A “Beautiful Dance”

Now that we are in our 3rd week here, it’s becoming easier to adjust to life in Cuba. At the same time, being in a country with so many contradictions creates surprises at every turn.

Take this week for example. On Monday, we got the chance to speak to the Cuban political artist Tania Bruguera*. Yes. You read that correctly. We spoke to a Cuban citizen who not only gets to make art for a living, but also gets to have the focus of her art be challenging the Cuban government and society.

Tania talking to us about her career

Tania talking to us in her house.

To my surprise, I have discovered there are actually a lot of spaces approved by the government for free speech. Rappers, theatre makers, and other artists including Bruguera have found ways to challenge the government from within a certain allowed framework.

That doesn’t mean that they can say (or in Bruguera’s case do) whatever they want. Bruguera described the relationship between the government and an artist as like a “beautiful dance”. Each entity carefully steps around the other, attempting to get the most out of the interaction. The artist wants autonomy over the subject of their work. The government in turn allows it to some extent, regulating the manner in which it is distributed. They also get to reap the benefits of the cultural recognition the artists receive, and the artist gets to use their newfound clout as a bargaining chip to create more of the art they want to make.

The system isn’t perfect and by no means leads to the kind of “free speech” we see in America. But like so many things in Cuba, it is a compromise that allows both groups to get a little of what they want.

And so, the artist and the government dance around each other, attempting to find an equilibrium between meaningful art and government censorship.

*You can check out some of Bruguera’s work here. (Do it. So cool. Especially Taitlin’s Whisper #6 and Trust Workshop)

New Beginnings

Until recently, we, as Americans, have generally had a very limited and select knowledge of Cuba.  What we hear most of all about the people specifically, is Cubans leaving Cuba. And that’s why I wanted to spend my first blog in Cuba talking about a woman I have met on this trip, not a Cuban woman, but a foreigner who did the exact opposite.

I met Jamila through a new friend on this trip, Miriam. She went to a church in Panama growing up that had sister churches in Chicago, Florida where she lives now, and coincidentally, Havana, Cuba.  Miriam was able to get in contact with the leaders of the church and tell them that we were coming. Come Sunday, Miriam and I met Jamila at our building to take us to church.

On the way there, walking, taking a taxi, and then walking again, we learned all about Jamila and how she got to where she is today in Havana. Jamila is Ghanaian. Born and raised in Ghana until she was 19 years old. After that, her family moved to Canada where she finished her undergraduate education and lived for some years thereafter. She knew she wanted to go to medical school and was intrigued by Havana University when exploring her options. She had heard, like many of the students on this trip, about the quality of the public health system in Cuba and the large number of doctors that the country turns out every year. Nonetheless, the process to enter the country and go the medical school as a foreigner was very mysterious and unclear which intrigued her even more. In 2011, Jamila was able to apply and entered the medical school.

Upon arriving, Jamila did not speak a word of Spanish and learned through a rigorous year-long course in the medical school. She quickly found a church to be a part of which she said helped her drastic transition. At the end of two and half years she found herself engaged to a man that she had met at the church. They married in 2014 and now have a 1 ½ year old son. Due to certain circumstances she had to stop her medical schooling but now she and her husband lead a small but vibrant church. She was telling us that she would have never expected her life to turn out the way that it has, living permanently in Cuba with her husband and their son. They are a beautiful family, and despite some difficulties, they live their lives in Havana with so much love and joy in their hearts. Jamila’s story really struck me because it is a flip of the narrative that we often hear of people escaping the island.

Though this is only one singular story, it made me think about how Cuba might transform in a relatively short amount of time. What I’m curious to see are the changes in Cuba’s population and overall dynamic with less and less restrictions and more open relations with the U.S. Perhaps with better access to more and better resources, Cuba will become more desirable for outsiders, not just for tourism but as a place for them to start business and immerse themselves in the culture and atmosphere. Perhaps in the future, the world will see Cuba as a place to live and thrive rather than a country to flee.


#babyhomie #homiescomeinallshapesandsizes
Jamila and her son #babyhomie #homiescomeinallshapesandsizes

Hasta que se seca El Malecon

Rae, Mariel and I hanging out at El Malecon before a show we went to with our program.

Rae, Mariel and I hanging out at El Malecon before a show we went to with our program.

Almost three weeks in and I’m struggling with words to describe just how amazing my experience has been so far.

In such a short time, I’ve made 19 new friends from Northwestern and countless other Cuban friends. And lots of that is thanks to El Malecon.

El Malecon is like the “Meet me at Norris” of Cuba. My best nights out have started with us hanging out by the water and making new friends along the way. One of my classmates brought a big speaker with him, so whenever we go out we just bring the party with us.

