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Cuba as a Classroom

January 7, 2013 | by Julie Halpert

Ruth Behar's house, located in a historic neighborhood on the Old West Side of Ann Arbor, is impossible to miss, painted in tropical hues of sea green, turquoise, lavender, and purple, with a pink and yellow striped porch. It’s intended to reflect the type of abode found in her native Cuba, a culture that infiltrates every part of her life. Behar was born in Cuba, but her family left to flee the Castro regime. She arrived in the United States in 1962.

Behar is LSA’s Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology. She's also the author of numerous books, many of which focus on Cuban themes, including An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1988 and was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995. But she says one of her proudest accomplishments is sharing her Cuban culture with University of Michigan students.

(Pictured above) Ruth Behar stands alongside her 2011 class of students and a Cuban professor and his students in the city of Cienfuegos.

Beginning in 2010, she has taken students to Cuba for a three-month study abroad program through LSA’s Center for Global and Intercultural Study (CGIS). Though several universities run study abroad programs in Cuba, Behar says this is the only one led by an anthropologist.

Behar first headed back to Cuba as a graduate student in 1979, eager to learn about the place where she was born. She didn't return again until 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union. She has visited numerous times since.

She notes that the United States’ relationship with Cuba has changed in recent years. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy issued an economic embargo with Cuba in attempt to stifle the influence of Communist leader Fidel Castro. The U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has been in effect since 1962 in response to the country's human rights offenses. But recently, some of those restrictions have been loosened by the Obama Administration. While campaigning in 2008, President Obama spoke of the need to allow Cuban-Americans to return to visit family in their native country. In April 2009, President Obama allowed families to travel to Cuba, and he issued rules that made it easier for religious, student, and cultural groups to travel there in 2011.

"Just the fact that you can take American students on these programs is a sign [of change]," says Behar. Cuban study abroad programs were virtually non-existent in the 1990s; now they are blossoming. "These students are part of the wave of young people getting their first contact with Cuba."

It's a particularly exciting time for students to see the country, since Cuba is at a "fascinating crossroads." While the country tries to hold on to its Communist system and ideology, it also allows "penny capitalism" as peddlers sell items like brooms and socks on the street, she says.

On January 8, Behar and 13 students will head off to Cuba. Ever since Behar began teaching "Cuba and Its Diaspora"—an anthropology class that is cross-listed with Latina/Latino Studies—a decade ago, students expressed interest in going to Cuba, and wished that the course could be followed with a trip to the island. She says that support from LSA’s Department of Anthropology was instrumental in making it happen.

Because of the trade embargo that the U.S. has in place with Cuba, CGIS works with various U-M divisions to go through complex legal negotiations and a tricky procurement process to plan the trip.  Credit cards are not allowed as a method of payment, so students need to bring cash. As a result, Behar says that the trip caters to self-motivated students who want to "see an edgier place and are willing to go and rough it.”

But Behar says they find it well worth the effort. Students benefit from the opportunity to mingle with her 20 years’ worth of contacts, helping them experience an authentic Cuba. She wants to share the Cuban experience she cherishes with young people, creating a cultural bridge between students and Cuban scholars and artists.  

As part of the program, students take four classes in the morning taught by Behar and Cuban professors in Spanish, ethnography, and the art and culture of Cuba. The afternoons are spent immersing themselves in the country’s culture—by visiting art museums, neighborhoods such as Havana's Chinatown, and Afro-Cuban shrines.

"We treat the entire island of Cuba as our classroom," she says.

Some students take salsa dancing or percussion classes. An African American student spent time in the home salons of Afro-Cubans to find out how they style hair; another played soccer with young Cuban students to learn about their attitude toward sports. One became enamored with the grandmother who manages the apartment where the students stay and spent evenings watching soap operas with her. "He wanted that family experience, and she was willing to give it."

Behar says that every student has been changed by this experience. Each one of the seven students on the 2011 trip has returned to Cuba since their study abroad visit. "They saw a place so close to us but so far, because of the embargo. Many of their expectations and stereotypes were turned upside down."

By bringing these students to Cuba, Behar feels she is creating ambassadors—young adults who are forming their own ties to the country. "They have the networks. They understand how Cuba works."

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