, people consider Facebook a national sport and the billboards are reserved for public service announcements.
Cuba boasts a graduation rate of 92 percent and an even higher literacy rate. College students and young professionals started a grassroots project known as Espiral, which is dedicated to environmental issues and sustainable development. Members are now working with NAME and have formed a chapter in Cuba.
Introducing us to Espiral was our tour guide, Rita Pereira-Ramirez. This tiny, bespectacled woman was also an attorney, college professor, lecturer, and published author finishing up doctoral research on gender studies in Cuba. She explained that with unemployment at 48 percent, there is more money to be made in tourism than with the typical government job.
Many of Cuba’s buildings are crumbling, but behind the shabby facades we found a goldmine of stories to be told, from colonial mansion restaurants rich with authentic cuisine and music to tiny gift shops full of handmade wares unlike any in America. Deep into “Habana” – as the locals pronounce it – we were granted a rare glimpse inside one family’s home and lifestyle.
Her name was Myita, a 70-something woman with dark wavy hair and the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. She told us about her teenage son, Giovanni, who fled Cuba in 1994 on a boat headed for Miami. While he had arrived safely in America, her heart ached at the thought of never seeing him again. It was through the work of a NAME member that we were able to give Myita photos of Giovanni, now a 40-year-old husband and father living in the Midwest, along with pictures of his children – the grandchildren she’d never seen and likely never will. We were invited to stay for a delicious dinner of pumpkin soup and baked chicken. Over a good cup of Cuban coffee, Myita shared stories about life in Cuba, the staggering poverty, and her hope for the future.
As we stood on the massive staircase at the University of Havana, the work of NAME became clear: this was not a vacation, but a trip to enhance humanity, respect all cultures, and move to a social justice community. The current administration announcement in June means travel to Cuba will be more closely scrutinized, even for educational purposes.
We left our Cuban friends with a tearful promise to return soon, giving Espiral members our friendship, encouragement, and most of all – hope. That’s the American Spirit.
Mary Parks is creator and host of the weekly PBS television series American Spirit with Mary Parks. She is also an award-winning journalist.