Living on the Hyphen

My parents came to this country from Havana, Cuba in 1990. Two years later, they had me, not on the island, but they may as well have. I grew up in Hialeah, which according to Wikipedia is home to the largest Cuban and Cuban-American population in the U.S. I was surrounded by Cuba everything, everywhere. I knew the impermeable smell of Violetas, most of the street names en El Vedado, the slang from the chusmeria, and the aroma of frijoles negros cooking on the stove. I even had the memories. The black and white store fronts and the sepia-toned images of el Malecon. I had never gone to Cuba and yet I missed it and longed for it as if it were my home. I recently learned there is a word in Welsh for this feeling–“Hiraeth.” The word means homesickness for a place that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was. I think the literal translation in Cuban would be ni de aqui, ni de alla.

Ni de aqui, ni de alla. That did not become more clear than when I left Hialeah for college. It is in the hallowed halls of the University of Florida that I realized how different I was and how unique my experiences as a Cuban-American in Hialeah had been. What do you mean there isn’t a Publix Sabor here? You mean, your parents have never asked you if you were a communist? How have you never tried tostones?! The list goes on and on. Suddenly I was too Cuban.

When I visited Cuba for the first time in 2012, I was ready to use all my Cubanidad. I felt like I had trained for this moment by whole life. Instead, I was met with cousins who said I dressed differently, that I spoke a little strange…se nota que tu no eres de aqui. Remember, I am not from here or there, ni de aqui ni de alla. Suddenly, I was too Yuma.

Nonetheless, that trip was amazing. I was able to see my paternal grandmother for the first time ever. Unfortunately, Paquita had Dementia and could not remember who I was. That did not stop her from constantly scolding me to peinarme el pelo. I soaked up every minute I could with my abuela Paquita who died shortly after our visit. I realized that that short trip, while incredible, was through my father’s jaded lens. I longed to have my own take on Cuba.

When I was selected to be a CubaOne participant, I was elated. This organization felt like I had an opportunity to make my own Cuba story with other women who had felt like they were neither from here or there. That is exactly what happened.

The most important thing that happened to me during my trip to Cuba was getting connected to my Afro-Cuban roots. I was so nourished by that aspect of my Tu Cuba trip. Growing up I only knew White Cubans, except for my father. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and was teased mercilessly because of my coiled, kinky hair and afro-centric features. You don’t look Cuban. Not only was I ni de aqui ni de alla, I was neither blanca or negra. I was a strange hybrid known as Jabada, as they called me. Seeing Cubans in Cuba, with my espendru, who looked like me, made me feel accepted.

Thanks to CubaOne, I was able to meet the oldest living relative on my father’s side, my great aunt, Tia Amparito. I was introduced to a whole other part of my family that was rarely talked about. This was the Black side of my family and, as such, record keeping was not the best. In fact, we can only go as far as my great, great, grandmother, Lucila, and there are no pictures of her to date. Lucila fought with Maceo en la Columna invasora de Oriente as a freed slave. The void of not being able to retrace that part of my lineage hurts. I imagine who my ancestors were, where in the continent of Africa they resided before being shackled and what that harrowing journey was like for them across many seas. After meeting Tia Amparito, I was humbled and filled with love for the lineage of headstrong, resilient, and brilliant Black women who came before me and have guided my path onward. It is vital that their stories be heard and conserved.

Prior to my trip to CubaOne, I thought everyone wanted to leave the island. That was my understanding based solely on my family. Now, I know that there’s a growing number of people who are proud of their island and are investing in its future. Activists and human rights advocates included. Revolutionary women like Magia from Obsesion, shattered all my preconceived notions of Cuban people in Cuba being powerless to the system. People are fighting back and organizing in their own ways. Much like my work in the U.S., I want to work to decolonize the unjust systems in place and uplift the voices of marginalized communities on the island. I want to dismantle structures of oppression and end racial and economic inequality. My first step in doing so? Honoring the legacy of my fore-mothers and telling their stories.

