by Daisy Villegas
I can still hear my mother’s countless warnings, “Don’t wait until the last day to get everything together.” Try as I might, packing for a trip usually happens the night before.
Once in Cuba, I wished I could have heeded my mother’s advice. While I had packed efficiently for the trip (I brought enough bug repellent and Pepto Bismol), I realized that I could have done more to prepare to travel to Cuba. Preparation for this trip should go beyond ransacking Target for travel-sized goods. By this, I mean investing the time to learn about the history of Cuba, to review Spanish, and to read current news about Cuba.
Prior to studying abroad, I had the fortune of taking four ethnic studies classes in the African American Studies and Latina/o Studies Departments that largely shaped how I experienced and learned about Cuba once I was there. Learning about the colonial history, slavery, race relations, blackness, and the social heritage of racial and class inequality left by slavery in Cuba helped me to contextualize all that I would begin to learn in my classes abroad. Moreover, lessons in class prepared me to understand and cope with the real life situations that I would encounter in Cuba, such as the alarming and apparent social injustice and inequality that many Afro-Cubans still experience today. Having these discussions about Cuban history and social politics before studying abroad helped enormously by influencing how I would approach my learning and how I would interact with the culture. I can say that it definitely helped when our program visited Trinidad and many of us where overwhelmed while eating in remodeled colonial and plantation homes. Overall, I learned what it mean to be culturally sensitive and not take anything I learned or anyone I met for granted. I learned to approach my experiences critically and to take the time to decompress after a long day. While studying abroad in Cuba was very special and enriching, it has also been one of the most challenging learning experiences of my life.
Below are tips that I would recommend for any student to do to prepare for Cuba:
-Review Spanish! It is so important. It’s a must!
-Take an ethnic studies class if possible. It was the best decision I made before deciding to study abroad in a Latin American country.
-Research. Cuba has an expansive and rich history. Having an understanding of it before touching ground in Cuba will help contextualize both the life and class lessons one will have there.
-If possible, participate in the major events that are taking place in Cuba, such as attending the opening of the U.S. Embassy or another momentous occasion. Be aware of the politics and news that are affecting the country in real-time. Stay informed. Be critical.