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April 21, 2004:

Spring break in Cuba
A world away, 45 minutes by air

By Jen Albinson ’05

In the middle of a worn block in the town of Matanzas, Cuba, 15 Princeton students and I followed three professors through a narrow, unmarked door with peeling paint and rusted hinges. Though our eyes were still adjusting to the sudden darkness, we mounted stairs, carefully avoiding crumbling tiles and puddles of water. The stairs opened into a large, empty room, with balconies overlooking the street. We milled about, looking at each other with unsure eyes.

Eventually, we settled on one side of the room, sitting in chairs and on the floor. On the other side, men, women, and even three children poured in from the balconies and began to unpack drums and adjust chairs. Without introduction, they began to beat the drums, to sing and to dance. For an hour, we sat still, transfixed by the pulsing drums, the shake and rattle of the shell-covered gourd, the voices of the singers, loud and soft, call and response. In front of the drummers and the singers were dancers – flirting and fighting, moving with pleasure and sadness. With their hips alone, they relived the history of slavery, made clear their society’s gender roles and their pride in the African, Spanish, and indigenous traditions that influenced their culture. Before I had left for spring break, a friend had taught me a mnemonic for spelling rhythm – Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving. Their hips were moving. Ellen Charles ’06 agreed, noting that the dancers were “surprisingly explicit in how they showed the violent side of Cuba’s history.”

After the show, several of the performers sat with us, telling us the history of their group, their town, and the story of Cuban rhumba. As we filed back down the stairs and into the hot sunshine of springtime Cuba, Woodrow Wilson School professor Sujatha Fernandes mentioned that this rhumba group, the Muñequitos de Matanzas, founded in 1952 and famous throughout Cuba, and had never performed for a private group before.

The 16 of us Princeton undergraduates had found ourselves watching the Muñequitos through a program called Princeton-in-Cuba, which was founded in 2000 and gives students the opportunity to travel to Cuba over spring break to investigate individual topics. Originally a student initiative, an outgrowth of politics professor Paul Sigmund’s Latin American Politics course, the program now officially falls under the Program in Latin American Studies (PLAS). This year, four professors accompanied the sixteen of us: Michael Stone, executive director of PLAS; Sujatha Fernandes of the Woodrow Wilson School; Associate Dean of Religious Life Paul Raushenbush; and Latin American librarian Fernando Acosta-Rodriguez.

We students — two freshmen, six sophomores, seven juniors, and one senior — flew into Havana with the broad intent of studying religion, music, and the formation of the Cuban identity. Our individual projects were more nuanced, looking into everything from Cuban Internet access to the history of Afro-Cuban religions. Over the course of the week, which we mostly passed in the capital city, we participated in group activities – the Muñequitos concert, a private tour of the National Archives – and pursued our individual topics. One student wisely choose to research baseball culture. He spent several of his days “researching” while simultaneously cheering the Havana Industriales through the playoffs.

Although my fellow PICers were among the most well-traveled students I’d encountered at Princeton, we all found Cuba to be unlike anyplace we’d ever been. Though only a 45-minute flight from Miami, it was indeed a different world. Because of the official U.S. ban on travel to the country (from which we were exempted, given our research purpose), as well as the embargo, there were few reminders of home: no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Americans, even. While some Americans slyly travel to Cuba, usually by way of Mexico, all of the tourists we encountered hailed from Western Europe or Canada.

Cuba was also of a different time, lost somewhere in 1958 or earlier. American cars from the 1950s, complete with chrome trim and tail fins, roamed around Havana, passing in front of crumbling colonial facades and gates made from curlicues of wrought iron. Socialist propaganda covered the streets, with murals proclaiming “patria o muerte” and emblazoned with the ubiquitous face of Che Guevara.

As foreign as Cuba seemed to my fellow student-researchers and I, we realized (over mojitos on our last night in town) that as detached as we were from zip code 08544, Princeton-in-Cuba had really brought out the best of Princeton. As well as igniting a passion for the study of Cuba, and of broader Latin America, the trip also reminded us of the struggles and rewards of independent research. It presented us with seemingly unbelievable opportunities, supportive professors to guide us, and academically curious peers as companions. We spent our days talking to Cubans (Cuban academics, Cuban leaders, Cubans on the street) about race, the embargo, art in a socialist context, or the economic struggles confronting the island. By night, our professors gave lectures, providing background to what we had witnessed. By late night, we engaged in informal discussions with our classmates, sharing anecdotes and creating for one another a clearer picture of the country. These late-night discussions proved among the most rewarding aspects of the trip. For example, after learning from Professors Fernandes’s lecture that most Cubans cannot move from the housing the government assigned to their family in 1957, some students recalled seeing signs in windows, not saying “for sale,” but rather “se permuta” - willing to exchange. Other students remarked on the beautiful old mansions they had seen, redistributed to four or five families after the revolution. We together contemplated both the inherent justice and injustice of this system – how good of it to eliminate urban slums, how complicated it must get with ever-growing families. These evening discussions were, according to Ellen Charles ’06, “Princeton students par excellence: knowledgeable, passionate, intellectually engaged.”

Along Havana’s coast, next to the U.S. Interests Office, stood a proud billboard. Like all other billboards in Cuba, it was state-owned, state-written. It said “Señores Imperialistas: ¡No les tenemos ningun miedo!” (Mr. Imperialists: We are not at all afraid of you!”). A cartoon under the slogan depicted a gangly Uncle Sam on one shore, stretching out a waggling finger. From the other shore, a Cuban in fatigues stood in the shade of a palm tree, looking calm and confident with his large gun. When our contingent of Princeton University representatives, some 20 strong, descended on Cuba, we were afraid that Cubans would see us as such Señores Imperialistas. Instead, we were warmly embraced, invited to absorb the culture, to learn the history, to help think critically about problems. As the Muñequitos sat with us after the concert, they asked us what about Cuba interested us, just as did the archivist, the renowned artist, the religious leader and the rap star. The answer was a simple one: todo.