It is in the here and there, somewhere between Africa and Europe, that I find where I where I belong–nestled comfortably on the hyphen between Cuban and American.

Let Monthly Giving be a Part of Your New Year’s Resolution

Make your giving to CubaOne as simple as possible by setting up a recurring monthly donation. 

Your sustainable monthly gift allows CubaOne to continue providing programming and Tu Cuba trips that focus on Reconciliation, Engagement, Heritage, and Community

Contributions made to CubaOne are tax-deductible to the extent provided by law.


Why I make a monthly donation to CubaOne – a Q&A with Tu Cuba fellow Rebecca Carriero

“…the eight of us who went on this trip and the hundreds of others who have gone through CubaOne are making small cracks in the road towards a relationship with Cuba not shaded by black and white debates of the past but informed by a colorful pallet of complexity and reality.”

Rebecca Carriero, CubaOne Tu Cuba Fellow

Q: How has your life, both professional and personal, been impacted since your participation on a TuCuba trip?

I was set to arrive in Cuba, along with 7 other CubaOne fellows,  just a day after Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz Canel officially was inaugurated as Cuba’s new president. The first non-Castro to act as the nation’s figurehead. Leading up to the trip, many international news outlets wrote long features about what this would mean for Cuba.

I work in media relations so I was already paying attention but this heightened my attention towards how Cuba was being presented to the world and who shapes the narrative. With CubaOne, I was able to meet reporters on the Island to talk about the media landscape and the complex system that goes into reporting there.  The trip also provided a great opportunity to have in-depth conversations with my brilliant colleagues at Bloomberg News who are based in and/or cover Latin America. Thanks to their questions, insights and curiosity I was able to go into Cuba and to return from Cuba extremely informed.

Rebecca speaks with ABC reporter Hatzel Vela outside of the privately owned Clandestina in La Habana Vieja during her Tu Cuba trip

I was also able to make inroads in my goal to use Spanish in a professional capacity. I don’t speak Spanish perfectly and did not learn how to read and write the language until I was in my early 20s. As a communications professional – and a woman of Cuban descent – I have long felt self-conscience about it. Speaking in mostly Spanish throughout the trip gave me confidence to employ the same skills at work. Since returning from Cuba, I was assigned a project liaising with Spanish speaking governments and am proud to say that I was able communicate fluently and effectively. Going forward, I see it as a growth for me professionally.

Personally, a huge gap in my life has been filled by visiting the Island and since returning, the trip to Cuba has helped open lines of communication with my family in the U.S. and Cuba. They showed me their refugee cards, passports, obituaries and a mountain of photos that I had never seen before. I can now tell you my great grandparents’ height and eye color. Details that make them feel real and present. Once on the Island, I connected with family.  

Q: When did you decide you would support CubaOne’s mission by supporting the organization as a sustainable monthly donor? How has this experience been for you?

I decided to support CubaOne the moment I landed back in the U.S. It’s not as difficult to go to Cuba now as an American but the intense, unique emotional experience that I shared with seven others deeply impacted me and could only be provided by an organization like CubaOne.

For most Cuban Americans, Cuba has been a mythical, untouchable place where our families fled and couldn’t return. I think we all processed this experience in a profound way. I even feel a sense of responsibility for what happens next. To get to do that with other people is almost a relief – I did not want to do this alone. I now have a sense of community that I didn’t have before.  

I deeply believe in the mission of CubaOne. The timing of our arrival in Cuba was perhaps a tiny footprint in the history books but the bigger picture is that on a small scale, the eight of us who went on this trip and the hundreds of others who have gone through CubaOne are making small cracks in the road towards a relationship with Cuba not shaded by black and white debates of the past but informed by a colorful pallet of complexity and reality.

Cuba will require and benefit greatly from cultivating deep relationships between individuals capable of breaking through the limited color spectrum of politics du jour. Cuba needs deep systematic changes to enter the 21st century on its own terms. It will  require ingenuity, foreign investment and most of all – collaboration.

