Latin American Lit in Cuba

Sunset along the Malecon
My Path to ...
Statue of Antonio Maceo

How did you live your study? 

Derek Walcott once said that it is impossible for a traveler to truly love the Caribbean, as travel is motion and love demands permanence. It took living in Cuba, living in Havana really, day in and day out, to fully understand what he meant. 

So much of Cuba, and the Caribbean at large, is incredibly nuanced. From a distance, or from an overly theoretical background, it’s easy to get lost in what Walcott called “visual echoes of history” that only let you see the pieces, not the whole. 

Havana especially, with its reputation in the Western imaginary as a city “frozen in time,” suffers from this simplification. When you live in Havana though, when you come to see the nuances for what they are and not what you think they represent, you begin to see the beauty of the city in the present moment. 

I lived my study simply by living, by interacting with the city and the people. Cuba, is a very welcoming place—I learned just as much from conversations with strangers sitting along the Malecón than I did in the classroom. It’s not just that everyone has an opinion on politics or history or music or sports—it’s that most Cubans are engaged in public life in a way that, at least for me, I had not encountered in the US. It’s not that anyone was humoring me as a foreign student—they were genuinely interested in having a thoughtful conversation.  That kind of open, effortless dialogue is probably what I miss most about living in Havana. 

To live in Havana was to be a perpetual student of the city itself. In that regard, the CASA-Cuba program is unique in that while there are ample opportunities for program-sponsored and individual travel outside of the capital, there isn’t the same sort of whirlwind itinerancy that European programs often involve. It allows you to feel like you actually have a life, a neighborhood, a community—not just a room to return to at night. 

How did your time abroad influence your beliefs or interests? Jesse Gonzalez in Havana

My time in Cuba deepened my interest in the literature of Latin America and the Caribbean, especially with a bent towards postcolonial studies. When I returned to the US, I felt that I encountered certain authors and certain works differently, picking up different nuances and undercurrents. Particularly, I found I better understood Gabriel García Márquez’s distaste for the term “magical realism” in that it often can belittle the reality from which the literature stems just because it seems “exotic” in the Western eye. 

On a more personal level, I became a much better dancer in Cuba and also had the opportunity to take a handful of boxing lessons to get a feel for the Cuban style. 

In general, living in Cuba made me a more flexible person—life on the island doesn’t quite run on the same rigid schedules we’re accustomed to, especially at Cornell. It’s a good thing, I think, to be reminded that the world doesn’t end if you suddenly have free time you didn’t plan for or if the wifi goes down for a day.

How did your time abroad complement your Cornell education? 

Going abroad is actually what allowed me to pick up my second major in Spanish and finish my minor in Latin American Studies. 

By chance, one of my classes in the University of Havana discussed a group of essays I had encountered in a survey course at Cornell; being able to discuss not just the ideas but the way in which they were presented at our respective universities was probably the most memorable moment of my time abroad, academically speaking.  

University of Habana

An Image of Che Guevara with the subtitle "Toward Victory forever"

Vedado a neighborhood in Cuba


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