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Cuba, Family Style: How I found warmth in Havana

Written by Candace King

Candace King, '15 with Cuban mom, Modesta, and friends

The countdown began at 11:59 p.m. Our iPhones did not have service, but the timers still worked. Thirty seconds until midnight. Fifteen. Then eleven seconds flew by.

“Tres, dos, uno!” Everyone erupted in loud singing:

Felicidades, Modesta, en tu día! Que lo pases con sana alegría, muchos años de paz y armonía felicidad, felicidad, felicidad.

On that day—February 24, 2014—my study-abroad friends and host brothers celebrated the birthday of our host mom, Modesta, at the Malécon—Havana’s vast and majestic sea wall where the waves and sun meet twice daily, at sunrise and sunset. Most locals believe that Yemaya, the mother of the seas, lives in the Malécon. Cubans often pray or meditate in the morning near there. And many young Cubans use it as a hangout spot after school or before a night out in town. The Malécon is a special place for the Havana community, and it means something different to everyone who visits.

Though I had only been in Cuba for two months, that moment on the Malécon was the turning point in my relationship with my host family and study-abroad friends. The warmth I felt for—and from—the people there on that day could match or even surpass the heat of the Cuban sun. For me, the Malécon will always represent love and community.

Conversation and Community

The Cuban people cultivate the land themselves and get most of their food directly from it. Meat and produce are not commercially processed, so the people’s close connection to the land plays out on the plate, and the meals they eat daily are very wholesome and hearty. My taste buds could testify to the appetizing food, and my body felt healthier on a Cuban diet.

Over generous portions of tostones (fried plantains), arroz con frijoles (rice and beans), and the most refreshing fruit jugitos (juices), my host family, study-abroad friends, and I discussed everything from our families back home to what we learned in class. At first, it was very difficult for me to become accustomed to speaking in Spanish, but my family was very patient and willing to help me along the way. In fact, I learned a lot of Cubañol, or Cuban slang, from them! Every element of those gatherings, especially the food and the people, influenced my understanding of relationships and community.

A Journalism Connection

When the time had come for me to decide where to study abroad, my choice had been driven primarily by my desire to perfect my Spanish. I elected to go to Cuba through the Spanish Studies Abroad program for this reason and for my budding interest in the cultural and social realities of life on that island.

Some people questioned my desire to go to Cuba. The misconceptions about the island and its people came flooding in to me from every direction. Although I had already traveled to Ecuador and Ghana, I encountered more pushback from people when I told them I was going to Cuba—a plane ride less than an hour away from Miami. “Poor,” “isolated,” “dangerous,” and “communist” were some of the words people used to describe the island.

Many were confused as to why I did not elect to go to the IC London Center to apply my classroom knowledge in a journalism internship. While spending a semester in London may have made sense for my professional development, my curiosity about the politics of Cuba solidified my decision to go there instead.

As I learned during my time at Ithaca, journalism is about telling stories, and so often to get a story right, a journalist must have an understanding of relationships. Journalists cannot always predict the places their work will take them. In going to Cuba, I realized that journalists should see things for themselves to get an accurate perspective on the relationships that drive a story.

My memories of Cuba always lead me back to the Malécon—and the dinner table. In those remembered moments, the idea that Cuba is “poor,” “isolated,” and “dangerous” has no validity for me. The conversations I had with my Cuban host family and study-abroad friends made me realize that communities are built on relationships, and journalists should understand those relationships. My experience in Cuba taught me so much about this.

Read an article Candace King '15 wrote for NBC News about her time in Cuba




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