Q: What do you feel are the perks of being a monthly donor?

I’m in New York so I don’t get to experience the alumni gatherings that CubaOne often hosts in Miami so for me, I’m motivated by the sense of community and knowing that I am helping send someone else on a transformative trip. It’s important for future generations of Cuban Americans to maintain connections so that we can collectively contribute nuanced views on immigration, diplomacy and development.

Q: Would you encourage other alumni, friends, and family of CubaOne to join the monthly donor program?

Yes, of course. The biggest challenge is getting people to care about an Island like Cuba when there are arguably so many places in the world that command our attention and empathy. But that’s where our experience as CubaOne alumni makes the difference. We all went to Cuba for the first time because of CubaOne and for those who had a positive experience, we are uniquely equipped to understand the magnitude that this can have on Cuban Americans and Cubans.

For those who have not experienced a CubaOne trip, there is still a case to be made that establishing relationships now with Cuba can be mutually beneficial. For those who wish to shape policy or business in Cuba, the insights of hundreds of CubaOne alumni is an asset and support for this network pays dividends.

To make a one time donation, visit cubaone.org/donate. For major gifts and corporate social responsibility programs, please contact Community Engagement & Special Gifts Director, Luis Quijano at luis@cubaone.org

Important things for first time visitors to Cuba, by Cubans

Cuba: beaches, mulata, tobacco and rum. That’s it? Or is it just a marketing slogan? Come see for yourself.

In 2016, over six hundred thousand Americans (many of them Cuban-Americans) came to Cuba, an increase of a 33% compared to 2015. Although in 2017 & 2018 the number remained almost the same because of the changes in relationship between the US and the Cuban government, many Americans continue traveling to the island.

If you are thinking about visiting Cuba, here is some advice for new visitors: by someone that lives here.

Best season to visit Cuba

The sun is out practically the entire year. Nevertheless, dry weather and a light winter can be found between December and February. The traditional tourist season is mainly between November and March, including the end of the year, when temperatures are more moderate and prices are highest. For those who want to visit natural landscapes, it is good to decide whether or not to come in the rainy season (May to September), when rivers are high and there is everything is green.

Book a flight and get your VISA

Since 2016, there are up to 20 round-trip flights are landing in Havana daily from the US. It is not difficult to book a ticket online for one of the planes. Among the airlines that travel to Cuba are American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United and Southwest.

Before obtaining the visa (a Cuban government requirement), you need to categorize your trip according the 12 authorized travel categories set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (a US government requirement). Some of the categories are:

  • Family visit.
  • Journalistic activities.
  • Professional research and professional meetings.
  • Educational activities in Cuba for Universities, including people-to-people exchanges for group travel.
  • Religious activities.
  • Public performances, athletic/non athletic competitions, exhibitions.
  • Support for the Cuban people.
  • Humanitarian projects.
  • Activities by private foundations, or research or educational institutes.
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use.

Many people travel under the category of “Support for the Cuban People”, which is very broad. Staying at a private guesthouse and eating at private restaurants classify as supporting the Cuban people, although they are not sufficient.  An example of a trip in Support of the Cuban People by written by the US government is:

> While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Frequently asked questions related to Cuba

You can also make good use of the cultural events and festivals season in Cuba (all year in fact) for your option “public performances and exhibitions”. Make “people-to-people exchanges for group travel” when booking a tour via an agency, which can lead to activities that involves interactions between foreigners and locals.

Basics upon your arrival to Cuba

First, let’s start with the Cuban currency (of which there are confusingly two). To avoid be fooled and to save money it is essential to be familiar with the money. There are the Peso Convertible (CUC) and the Peso Cubano (CUP). This former is the one you will use more often for buying food, taxis, accommodation, but you can carry both. The exchange rate is 1 CUC x 25 Peso Cubano.

