Ven conmigo guajira: Reflections on Cuba by Tiffany Nomakchteinsky
In June, the DC Jazz Festival will be presenting a special Meet the Artist with Jane Bunnett and Maqueque in a historic partnership at the Embassy of Cuba, as a prominent example of the DC Jazz Festival’s continued commitment to providing bridges between international communities through cultural diplomacy. DCJF Education Intern Tiffany Nomakchteinsky had a rare opportunity to experience Cuba first-hand in February in a visit highlighting the importance of the newfound world of opportunity of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. These are her insights.
When I first heard of the news that I was going to travel to Cuba for a week as part of an international study tour with Pepperdine University, my mind was immediately directed to Cuban cigars, antique cars, and mojitos. Although all of these things were present on my week-long trip, they do not come close to describing what Cuba is and who the Cuban people really are. Luckily I was able to travel throughout the country as part of a Witness for Peace delegation, a travel experience that promotes educational exchange with themes including arts, culture, education, law, agriculture, and health care. It only took a week’s worth of exploring Cuba to understand that there are two sides to every story and that one cannot begin to speak for or on behalf of a country and its people if they have not experienced its culture first hand.
I arrived to La Habana on February 17, 2017, and from the airport our group was immediately transported to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, the Cuban headquarters for the Witness for Peace organization. Our group was immediately briefed on Cuban-U.S relations and our itinerary for the week. That day and throughout the rest of the week we were able to meet and converse with Cuban professionals and students in the fields of education, economics, history, and religion. Hearing about culture and policy from the Cuban perspective opened my eyes to the many different ways of looking at government systems and the work that Cuba and the United States must both do to contribute to a more just society.
Amidst the United States’ anti-communist, pro-democracy outlook on government, there is a lot to admire and learn from the education system in Cuba. When visiting a primary school and several arts schools, I was shocked at just how passionate these students were at pursuing their dreams, especially so when it came to the arts. In Cuba, students are encouraged to pursue their passions relentlessly, and their school schedule is specifically aligned with their particular interests. So many dancers, musicians, and artists were completely driven by their craft without any regard to their future economic situations. Not to mention, a University education is completely free in Cuba. Students are free to study whatever they wish, and it is completely up to them and their passions to obtain their degree. One might ask, where is the competition and drive to innovate within this system? In Cuba, there is a greater motive to achieve under a free education, for every student must compete against others that have the same opportunities and access to after-school programs. The competition comes out of a personal desire to be better than your peers at your craft, and the opportunities are available for you to do so without any need to obtain economic resources.
Music and arts in Cuba can be described in two words: “innovative” and “personal.” Innovative in that music students and professionals are always striving to push the barriers of traditional Latin-jazz tendencies. Personal in that each artist and group has their own unique sound that emanates from their own life experience. Living on an island with limited resources and access to media can be frustrating, and music is a way of not only straying away from the discomfort of poor living conditions, but a means of expressing oneself through the translation of human emotion to art. I was moved by the amount of time students put into their art and the passion that came through when they performed. I had the opportunity of visit a post-secondary arts school outside of Havana, and upon arriving there we witnessed a moving dance that told the story of two gay lovers’ frustrated coming to terms with their own sexuality. It was a beautiful representation of the struggles that the LGBTQ community face both in Cuba, the United States, and around the world. This moment illustrated before me a shared sense of humanity among our two countries and our people despite tensions between our two governments.
In addition to the Obama Administration paving the way for diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, it is necessary that one experience Cuba and its people for themselves. Only then can they begin to understand what this beautiful country has to offer.