What makes a place imaginary, exactly? If you can paint a picture in your mind so vivid you can swear that you can see it; compose in your ears the voices of those who occupy the space so clearly you can discern bass from soprano; conjure an emotion from it so strong that invokes a sense of actual pride? I’m sure anybody who is a lover of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter knows exactly what I’m talking about—I spent a good amount of time in my childhood roaming the halls of Hogwarts in my mind and took my love for the series seriously in real life. For me, Hogwarts has been (and probably always will) be a very tangible place.
What, then, can be said of a place that, for the majority of your life, you considered to be completely out of your reach? It’s one thing to be able to Google a location and make it your laptop background, or to create a Pinterest board of “Travel Goals” filled with alluring shots of dream travel destinations (something I am definitely guilty of doing). It’s another thing entirely to feel your feet on a different spot of the earth that is unfamiliar to you and taking in the sights of the architecture, of the landscape, and of the people that called it home with your own eyes. And yet, as the desire to travel mounted with every image I scrolled through, so did the feeling of discouragement; how would I ever be able to get myself to Greece, or to England?
For a long time, I thought I would have to be content with the experience I could create for myself: living vicariously through others in their YouTube videos and Instagram photos. While there is nothing wrong with seeing the world through the eyes (or lens) of another person, I couldn’t help but wanting more. Curiosity began began to plague me as I found myself having questions about life in other countries: some were large, like what was the political scene like—how did people engage? Do people interact with each other across racial lines? Others were smaller and more intuitive for scoping out social interactions: is it common for people to say hello or smile at each other as they pass each other on the street?
This is why when I heard about a course Swarthmore was offering called “Black in the the Diaspora” that would explore race in Cuba, I was intrigued. I had a personal interest in exploring social interactions and cultural practices, and had already conducted a bit of research for a class the previous semester in relation to language and cultural preservation for Igbo-American youth. In addition, seeing a society with a completely different form of government from my own would provide me with a working answer as to the benefits and feasibility of socialism. Indeed, traveling abroad for touristic purposes is great when you just want to kick back and relax; but for me, the desire to learn more about the space I would be entering was a bigger motivator.
In conjunction with class readings, students had an individual research component. A student from Haverford and I paired up to explore racial self-identification through the context of religion and linguistics. More specifically, how did the practice of Santeria (a religion with roots based in Nigeria) aid in the process of Afro-Cuban identity formation? In Cuba, the rhetoric that there was no such thing as “race” and that, instead, so as to bolster revolutionary efforts and promote a semblance of unity, everyone must view themselves as Cuban only. So, questioning how Afro-Cubans viewed themselves as they practiced an African religion would prove to see if there was a generational break from this rhetoric or if it was indeed as pervasive as it was meant to be.
In all, the study abroad experience for me was fantastic; not only did get to experience another country, I found myself enjoying the process of data collection and conducting research to the point where I am now considering it as something I would want to continue doing. Admittedly, I now have the travel bug and am experiencing MAJOR withdrawals from being abroad, but this only motivates me to dip my hands into other pots and go abroad again. Not only that, it prompted me to make another Pinterest board: one solely for Cuba to give me inspiration to go back!
Me in front of the Jose Marti Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana.
Standing with a statue of the La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, a work made a community art project called Proyecto Muraleando in Havana.
Sipping straight from a coconut at a countryside farm in Santiago de Cuba.
Outdoor mural at Centro Cultural Africano Fernando Ortiz in Havana.
At the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Statue of Cuba’s first president, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, in Havana.