Credit cards from US banks don’t work in Cuba, so it is recommended to bring cash and exchange it for the Cuban currency. You are able to do this upon your arrival at the airport or at an exchange store or bank. A levy of 10 percent is charged when you exchange your American dollars, so depending on the exchange rate you get in the U.S. it’s often (but not always) better to change USD to another foreign currency first: Euro or Canadian dollar, and then to CUC.

For foreigners, the entry fee to some places like museums and historical sights has to be paid in CUC. Locals have to pay the same number but in pesos, for instance, to enter into the Plaza de la Revolución (Square of Revolution), it’s 8 CUC for tourists and 8 pesos for locals. In situations like this, you may feel that there is a currency for Cubans and another for foreigners, but this is no longer the case.

To getting around in Cuba, you need to know all the options you have. To rent a taxi from one of the Cuban taxi companies or travel in a fancy American vintage car are maybe the most renowned means of transportation. There is a wide range of options for moving inside the city. Private taxis called almendrones is a popular choice. Nevertheless, the taxis colectivos (shared taxis) are the proper alternative if you know exactly where you want to go. They run in specific routes where you normally could see passengers doing hitchhiking and getting in and off the colectivos in a rush. Pretend to be a local and don’t ask anything, only pay 10 or 20 pesos a trip. If you dare, please feel like canned fish in the public buses, jam-packed most of the time (don’t pay in CUC, just give them the smallest CUP coin you have).

In the case of government-run transportation for travelling around the country, the better option for tourists is the company Viazul. These buses are quite comfortable and usually on schedule.

Accommodation and food

If you are travelling via the “Support to the Cuban people” option you’re most likely to want to book a casa particular beforehand, through one of the online booking sites like AirBnB. In the casas you will experience the daily life of locals and contribute to their economy. Often breakfast and meal service are included.

Be careful though: it is common for some “friendly” person on the street to take you to his “uncle’s” or “aunt’s” place, if you look lost wandering in the streets. Keep in mind this person will get a commission from the householder bringing in clients.

Cuban food is worth a try. Some private restaurants or paladares offer nice dishes, but often the food in the casas could be very appetizing and cheaper. The authentic roast pork, the moros y cristianos and the home-made stew ajiaco criollo are delicious. What about drinks? When in Cuba you might as well sample the traditional Cuban cocktails: mojito, daiquirí and the like.

Attractions

There are many places to go for having fun. Cuba has reputation for the beautiful beaches and historical places. The beach is really a economical place to go, if you only want to spend a day in the sand, take a bath and avoid the temptation to purchase cocktails and souvenirs. The coral reefs of Cuba are beautiful, well conserved and suitable for scuba diving if you are into sea sports.

The nightclubs and bars are well-known for being very entertaining places. All of these places offer the Cuban rum and the cocktails, sometimes at a higher price than street bars or stores. There is also a cultural ambience most of the year at the festivals in Cuba. The principal venue is Havana, but you can find cultural activities all over the country. There are many museums in Cuba, ancient squares and marvellous architecture you will see for sure.

For those who like hiking, there are many landscapes to visit. Some guided excursions are booked via companies like AirBnB experiences, Viazul or Ecotur. Some places are easy to visit by yourself, without the necessity of booking a tour, but if you are a novice, please be careful.

Internet

The internet connection in Cuba is limited and still evolving. Mobile 3G internet was only recently introduced and roaming can be quite expensive. Wi-Fi hotspots are spread all over the country’s main cities. You can find it in the parks mainly, and especially in Havana are very common. To navigate you need to buy an internet card in Cuba. Spend 1 CUC for one-hour internet connection card, but you better learn where to buy it, as some private establishments tout the cards for the double. Some street traders sells the Wi-Fi cards at the very park in which the hotspot is located, but try to avoid them, as their activity is illegal.

On the other hand, mobile internet with no restrictions is a newest thing you will notice in Cuba. The people are now getting used to this, as they weren’t able to use it in the past. Although it is a good idea, it is often a requirement to have a Cuban SIM card to be capable of connecting the web by your mobile data.

