On a recent November day, students gathered in the French House to talk about a subject that’s on a lot of people’s minds right now: Cuba. The discussion revolved around Cuba’s struggle to determine the role of art in a post-revolution society. The conversation turned to the well-known Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (1993), which, as Eric Mayer-García put it, “broadens narrow definitions of what it means to be revolutionary by criticizing the past censorship and witch-hunting of gay and lesbian artists.” They drew comparisons to authors Reinaldo Arenas and Heberto Padilla, who students had read before the discussion, and who had to live in exile in order to keep practicing their art, much like the protagonist of the film.
This discussion is part of Mayer-García’s Honors course, “The Twentieth Century: Republic, Revolution, and Nation in Cuba,” which introduces students to Cuba through the works of its intellectuals, artists, and authors. Students are able to trace Cuba’s transformation during the twentieth century through the eyes of its own people, using art as a tool for reflection. It’s a wonderful way to introduce Ogden Honors College students to the LSU/Honors in Cuba summer study abroad program, since the class also covers the cultural and historical connections between the United States and Cuba.
“One of the goals of the class is for students to get a sense of the complex history that made the U.S. and Cuba so close for many years,” Mayer-García said. “The United States intervened in Cuba through military force to expand and protect U.S. interests, but within that history there were many inspiring instances of cultural exchange that transformed both countries. We’ve studied the meeting between Langston Hughes and Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén during the late 1920s. Both artists were leaders in the struggle for racial equality in their respective countries. Through this exchange, the authors were able to further innovate their approaches to advancing their goals for social change through poetry.”
Mayer-García frequently has LSU Associate Professor of English Solimar Otero lecture in theclass, and together the two of them will lead the trip to Cuba. Otero, who is also the director of the Program in Louisiana and Caribbean Studies, believes that Louisiana students in particular have a lot to gain from the program.
“There are so many historical and cultural connections between Louisiana and Cuba,” Otero said. “A steamship traveled between New Orleans and Havana in the nineteenth century and, as a result, we share a lot of culture. When students go to Cuba they realize the similarities, but they also get to see the differences.”
Since the Obama administration restored full diplomatic relations with the Caribbean nation last July, people have been watching with interest as the two countries explore the boundaries of their new relationship. With the recent election of Donald Trump, however, normalized relations are less certain. But as LSU Associate Professor of English Solimar Otero points out, cultural exchange is much more personal.
“Cultural exchange happens person to person and relationship by relationship,” Otero said. “Governor Edwards is trying to make connections in terms of economic and agricultural exchange, but LSU students can and need to be at the center of this cultural exchange. They have the opportunity to be ambassadors of the these new relations.”
Students in the summer program will take two courses while they’re in Cuba, but shouldn’t expect the typical classroom experience. The Honors class on contemporary Cuban culture will feature guest lectures from Cuban experts and will be paired with corresponding site visits. The English class will focus on contemporary Cuban literature, art, and performance.
“We’ll also talk about popular culture and music, so they’ll have a richer engagement when they are out talking with Cubans,” Otero said.
Students will even have the chance to make art when they visit local theater groups. “We’re going to go to learn some theater-making techniques from local artists and students will bring those lessons—and I’ll guide them—to do a final presentation on their experience,” Mayer-García said.
“We want this to be a holistic experience,” Otero said. “The courses the students are taking inform their experiential learning. We want them to go out and visit the sites, not spend all their time doing homework.”
“We’d rather they spend time interacting with Cubans or seeing things in Cuba that they can’t at home, instead of being locked in their rooms studying or writing,” Mayer-García agreed.
Mayer-García and Otero are frequent travelers to Cuba, and both agree that there is no time like the present for students to visit the island nation.
“As we move toward normalization of relations, I think it’s this amazing thing that you can only witness once in a lifetime,” Mayer-García said. “To see two countries that share so much culturally and historically, in a sense meeting each other once again. You can feel this energy in Havana.”
“There’s a hunger for human interaction—Cubans are very curious,” Otero said. “Cuba is at a point right now where it’s changing from a purely socialist state into a state that has a kind of mixed economy and mixed culture. There’s capitalism as well as socialism, and there are questions about how people there are figuring all of that out. You can feel the changes in everything from the food to the artwork, and to the new clubs that Cubans are opening all the time. So I think it’s a great time for students to go and experience these exciting changes.”