It’s especially interesting to see how we have mixed ourselves with Cubans here. We share our ideas and cultures and it can be seen as simply as when I ask them to blast a reggaeton song from Jacob Forever while they ask us to play some Kendrick Lamar.

It’s easy to think that everything is inherently political here, but our exchanges are oftentimes far from that. It’s often me sharing a soda and headphones while we exchange American remixes of songs. I’ve actually learned about cool remixes to American songs from my Cuban friends that are very tapped in with music outside the island.

El Malecon provides us with the space to talk and exchange without spending money or having to commit to a crazy night out. We coined the term “Malecon Mondays” because of how regular it is for us, but really we go any day.

Tonight, for example, we already told our Cuban friends to meet us there so we can buy some “cajas,” which are these small boxes filled with rice, beans, omelettes and tamales for less than 2.50 CUCs. Then we’ll decide what we do for the rest of the night. That’s part of the beauty of Cuba – improvisation. There’s no such thing as a game plan. You just figure it out as you go (and usually it starts sitting by the water at El Malecon).

Only three weeks in and I already can sense just how much I will miss this place when I leave. I won’t miss the obscene humidity and lack of air conditioning, but I will undoubtedly miss my Cuban friends and the way we all share with each other. I’ve never felt more connected to a place and people than I do here.

A Lack of Rigidity

If there is one thing that has so far defined my experience here in Havana, it has been a supreme sense of flexibility – not only within myself, but fundamentally in the makeup of our program.
Many of my classes at Northwestern have been in a traditional lecture format, with a professor speaking to a hall of students, reading off a PowerPoint, while they frantically scribble notes and begin prematurely stressing about the multiple midterms and the final exam. That image, that format, that high level of stress and anxiety, has very little to do with my educational experience here. Our classes are rigorous and challenging, but somehow defy me to be stressed about them – maybe it’s the ever-present sea just a few blocks away, or maybe it’s the endless sunshine. But I think it’s probably the basic format of the classes and attitudes of the professors.

For our Cuban Culture and Society Class, we are not based solely in a classroom: to learn about Cuban culture and society, we are experiencing Cuban culture and society. Our professors take us around the city – to historic neighborhoods, amazing restaurants, live music and performance venues, and art museums. To show us the historical development of Havana, the entrenchment of pseudo-segphoto for first in-country blog postregation, and to explain the roots of current problems in urban decay and overcrowding, we visited a museum in which was housed a miniature replica of Havana – a piece that took up an entire room the size of my elementary school gymnasium. Through looking at the model, we could see on a macro level what we had observed on a micro level as we explored the city streets. Housing preferences made more sense, development patterns were explained, and we could see our university (el Instituto Superior de las Artes – ISA) and our casa particular!

The very nature of this program pushes me to go on adventures, to explore the city by myself and with friends, to meet Cuban young people and hear their stories. I am learning to be more flexible, to be willing to alter my plans, and to take life as it comes to me. I don’t know how long this will last after I return to my faster-paced, more rigidly scheduled life in Evanston, but for now I’m reveling in the adventure and the tranquility that comes with a little flexibility.

T-minus 10 hours: Cuba is really happening!

I remember distinctly freshman year when I heard that there was a summer program that Northwestern offered in Cuba. I heard a senior at a student org meeting mention his time in Havana and I was taken aback. I only heard about trips to Cuba from other Cubans in my community that went visiting family.

It was never a talk of really going as a student or tourist. So, I was surprised and confused — how could the Communist country that my family fled decades ago be welcoming American students onto the island after years of an embargo and nonexistent U.S.-Cuban relations? But outside of the confusion, I was really just excited. I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue.

And now it’s just hours away!

In 6 hours, I (+ another 19 of us) will be hopping on a bus to Miami International Airport to go through the grueling airport luggage process and off to Cuba. (Fun fact: You can ONLY pack 44 lbs in both your checked bag AND carry on without dealing with overweight baggage fees.)

But regardless of the early wake up time and annoying bag fees, it’s surreal that it’s finally happening. We’ve all had our first Cuban meal together at Versailles in Miami and it was a great start. Well, that’s probably because we ate basically everything on the menu. I’m not kidding. Empanadas, yuca frita, mariquitas, arroz, sandwich Cubano, filet mignon, camarones al ajillo, flan, arroz con leche, tres leches just to name a few. A+ for bonding over food.

Best Cuban food in Miami - but how will it fare with Cuban food cooked on the island? One of the many questions I'm looking forward to answering.

Best Cuban food in Miami – but how will it fare with Cuban food cooked on the island? One of the many questions I’m looking forward to answering.