Decide for yourself!

Of course, not everything you need to know has been said yet; you have read some useful beginner’s advices, though. If hesitant, find further details and decide now. Cuba is waiting for you; don’t let your friends tell you: “I told you should go”. Besides, if you are reading this, it means that you are already thinking of going soon, doesn’t it?

7 questions for María Carla, Executive Director of FIU’s CasaCuba

Before we talk about what you’ll be doing at FIU, for those who aren’t familiar with your background: You have been hailed as an example of the American Dream and an immigrant success story. Can you tell us a little bit about your first couple of years when you arrived in the United States? What were some of the challenges that you and your family faced and how did you overcome them?

Thank you for the kind words. My family settled in South Florida as I was about to start high school. Although we were very motivated by the opportunities now available to us in the United States, our period as recent arrivals also entailed significant hardships, including economic scarcity, language barriers and the separation from our family in Cuba. Eventually, with the support of our relatives, friends, and the community at large, we were able to overcome the many obstacles and accomplish our individual and collective goals. My mother and father found stable employment in their respective professional fields, and my sister and I won scholarships to attend universities that opened many doors for us. We thus harbor enormous gratitude towards our South Florida community, and a strong commitment to help others achieve their own dreams.

María Carla Chicuén, Executive Director of FIU’s CasaCuba

Within a span of four years, you went from La Habana to Miami to Harvard. That’s quite a ride!

That period of my life was both the most challenging and the most thrilling. I experienced so many difficulties, but I also underwent tremendous personal growth and saw my family reap the rewards of our sacrifice. When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to start my studies at Harvard, I realized that the snowy East Coast could not have been more different from my tropical upbringing.

I took great pride in representing and sharing my culture with others when I arrived at Harvard, where I encountered an extraordinary group of Cuban students who were always available to play dominoes, dance salsa, make the pilgrimage to a Cuban restaurant in Boston and even roast a pork in caja china at tailgates before the famous Harvard-Yale football games.

For the children of exiles, Cuba is often a collection of nostalgic stories from our parents and grandparents. What does Cuba mean to you? What will it mean to your daughter?

While growing up in Havana, I was not fully conscious of the meaning or expressions of my Cuban identity. My love for salsa dancing and very sweet café con leche; my way of speaking loudly and fast, with my mouth, hands and arms; the energy, warmth and frequency of family gatherings; my excitement and my passion for life…These were, in my mind, largely elements of my individual and family identity.

When I moved to the United States as an adolescent, I immediately befriended other Cuban students at school, and we would get together during lunch breaks and school field trips to sing Cuban songs or dance ruedas de casino. Slowly, I began to recognize all that was Cuban in me, especially as my interactions with people from other cultures became more prominent, when I left Miami to start college in Massachusetts. Soon I had become aware that my family traditions, my way of relating with others, my tastes for food and music, the way I spoke Spanish, were very much a product of my rich Cuban heritage, including my Spanish and Chinese ancestry.

After my daughter was born, almost two years ago, in the United States, I have grown even more conscious of the complexity of the Cuban identity, and the ways in which the particular identity of immigrants and their offspring is shaped. My husband and I are anxious to discover what Cuba will mean to our daughter. We speak to her in Spanish, and sing Cuban lullabies to her. We live in the same building as my parents, who shower my daughter with the affection so typical of Cuban abuelos. The first meal she ever had was puré de malanga. And whenever I teasingly ask her if she´s from Havana, she always smiles and raises her arms, thinking I’m about to break into Camila Cabello´s popular song, to which she loves dancing.

Intergenerational misconceptions happen in all communities and this is certainly the case in ours. What do you wish older exiles understood better about recien llegados and millennials in Cuba? Conversely, what do you wish recien llegados and millennials on the island understood a little better about the exilio historico?

