“You still see poverty; it’s just a different type of poverty.”

As a Brown (University)-in-Cuba study-abroad student, the first thing to hit Ana Cuellar was the dialect. 

“It’s really fast and cut off. The ‘s’ disappears all of a sudden. Plus, it’s a completely different vocabulary than the Mexican Spanish I was used to. Most of the time you can understand it and you catch on. But I loved it,” said the Gates Millennium Scholar. 

Cuellar, along with six other Brown juniors, spent 3 1/2 months last year in the island nation where Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed President Fulgencio Batista in 1959, establishing a socialist government that’s still led by Castro’s younger brother Ra√∫l. 

Arriving in late August, the graduate of St. Lawrence of Brindisi School and Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles also had to get quickly acclimated to the unrelenting humid heat. And there was no air conditioning in their 12th- and 13th-floor apartments in a Havana high-rise, while they studied Cuban political culture, history, literature and cinema at the Casa de las Américas. 

But their new digs did have some luxuries (like wireless Internet) that most Cubans only dreamed about. And every morning they woke up to ocean breezes coming right off the Florida Straits. Still, a walk down the street in their Vedado district, which is touted as one of the nicer neighborhoods in the sprawling city, revealed once-exquisitely-crafted large homes now cut up into overflowing one-room tenement apartments.

On one such stroll with her roommates, they approached a group of mothers and their young children. One mom with a toddler asked them: “Take her with you?”

“It’s crazy,” the college coed reflected, during a winter’s break in South Los Angeles before returning to finish her junior year at Brown. “I mean, you know that there are those people who are still loyal to the revolution, but there are those who are dying to get out and go to the U.S. to be reunited with their families in Florida. She wasn’t like a homeless woman on the street. But I think that showed people want to leave.”

On other walks, old men would ask for bars of soap, while women begged for washing detergent. This, in a country where socialism means a leveling of wealth, and where people receive regular allotments of food. 

 “What did strike me about Cuba,” Cuellar pointed out, “is that despite all the poverty people have access to free education. Everyone has health care. Everyone has ‘Libreta de Abastecimiento,’ which gives Cubans food every month. Still, they don’t get enough food, but everyone has beans, rice, sugar. 

“So you still have poverty; it’s just a different type of poverty. Because people have access to all these human needs, but you still have someone who can’t afford a bar of soap. Another thing that was striking was that communism promotes social equality. So you have a doctor earning the same as someone who picks up the trash — which is interesting because who’s to say, you know, that a doctor is more worthy than someone who is picking up trash.”

The one industry on the island that seems to be thriving, according to Cuellar, is tourism. The Brown group learned in their classes and saw firsthand the number of visitors from Canada and countries in Europe. Students were warned about “jineteros,” street hustlers who hung around the fancy hotels and nightclubs trying to separate tourists from their vacation money. 

Learning adventure

The 21-year-old admitted that it would be difficult getting back to the Brown routine of classes, late-night study sessions, term papers and, of course, tests. “Let’s just say we forgot about school, but we didn’t forget about learning,” she quips about her study abroad experience, before adding, “But I do have to say that I feel like I have a renewed sense of excitement to go back and learn.”

While in Cuba, in fact, she decided to change her major from political science to ethnic studies. This might not seem earth-shattering to some — but for a college junior trying to decide what’s the most meaningful thing she can do with her life, it was a soul-searching big deal. 

“I declared political science as my concentration because I knew it was a good concentration that I wouldn’t have to explain to people why I chose it, because tons of students at Brown choose it,” explained Cuellar. “Also, it would prepare me for whatever I wanted to do after Brown without leading to one specific thing. 

“But then I went to Cuba and — I don’t know if it was a leftist move — I decided to switch because I realized a lot of things. I realized most importantly I was taking the easy way out. But with ethnic studies I’m able to study things that really matter to me: like issues of race, gender, class, sexuality. I like ethnic studies because it came out of the civil rights movement, and it’s the story of colored people by colored people. 

“Cuba just made me realize that I can be comfortable with studying something different, in the same way that I have to be comfortable with being different — with being Latina and being a woman and being from the lower class,” she said. “I’m different, so it’s OK to study something different.” 

Living in a socialist state also helped her understand how really lucky she was to be born and raised in the United States. For off-the-cuff proof, she simply talked about food. At first she loved the “whole rice and bean mixture they’ve got going.” And she couldn’t get enough of the different root vegetables she’d never tasted before, such as yucca and malanga. 

“But then we all reached a point where you’re just like: ‘Give me a salad! I just want some greens,’” she exclaimed before breaking up. “There were six girls, so we’re all freaking out about our heath and our weight, and we’re eating all this rice. I started to feel like there wasn’t any variety in our diet. But it was more than food; it was just access in general. 

“So, again, it was poverty, but a different kind of poverty. It was socialism, which was completely different from what I’m used to. Over there you can’t even find a pear, or a bar of soap.”

‘Faith in faith’

Ana Cuellar experienced one more transformation during her “Brown-in-Cuba” hiatus. And while harder to categorize or put a finger on, it was also much deeper. She recalls having a difficult time finding the local Catholic parish. And then during Sunday Mass, only pre-revolutionary senior citizens occupied the pews. 

It made her curious. So one day she decided to bring up the subject to a new friend she’d made, a Cuban about her own age. He said he still had faith in God, but that the church had let him down. 

“It was strange,” she said. “But I found an interesting faith in faith that still existed. That person asked me what the Catholic Church had offered me, and, you know, the first thing I thought of was a community — a community that shares what I believe in. And that seemed to be missing for him. So in that way, it made me grateful to have that religious community as something that strengthened my faith and my spirituality.”

After a moment, the Brown junior finished her thought: “In the same way, my experience in Cuba made me appreciate all the opportunities and everything I have in the U.S. And it also made me realize that I was only given this because my parents came over from Mexico. They realized that in this country the children they wanted to have and raise would have more opportunity. 

“So,” she mused, “I guess all this appreciation for what I have in various ways strengthens my spirituality.” 

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