Bringing Home Havana
Cal State East Bay students travel to Cuba, capture stories of communist life
It took Cal State East Bay senior Camille Sparkman no further than the walk from the arrival gate to an airport restroom at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport for the reality of life in a communist country to set in.
“There was an attendant in the restroom giving each person [toilet] tissue,” she says. “It was just such an odd, unexpected moment. I had heard about rations, but I never realized the restrictions in Cuba extended to having control over the tissue in the stall.”
Sparkman, who had never been abroad before traveling to Cuba this summer, is one of 25 students who journeyed from Cal State East Bay to the embargoed republic as part of an immersive cultural trip called “Visions of Cuba.” The experience was led by Associate Professor and Department of Communications Chair Mary Cardaras, who collaborated with professional filmmaker and Lecturer Casey Beck on a 17-day expedition that tasked the students with observing and creating multimedia projects about modern-day Cubans. They prepped for the experience by studying the culture and making tentative plans for which aspects of daily life, society, politics or other niche issues they wanted to focus on.
“I wanted to take students to a place that was dramatically different from American life and one that they might never get to experience otherwise,” Cardaras says. “I chose Cuba, not because it was going to be comfortable and easy and familiar, but because it was going to be none of those things. The internet is sparse, there are no ATMs, there are restrictions everywhere — the students had to think about the food they ate, the water they drank and about how to get around and who to talk to. They had to form relationships, and more importantly, they had to discover an unfamiliar culture and form of government and how to navigate that.”
Those questions were at the forefront of many students’ minds as they packed their bags just days in advance of President Trump’s updated policy announcement about travel to Cuba, which renewed some of the restrictions that had been eased under the Obama administration. While tour groups will still be allowed into the country, the rules surrounding independent travel may be tightened, which would impact students like those from Cal State East Bay, who landed in the country for educational purposes under person-to-person visas.
“It’s just 90 miles of ocean but worlds apart in terms of our two countries,” Beck says of the experience. “You hear about communism and what communist countries look like — one of my students put it best when she said to me, ‘It’s so interesting to be here and use my own eyes and ask myself, do I think the same thing as what I’ve been told about communism and what’s been portrayed in the media where I live?’”
The end result is two dozen different student projects, whether told through video, writing or photography that attempt to answer that question, and compare and contrast Cuban and American life.
“These 25 students exceeded our expectations,” Cardaras says. “They worked hard and they brought back some wonderful things to share. This trip changed their lives, and many have expressed their desire to travel again and again. The trip was a success and to a certain extent, it was the difficulty of country and [contrast in] culture that made it so good. These students now know how strong and independent they are. They know that they can accomplish great things, even under challenging circumstances.”
Here are a few of their stories.
Name: Daniel Larios
Project: “Baseball, Defecting, Fans”
When Danny Larios enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000 and was stationed overseas, he quickly learned that there was one thing he and his fellow servicemen from all across the United States had in common.
“The military is such a melting pot,” Larios says. “But we all loved sports. It kept us connected to home no matter where we were.”
After discharging in 2004, Larios started a career in finance but “grew tired” of it, he says, and eventually decided to go back to school.
“Two years ago when I came here and met Dr. Cardaras, I said ‘If you make Cuba happen, no matter where I am in my journey toward graduation, I’ll go.’”
Given his love of sports, when Larios landed in Cuba, he had a single goal: To talk with local people about the Cuban legacy of baseball and their feelings about defectors — those who denounce their home country and claim asylum abroad, all for the chance of glory on the diamond.
Baseball, which had been the most popular sport in Cuba, was prohibited at the professional level during Fidel Castro’s revolution in the late 1950s, cutting off opportunities for players who aspired to the “big leagues.” The first player to defect from Cuba was Rene Arocha in 1991. His career with the St. Louis Cardinals was short lived but he inspired scores of future players to follow in his footsteps and defect to the world’s largest baseball markets — the U.S., Europe and Japan.