Empathy will be essential to foster mutual understanding across Cuban generations and immigrant waves. I wish that our community, that all Cubans, fully embraced the fact that the things that unite us are so much greater than our differences. That regardless of our date of birth or departure, our place of arrival, or whether we left or stayed, we are bound by a rich national history, by strong family values, by our ingenuity and resilience, and our common love of the arts, sports and Cuban traditions. Most important, I think that our community should be united, and uplifted, by the unavoidable truth that we all want the best for the Cuban people. And to achieve this common goal, we must have greater disposition to learn from one another in the spirit of finding common ground, truly appreciating the value of our individual and collective experiences and accomplishments. These are the meaningful interactions that CasaCuba will seek to facilitate.

What are some of the ways that young Cuban Americans can support the aspirations of our peers on the island? What can we learn from one another?

CasaCuba recently hosted an Afro-Cuban dinner, part of its ORIGENES dinner series to celebrate the diverse cultural roots of Cuban cuisine.

There is special magic in connecting with someone who shares our background, our roots. When we help others with whom we can identify at a deep cultural and personal level, we are not only sharing information or tangible resources; we are also inspiring. And inspiration is what triggers a greater emotional exchange, a deeper bond between the people, and the belief that one is capable of achieving much more. I am a strong advocate for the value of genuine and proactive mentorship relations especially between people in similar academic and professional fields. Creating or sharing development opportunities, opening doors, and cultivating talent are powerful ways to yield sustainable benefits. It would be wonderful if more of these relationships flourished across young Cubans regardless of their present location.

I know you just started your new role, but let’s pretend it’s 2023 and you’ve now been at FIU for five years. Looking back, what would you like to say were your greatest achievements? Any exciting projects on the horizon?

Five years from now, CasaCuba will be a vision made reality. We will have built an iconic, 50,000-square-foot facility on FIU´s main campus, hailed as a dynamic and innovative meeting place featuring a vibrant calendar of conferences, seminars, artistic performances, workshops, networking events and celebrations anchored in popular Cuban traditions, and open to all South Florida residents and visitors.

FIU leadership, CasaCuba´s executive team and Board of Advisors at the future site of CasaCuba.

In order to fulfill this vision, the support of the community will be essential. I will be hosting regular community conversations to gather the best ideas to build CasaCuba as a common second “home” that is truly representative of our richness, diversity and collective goals. I also hope to begin forging collaborative relationships, and exciting projects, with other educational institutions, museums, historical societies, cultural centers and professional organizations dedicated to the exploration and preservation of Cuban history and culture. In order to launch operations and build the CasaCuba facility as soon as possible, we will also need to raise funds. The generosity of individuals and institutions alike who believe in the potential of CasaCuba´s mission will enable us to become the premier cultural and intellectual hub for Cubans, and everyone with an interest in Cuba.

What are your favorite Cuba spots in Miami or the places that instantly transport you to Cuba?

There are so many! More than just Cuban spots, Miami offers the greatest collection of “Cuban experiences” outside of Cuba. I can’t count the places where I can enjoy good batido de mamey, ropa vieja, cortaditos, croquetas…Or live Cuban music and performances. I love that our distinctly Cuban accent, in both Spanish and English, is omnipresent in conversations around town. But nothing feels more Cuban than my family gatherings, or parties with friends, when we all talk at the same time and break into ruedas, or when my Cuban-Chinese great aunt shares natural remedies, and I am reminded that Cuba is with me anywhere I go, as long as I am surrounded by the warmth of Cubans and all our wonderful traditions.

Finally, you’re a successful woman…who also happens to be an immigrant, a Harvard graduate, an author, a mother, a wife, a sister, and a daughter. Some people say it’s impossible to do all of those things well. What have been the keys to your success? And what message do you have for young Cuban Americans and Latinos with big dreams?

