Archive for the ‘Cuba, people’ Category

Cuban Adventure, People

January 1, 2016

Cuban Adventure Part Two   The People

Our Global Volunteers Team was the fifth to Ciego de Avila and the seventh to Cuba overall. The teams to Ciego de Avila have all tutored walk-ins at the Community Center. Although the building is owned by the Baptist Church, the tutoring is open to all.

In the mornings, most of the people were adults. Some of the volunteers also worked with young adults whose English teacher had strongly recommended they attend. The people who came in ranged from those who spoke no English to those who wanted to practice their already good English skills. The latter group, whom I never worked with, gave the volunteers insights into everyday life in Cuba.FullSizeRender (1)


I worked with the people who knew no English. My first, and most consistent student was Myla. We went over greetings, where are you from etc. I wrote everything down on index cards, in English and Spanish, so she could take them with her. When she got stressed (two hours is a long time for tutoring) we used my elementary Spanish and talked about our lives. She used to be a junior high school Spanish teacher until she had to quit to take care of her father. He died but now she takes care of her brother. Her daughter (psychologist or psychiatrist,) and her granddaughter live with her. Her granddaughter is ten years old and studying ballet at a school for the arts. (As I spoke with people it was quite usual to have multigenerations living in the same house. It speaks to the lack of housing and the dearth of building materials.) Her daughter and granddaughter go to the beach for their August and October holidays.

Rita, a college Spanish literature teacher, also came in the mornings. She was quite a character. She brought homemade wine one morning to share. One day when several of us were sitting on the wall in the square, we saw her. She insisted we come to her home. First she stopped by a travel agency and got us brochures and maps of Cuba. We shared organic yogurt. Her home was quite spacious: living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and patio upstairs.


In the evening tutoring sessions, we worked with people of all ages. Many older teens came. My take on it was it was an activity, sanctioned by their parents, where they could hang out with their friends. However they worked hard on improving their English.

One boy, about ten, came with his mother and English teacher. There were about five other children who came. A couple came who were moving to Toronto for jobs they’d secured. Annie, an enthusiastic woman, was a dance teacher who hoped to work in the resorts. Working within the tourism industry was the best way to make money.

One of the girls being tutored was on vacation from her boarding school for high achieving students. She told us about a custom for fifteen year old girls. Not a quincinera, but a photo shoot. As soon as a baby girl is born, the parents start saving for it. It costs the equivalent of $180. The photographer provides the lavish costumes but the girl’s family furnishes the modern clothes. When I asked several other people about the custom, they said they hadn’t done it for their daughters so I’m not sure how prevalent the practice is.


I also worked with a teenager who lived with her grandmother. Her mother was a doctor who was working in Brazil. It was an intergovernmental agreement. She saw patients for free and was paid by the Brazilian federal and municipal governments. In Cuba she earned the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. Teachers make about seventeen dollars a month. In another installment I’ll discuss the two forms of currency and how they can survive on so little.


I worked with Migue, a nineteen year-old, who attended a military academy. He was a bit shy but I drew him out. One night I tutored him with a fifteen year-old girl whose English was excellent. Her father was a tour guide I’d met at the Cigar Store the day before.

One day while we were walking to the Community Center, an old woman and her husband approached us. She was wearing a large Star of David around her neck. Later, some of the team visited her in her home. Her father had immigrated to Cuba from Istanbul. Her husband was a Palestinian Jew. She was eighty-seven and he was a few years younger. Her home was filled with Judaica. Her two sons were rabbis in the U. S., one in Florida and one in North Carolina.



The second week I worked with Emily, the seven year-old daughter of our local guide, Ramon. She was brilliant and reminded me of my own Emily. I told her stories in Enlgish and Spanish. She then colored the characters and in theory told the stories back to me. By the time she should have done this, she was bored. We played color games and illustrated vocabulary. When I wrote “snowman” we both drew one. Of course mine was better than hers, as she’d never seen snow. She ran crying to her father. Gifted children often think they have to do everything perfectly, and I explained that to her father. Emily could read Englihs on a fourth grade level!

One day two other volunteers and I went to Ramon’s house after lunch. As we walked, he explained that he often picked up Emily before the end of school because she didn’t learn anything in the afternoons. Just as he said this, he teacher came biking by, way before school was over. He explained the often repeated maxim, “We pretend ot work and they pretend ot pay us.”

He told us that he pays about eight cents a month for his daughter to eat lunch at school. The charge for daycare, including two snacks and breakfast and lunch, is about three dollars a month.

Ramon was staying with a neighbor while he rebuilt his home across the street. He was hampered in this effort by bureaucracy and a lack of money and the limited availablilty of building supplies. He had been a teacher but couldn’t support his family on that salary. Teachers are prohibited from taking extra jobs that don’t relate to teaching. Then he worked as an immigration officer at the airport but also did not make enough money. He also tried to make a living as a photographer, but the government took seventy percent of his profits at that time. I think government regulations have changed and he’s going to try that again. I saw his photographs and he is talented.

His wife does not speak English and she seemed shy. His younger daughter Evelyn is a cutie pie. Ramon is quite enamored of his family, wonderful to see.

Almost every adult I met was divorced. The families were small, one or two children. That jived with what I had read ahead of time.


Annie, another tutoree, was a dance teacher. Her life was very hard. She hoped to improve her English so she could work as a dance instructor at a resort.

I saw many people fixing up their homes, painting or doing concrete work.


I realized how cynical I was. When I could ask someone on The Boulevard for directions, I would be taken to my destination. I thought it was for a tip, but people were just friendly and helpful. The staff that served us breakfast every day asked to see us all together. They had made flowers for us out of natural materials. I thought perhaps they wanted an extra tip but our leader Warren tipped them, not us. They were just being nice.

I didn’t see any evidence of racial tension. Columbus and the Spanish decimated the native population. Slaves were brought in to the labor, along with Chinese coolies. The latter had little influence on the culture because they were single men who often didn’t marry. Slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1886. I saw lots of interracial friendships and marriages. The word “mulatto” is not offensive. The African culture is a valued part of Cuban life. Aunt Jemima dolls and mulatto puppets are not insulting.

I saw lots of instances of entrepreneurship. Many people had small “cafeterias” on their patios or porches, selling coffee and take-out food. The paint merchant had his wares in huge plastic buckets. The pedicabs and horse and carriage drivers were in business for themselves.

At the Sunday morning outdoor market, pork, wine, vegetables and baskets were sold. The pork and wine was then re-sold to others. To my eyes it seemed unsanitary to have the pork out in the open. To buy wine, one had to bring back a container. Some people had fifteen containers to trade in. Onions and garlic were sold out of the back of a truck, probably to be resold. There was a lottery/ game show going on in the back of the market. People paid for a number. If your number was called, you went on stage and your number was verified by someone in the audience. The emcee put on some loud music and you had to dance. You then won one of the bags of goods.

I found the people I met to be open, friendly, earnest, and very willing to tlk to Americans.