“What’s interesting about Cuba is that everything ties back to the politics, even baseball,” Larios says. “We went to a central park area and you could easily pick out the guys sitting around talking about baseball. I started lightly, but then I hit them with it: ‘How do you feel about your Cuban players defecting?’ Almost everyone had the same response. They’re so happy that their players are being represented on this big stage and making money for their families, but it’s sad that they have to leave home and they can’t come back [for eight years].”
Over the course of the two-and-a-half-week trip, Larios, with the help of fellow students Mitchell Scorza and Cameron Stover, managed to capture a dozen hours of live footage, which the trio has turned into a short documentary. Given the volume of the remaining tape, however, Larios plans to create “an ESPN-style” reel to include as part of his resume package when he finishes his last class this fall. He is currently interning at KTVU.
“My goal is to get into sports broadcasting at a local station, and hopefully work for ESPN or Fox one day,” he says.
Name: Rebecca Esparza
Understood Does Not Need to be Explained”
Rebecca Esparza is no stranger to the subject — poverty — that she chose to study in Cuba. Esparza, a native of San Jose who spent time in foster care and the juvenile system throughout her youth, says, “My background was really unstable,” Esparza says. “I didn’t have my mom, and sometimes we didn’t have food to eat or running water or electricity, so I wanted to relate this [trip] to my personal experience. I also wanted to focus on this because I think most people who travel to Cuba only want to see the upscale parts and old Havana.”
Numbers on poverty in the communist country are difficult to come by due to a lack of data about individual homes/incomes (government wages pay Cubans approximately $20 per month), and also because other factors associated with a high standard of living are considered quite good in Cuba: The number of educated youth improved dramatically under the rule of Castro compared to his predecessor, Batista; health care is free; and the country is known for its advances in medicine. However, waning support from Soviet Russia in the decades following the Cuban Revolution, global economic recession and the rising costs of imports have resulted in strict rationing on the island, a government that struggles to fulfill the promises of its social services and people who, Esparza reports, beg for water — not money.
Through the help of a translator, Esparza spent her 17 days in the country visiting barrios where she asked families questions about their living situations and what they’d like to change.
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“They didn’t really care so much about their circumstances, they cared more about the community,” she says. “People talked about their neighbors and sometimes, when a house is falling down, the government will come in and offer a relocation, but the families refuse so they can stay close together. So, in some ways, they don’t seem bothered by their circumstances … but they do want more food.”
For her project, Esparza completed a narrative comparison of poverty in the two countries, which in many ways, found similarities between everyday lives.
“I feel like the [living] conditions are different, but the way [impoverished people] survive is the same,” Esparza shares. “We have similar understandings and attitudes that a lot of people just can’t relate to. For instance, we visited a poverty area with my classmates and a lot of them were really uncomfortable — they weren’t used to seeing drunk people try to harass you or kids playing in the dirt or guys on the street selling their mixed tapes. It’s the stuff I grew up with, but my classmates weren’t expecting it.”
Another similarity Esparza found between Cubans and Americans was in their capacity to find ways to make money, though she says that prostitution and drugs aren’t as prevalent on the island.
“People sell stuff on the black market, name brand clothes, food, whatever they can,” she says. “And everyone wants to try and find a job in tourism because of the potential for tips. There was even a bartender at our hotel who used to be an anesthesiologist, but chose to work at the hotel because she can make more money from the tourists.”
Yet there were still aspects of the experience that were unsettling for Esparza, and that could not be overcome by the strength and resiliency she says characterized the people she met.
“The kids were the hardest thing to see — the way they’re growing up just reminded me of my life. A lot of things did happen to me and could have happened to me, and it was bittersweet to see these kids be so happy in their families and communities, and yet so unaware of these unstable and unsafe living conditions.”
Name: Camille Sparkman
Project: “Cuban Restaurants Find Ways to Thrive Despite U.S. Embargo”
Camille Sparkman chose what some might consider reason enough to travel anywhere: the food. A passionate cook herself, Sparkman arrived to Cuba with a central question — how do restaurants thrive in the face of government-rationed food? — and left with unexpected conclusions.