I am fortunate that my family instilled in me a strong belief in my capacity to achieve even the most ambitious dreams. My parents always made it clear that education and hard work were the right path to follow, and from a very early age I was convinced that my success, however I defined it, would be commensurate with my discipline, dedication, perseverance and focus. I always felt like everyone around me, and especially my grandmother, expected a lot from me. My grandmother would question even a 99 on an exam. She would constantly remind me that I did not have to be the best, but I had to be better. That I didn’t necessarily have to win, but I had to compete. Therefore, I learned to demand a lot of myself, and to be humble.

Crucially, I think, my family always provided an environment of love, happiness and protection at home, so that I felt safeguarded through all my endeavors. This support network was essential to achieve every goal in my life and to keep my academic and professional careers in perspective, always striving for balance with my own personal fulfillment.

As I raise my daughter, it is my hope that I will be able to convince her that every dream is within reach if she is willing to put in her best effort. That is the message I have sought to share with the many students I have mentored over the years, especially fellow Cubans. As long as we foster our knowledge and intellectual curiosity, as we realize and maximize our potential, and build strong support networks, there is nothing that we cannot achieve.

 

 

Inspire Cuba: Shoes that Grow

On July 19th, 2018, Inspire Cuba flew to Havana with 34 pairs of “shoes that grow” to donate to children in three different communities in and near Havana.  Founded by young Cubans and Cuban Americans, Inspire Cuba aims to better the lives of the Cuban people while inspiring a new dynamic between our two peoples and our two countries, one based on honest dialogue and meaningful collaboration.  One way we do this is by providing humanitarian aid to the Cuban people, in this case shoes that grow. A “shoe that grows” is essentially a very durable chaco-style shoe made out of tire rubber. The shoes get their name from straps that adjust in five different places, allowing them to “grow” with a child for up to five years. Our journey to get these shoes to needy children in Cuba began six months prior when Dana Fernandez, a second generation Cuban American from New Jersey, and the newest member of Inspire Cuba, first proposed the project at the monthly board meeting. Dana learned about The Shoe That Grows and their mission through social media. She witnessed the impact the shoes had on children in other countries throughout Africa and Latin America and she thought, “why not Cuba?”

The board got behind the proposal almost immediately. We were attracted to the low-cost and easily implementable nature of the project. The shoes cost only $16 per pair and could be brought to Cuba in luggage, which makes the entire process easier, given that we could forego having to obtain import/export visas, which are costly and difficult to procure for Cuba. Initially, we set out to raise enough money to send 50 pairs of shoes to one community in Havana. We carried out all of our fundraising efforts through social media, and after we hit our goal fairly quickly, we decided to up the ante to 100 pairs of shoes and 3 Cuban communities. This would be a significant project for our young organization, and we were hungry and excited for the challenge. By May, we hit our new fundraising goal of $1600 thanks entirely to public donations from amazing individuals who are passionate about helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people, in this case the children. The 100 pairs arrived a few weeks later, and Dana and I split them up between the two of us.

Chris Vázquez, Dana Fernandez and Sophia Heinke of Inspire Cuba with two of the recipients of Shoes that Grow

To distribute the shoes in Cuba, we partnered with La Iglesia Evangelica de Cuba (the Evangelical Church of Cuba). Although our work is not religious in nature, we have found that implementing projects in Cuba is much easier by means of religious organizations, which are still very autonomous on the island and are capable of things that many other independent organizations aren’t yet. In the past, Inspire Cuba has collaborated with La Iglesia Evangelica to send provisions to Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew caused extensive damage to the area and its residents. We were now working together again, this time to help the children of Havana. The plan was to divide the 100 pairs of shoes into three sets to be donated to children in three locations: Guanabacoa, Alamar, and Centro Habana. We would go door to door in Guanabacoa and Alamar, and we would convene with the children at a central location in Centro Habana, where the need was greatest. Dana was the first of the Inspire Cuba delegation to arrive at Jose Marti International Airport. She arrived with 50 pairs of shoes, and everything was going according to plan until she was only able to locate one bag of 25 pairs. After searching for a while, she finally found the second bag in the hands of a Cuban customs agent, who brought her in for questioning.  Afraid to implicate the Church or Inspire Cuba, Dana told the agents of la aduana that the shoes were donations for the children of Havana. The customs officials, either because they assumed the shoes were for resale, or just to make a point, did not permit Dana to take the second bag with her from the airport, though they did allow her to send them back to the states because we had documentation that verified the non-profit status of Inspire Cuba and Because International.