Now (post food coma), we’re all in our rooms doing last minute Spotify downloads and making sure we didn’t forget to pack all the essentials, but I don’t think we’ve really filtered what’s coming.

And here I am… just as surprised, confused and excited as I was freshman year when I heard about this program. Here we go!

Comfortable Enough to be Uncomfortable

mapAs I sit in the backseat of my parent’s car on my way to Minneapolis to fly out of the Midwest, I finally type out my first blog post. I am so very excited, and I know I have amazing adventures awaiting me in Havana, but I am also a little nervous. Living in a foreign country for two months without consistent communication with my friends and family is absolutely intimidating, and I am fully prepared to deal with a fair bit of culture shock. But somehow I still feel confident in myself and in my ability to make the absolute most of my time in Cuba, and I think I owe that almost entirely to my friends and family. Without their support I do not think I would be a student at Northwestern, and I certainly wouldn’t be going to Cuba. Knowing that I have an incredible network of friends and family who love and care about me makes me feel safe enough to be willing to put myself out there, to push myself to learn more, be good, and do better, and to seek out new opportunities and challenges. Feeling secure and connected and supported is what is fueling my pursuit of adventure; I am comfortable enough to allow myself to be uncomfortable, and I am so very lucky to be able to feel that way. In thirty-six hours I’ll be in a different time zone, in a different country, and speaking a language other than English. I am nervous. I am excited. I am ready.

Oh, that’s right. . . I’m going to Cuba.

I’ve been saying since last spring that I was going to go to Cuba. At the last Weinberg advising meeting during spring quarter of my freshman year, my adviser had mentioned the Global Health minor in which the students were required to study abroad.

Really cool courses, really relevant to the vision I have for my future, study abroad. . . nothing wrong with that picture. Actually it was really awesome. Like really cool. Like so cool. As soon as I saw Cuba on the public health list I was sold. You should know that when I get excited about something I really get excited about it, and I want it to happen NOW. Obviously that can’t always happen, but I’ve learned how to pass the time. I made sure I would have time to complete the minor in my schedule, looked up the courses I would want to take, researched everything I would have to do to get into the Public Health in Cuba program. I told my parents and my siblings and as many of my friends that would listen (speak the things you want to see happen or whatever).

Cut to finals week spring quarter of sophomore year. I finished finals, a paper, and all the packing that I put off to study all on the same Wednesday that I traveled home. I’m going to Cuba, I’ve known I’ve been going since March something. But amidst all the school, and clubs, and work and general busyness of being at school, I kind of lost some of that initial excitement. Up until March, there was the possibility that I might not be accepted. But even now that I knew I was going, I still hadn’t really had time to really freak out about the fact that I AM GOING TO CUBA! Like that’s a big deal.

Cut to today, and here I am, packing, T-34 hours before I’m on the connecting flight to Miami, and not long after that to Havana. I’m a mess, I still have so much to do, but I can genuinely say that I’m really, REALLY excited.

"The Storm Before the Calm" #hotmessexpress #onlythenecessities #pretzelsareanecessity

“The Storm Before the Calm”




Going Home

I can’t tell you the moment I realized I was “Cuban”. Café cubano and dominos were a part of my life long before I can remember. I grew up surrounded by stories my grandmothers told about the island. But their carefree tales were always weighed down by a longing they felt for a land they had lost. Just as much as I had been taught to idolize Cuba before the Revolution, I was taught there was no Cuba after.

A picture of the former Presidential Palace that my sister took while visiting.

A picture my sister took of the former Presidential Palace.

Now that I’m 19, I know that the narrative isn’t as simple as they made it sound. Between race and class politics, the struggle to realize nationalist ideals, and the fight against American imperialism, Cuba has had a rocky history filled with both triumph and failure.

Almost parallel to my growing understanding of the country, Cuba has begun to open up to the United States. Every week there is a new headline in the newspaper about the bridge being built between the two nations. I finally have the opportunity to do something I never thought possible- visit my homeland.

With less than a week until I leave for Cuba, it has never been more apparent to me how ill prepared I am. I feel fear that the place I have been told about only through stories is becoming real. How will it compare to the Cuban-American community I have grown up with? Can it even measure up to the fantasy I have? At the same time, I am excited that I am even getting the opportunity to go at all. So many of my family members have dreamed of returning, and I get to be one of the first among them to go.

I can’t tell you what Cuba will teach me. All I can say is that I am excited to go home.


by Daisy Villegas

Warning! You may develop serious feelings/ an attachment to Cuba.

It feels like a dream sometimes. I keep meaning to wake up, to understand that it was all too good to be true. I have almost always condoned the common saying that, “Studying abroad changes you.” However, after spending a summer abroad in Cuba, I can safely agree.