“Going into it I knew I wanted to focus on food and the culinary aspect of the culture,” Sparkman says. “And I spoke to private restaurant owners about their successes and how they acquire their food. And what I learned is that a lot of them go to the market just like we do, and one restaurant was even working directly with a farm to obtain their products. There were plenty of options (including $10 lobster tail), and there are some great successes in terms of the volume of people they serve and the food they produce. The difference is that the private restaurants pay taxes to the Cuban government every month.”
It’s an issue that’s at the crosshairs of communism versus capitalism, and that plays out in the lives of thousands of Cubans each day. Although the government has promised to increase support of small businesses in recent years, as the Economist reported in April, “Taxes are confiscatory. Turnover above $2,000 a year is taxed at 50 [percent], with only some expenses deductible. A beer sold at a 100 [percent] markup therefore yields no profit.”
And the Cubans, Sparkman found, are hopeful of change — but not of hand-outs.
“One of the restaurant owners I interviewed, she talked about Raul Castro stepping down in a few years and that she wants a government that’s more supportive of entrepreneurship,” Sparkman relays. “But she expressed how [Cubans] want to remain independent and not rely on other countries, particularly the U.S.”
Personally, Sparkman, who will graduate this fall with a communication degree, admits that connecting with locals on her limited Spanish was more difficult than she anticipated, but having to persevere to accomplish her project was all part of the “eye-opening” experience.
“Going into Cuba, coming from America — there’s so many things I took for granted,” she says.
“One of the things I wrote about while I was there was the ‘rationing attitude,’ even though one of my conclusions was that it didn’t really impact the restaurants. Of course I’ve heard the idea that Americans have an excess mentality — bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger things. But in Cuba, I saw that [difference] firsthand. The Cubans have a way of taking care of themselves and other people, and giving things to their neighbors — they share things to make sure everyone is successful. They’re resilient, and definitely prideful.”
Name: Daniel Arevalo
Project: “A Walk
Through Caibarien in my Grandfather’s Shoes”
For Daniel Arevalo, a liberal studies major and second-generation Cuban, the trip abroad was personal.
“My grandfather came by boat from Caibarien, the town I visited while I was there,” Arevalo says. “He left basically straight from his house, which was on the beach, and was at sea for three days and was caught by a merchant ship — luckily it was a U.S. ship because at that time if it had been Russian, he would have been sent back and either jailed or executed.”
Arevalo’s grandfather became a refugee in Miami and found help from the Catholic church. However, when he wasn’t able to secure a job in Florida, he turned to some connections in a small town in Northern California: Hayward.
“He flew across the country and he had a friend who gave him a job in a restaurant, and he actually made the Hayward newspaper for being one of the first Cuban refugees to come and settle in Hayward at that time,” Arevalo says. “They still have the clipping somewhere. He was able to send for my grandmother, and my mother was born three years later.”
Through a photo essay, Arevalo was able to capture the experience of reuniting with his Cuban relatives, none of whom have seen each other since his grandfather, now 95 years old, took to the ocean all those decades ago.
“I went to be his eyes,” says Arevalo, whose photography was inspired by scenes he felt his grandfather would want to see. During his time in Caibarien, about 300 kilometers from Havana, Arevalo was able to connect with cousins and extended family for the first time, but he was a year too late to meet his grandfather’s brother, who died in 2016. Still, there was a special memento waiting for him.
“It’s been on my bucket list [to go to Cuba] since I was a young kid listening to stories about Caibarien and my grandfather working in the tenería (the tannery),” he says. “My family was all very excited I was going, but given all the memories, they were also scared. Coming back and showing my grandfather the pictures was incredible. He’s too stubborn to ever go back and he’s probably too old now, but he actually sent me for this old bike horn. He just wanted this piece of his past in his hands again, and [our family] had kept it for him for 50-something years.”
Although Arevalo’s final project has more personal significance than professional use — he hopes to teach math at the college level in the future — he credits Cal State East Bay with helping him accomplish a dream, and inspiring him to return to Cuba again and again, if he can.
“The Trump administration changes are pretty frustrating,” Arevalo says. “It’s targeting people like me who have family that they can visit there. I’ve heard many different things [about what the restrictions mean] and I just hope it doesn’t impact the family ties and our ability to keep in touch with future generations.”
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