Afraid that the same misunderstanding would occur when I flew to Havana, I decided to take just 9 pairs, just under the legal limit of items of the same kind that can be entered through customs without needing further permissions or licenses (this was something we learned on the go). Thankfully, I had no issues at the airport and we were set to go with 34 pairs. The next day, Dana and I met Sophia, another Inspire Cuba member who had already been living in Cuba for the summer, in front of the Museo de la Revolución, where we hopped in a taxi to Guanabacoa with ten pairs of shoes. We were greeted in Guanabacoa by Yeny Perez, our friend from the Church, and so commenced the donations. We met incredible families and children that day, as we went door to door donating shoes. At one house, they played music while we put the shoes on the children. For many, it was the first new pair of shoes they ever received and, for some, it was the only pair of shoes without holes that they owned. I feel that I personally witnessed a miracle at one house we visited where a mentally disabled little girl was screaming uncontrollably. Yeny noticed that the child’s screams had sort of a rhythmic tone to them, and she knelt down and began to sing to the girl. Almost instantly, the child stopped screaming and began to hum lowly to Yeny’s voice. She became soothed and allowed us to put the shoes on her as Yeny comforted her. It was truly a beautiful and moving experience for us. My favorite family that received shoes were these adorable fraternal twins. They were so happy running around with their new pair of shoes until it came time for a picture and they became instantly very serious. Their gaze had such a unique depth to it; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the eyes of a child that young. Their father was so happy and moved by our act of kindness that he expressed a desire to completely reform his life and to come to God. He confessed that he had made poor choices throughout his life and he desperately wanted to make a change for the good of his children. Although our work is not religious in nature, I admired his desire to better himself for his family.

The next day, we again went door to door in Alamar, and it was equally as rewarding to see the children’s faces light up when they received their “shoes that grow.”  After the Alamar donations, we took a colectivo over to Centro Habana where Yeny’s friend, pastor Lester Ly, was waiting for us at a house he had borrowed from a friend, where the donations would be made. Aside from being a pastor, Lester works with needy children from dysfunctional families where the problems range from violence in the home to drug and alcohol abuse. His programs are both developmental and educational in nature, and he helps the children build character and community in a religious setting. Lester was a very gracious and welcoming host to our group, and he explained to us how he wished he could have a central location to conduct his programs in more of a classroom setting. This would help build community among the children, which is an integral element of the programs. Oftentimes, the children don’t really have a place where they feel at home, or can really call home.  We were very moved by this, and Inspire Cuba hopes to help Lester achieve his goal of a central location in the future. At the location he borrowed for the day, Lester had managed to gather approximately 20 children who were all eager to welcome us and receive a pair of shoes. This experience was overwhelmingly the highlight of the trip. We kicked off the donations by playing games with the children. Their favorite was Simon Says, or “Simón Dice,” and I even got to be Simón. Each one of the kids introduced themselves to us, saying their names, their age, and where they were from. Spoiler alert, they were all from Havana! We talked to the children about our organization and our mission, and we sang and danced to music as we put the shoes on their feet. Everyone got shoes; even a little boy who was walking by with a carton of eggs and heard the music got a pair! They were so happy and excited, and the experience was beyond fulfilling for us.  We ended the day with the children forming a circle around us to thank us and say a prayer for us to wish us continued health and success. Many hugs were exchanged, and we said our goodbyes.

In addition to helping Lester purchase a central location from where he can host his enrichment programs, Inspire Cuba plans to deliver the remaining 66 pairs of shoes to Cuba before the end of the year.