It has only been a fView from 13th floorew weeks since our program’s return, and already I’m planning my way back. I have to go back to the beautiful island where I made remarkable friendships, embraced the hazy heat, marveled at the eroding mansions, rode in clunky macchinas, ate the sweetest plantains, and found comfort in the slow pace of everyday. For me, everything about my experience abroad is still brimmed with an undying shimmer of beauty, a beauty that can only be found in Cuba.




In spite of all that Cuba challenged me to face, such as understanding that I couldn’t always find a running toilet or drinkable water, I still love Cuba for what it allowed me to learn and experience. I am forever grateful, especially for the smaller things. I appreciate Cuba as a space where the long summer mornings stretched into the dull, hot pauses of the day that allowed the girls on my floor and I to stand on the thirteenth floor balcony and memorize the sky, the traffic below, the never ending sprawl of the city, and the friends that gathered outside on calle G. I will always remember Cuba with this fondness.


My longing to go back largely rests on the relationships that I made in Cuba, from the friendships with Northwestern peers that I continue to nurture on campus to those that I made with Cubans in Havana. I will never forget the people that shaped my experience abroad, the people that made my summer more than just study abroad. Being in Cuba felt like going back home—even if it was a place I had never been to before.

I’m going back the first chance that I get.


He Cambiado

IMG_9258 I’ve been thinking about Cuba a lot since my return; it definitely changed me. I had been told countless times before my departure that study abroad “will change your life” but until I have been able to reflect on my experience since returning from Cuba, I hadn’t realized just what an impact those 2 months abroad have had on me. Cuba challenged my perspective on many things such as health and healthcare, privilege, and the distribution of wealth. I have left with more questions than answers and have left behind both unfinished adventures and continuing relationships.

I miss it a lot. I especially miss it because the island and my experience there seem so far away, so removed from the routine and hustle of my life in the US. Rememberin11899906_10203982114267744_1246030159707944873_n (1)g it feels almost like I’m watching a movie; even though I know I experienced each memory, it’s like watching a different character acting out a vaguely familiar script. I miss the people I met more than anything. Luckily, I have been able to stay in touch with some and hearing their voices and speaking in Spanish allows me to hold tighter onto the place and people that shaped my home for those short eight weeks. I miss the pace of life there where you can stop to talk to someone on the street or take impromptu adventures because not every minute of every day is scheduled and regulated. I also miss the little things that became staples of my life in Havana and particularly the small but meaningful moments that I have come to treasure. Here are some of the little things that now that I’m gone, I realize are the big things:

  1. 1. The Malecón. I miss sitting on the wall chatting with friends until late into the night or just laying back in silence and listening to the waves lap against the rocks while looking at the stars.

2. Raggaetone: the bass heavy, reggae-hip hop musical genre that was ubiquitous in Cuba. I miss sticking my head out of the window of a macchina (going well over the 80km/hr speed limit) as reggaetone blasts through its tiny speakers and the entire frame of the old car shakes from the bass.

  1. 3. The view from my shower. I was staying on the seventeenth floor of our casa particular and the views of surrounding Havana from the windows and balcony were spectacular. There was a window across from the showerhead and there was nothing like showering and looking out to a breathtaking view of the city seventeen stories below.


    View from the seventeenth floor of our casa particular

4. Evitia, the 84 year old Cuban woman who lived with us and was our “abuelita.” One time she woke me up from a nap just to give me homemade caramel flan. Whenever we would go out for the night she would dance around in her night gown singing “cha cha cha” and tell us we looked beautiful.

  1. 5. Adorable dogs everywhere. Stray dogs of all shapes and sizes roamed the streets and although we were warned not to pet them, I’ll admit that I caved a few times…

6. When a Spanish word came more easily to me than an English word.

7. Dusk in Havana. My favorite time of the day there because the colorfully painted homes and buildings would become bathed in soft, golden light so that the whole city appeared to be glowing.

IMG_93608. Cheek kissing. At first I was averse, I didn’t know how to do it and wasn’t sure if I should make the kissing sound, just touch cheeks or actually kiss the recipient on the cheek but I eventually got the hang of it and came to appreciate the greeting.

9. Ten peso pizza. Nothing beats the combination of the soft, warm dough, sweet marinara and questionable yet deliciously gooey cheese.

10. The Havana master’s team. The group of 30-80year old swimmers who became my training partners and took me under their wing so that I felt like I was part of a team (see “Nadadora Sin Piscina” post.)

11. The people. I met so many kind, friendly and interesting people who had so much to share. They truly changed my life and are the reason I know I will be going back.