Cuba Libre

Four UT scholars get a dose of cultural immersion in Havana

When a group of four Forty Acres Scholars boarded their plane from Havana, Cuba back to Florida earlier this year, they accomplished in just 45 minutes what thousands of Cubans have risked their lives trying to achieve for decades: safe passage into the United States. Sitting in her seat, Plan II and government sophomore Chessie Reece reflected on her time in Havana and thought about the Cubans who have died attempting to cross the same 90-mile stretch in homemade rafts. “And they don’t even know what’s on the other side when they come to America,” Reece says. “We knew what we were missing and we knew what we had.”

Reece, along with three other UT students—Plan II and nutrition honors sophomore Mandy Justiz, Plan II and business honors sophomore Chandler Groves, and Plan II and business honors sophomore Seth Krasne—began planning their trip to Cuba last year. Justiz had always dreamed of traveling to the country her family came from. They all wanted the opportunity to see a place that has been frozen in time. After immersing themselves in the history of the communist nation, planning an itinerary, and booking a place to stay, they flew to Havana on Jan. 9, 2017. But no amount of research could have prepared them for what they experienced.

“You’re just not ready to see the way that people live under the regime,” Reece says.

In Cuba, citizens receive less than $30 per month no matter what job they have. The government provides health care, education, and food rations. In recent years, the government relaxed restrictions on private enterprises—like the Airbnb the scholars rented—allowing individuals to have one private business. Their profits, though, are heavily taxed.

“You would walk into these private enterprises and find the friendliest people with great service,” Krasne says. “They’re working for that little bit of profit that they can keep.”

The group feasted on traditional food—black beans and rice, croquetas, yucca, and fried plaintain chips—and spent time in art exhibits learning about Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion that formed when African slaves were brought to Cuba to work on sugar plantations. Through the scholars’ interactions with locals, they found Cubans love their land.

“The country has been through a lot of different phases,” Krasne says. “Throughout all of that there’s been a fierce pride. They’d say, ‘I think the U.S. is a great country, but I’d have a hard time leaving Cuba.’”

One of Justiz’s goals for the trip was to see her father’s childhood home. At age 12, her father left for the U.S. with his 9-year-old sister as part of Operation Peter Pan, sponsored by the Catholic Welfare Program, that provided air transportation to the U.S. for Cuban children. He was then put into the foster care system, until four years later when his parents escaped Cuba on their 33rd try and found him.

On the final day of their trip, the four students drove around the city looking for the family’s former home with only a photo and her father’s old passport in hand. It was difficult to find the home because the neighborhoods had changed. They stopped multiple times to ask people if they’d seen the house before. Then, finally, after an hour and a half of searching, they turned a corner and there it was.

“I remember my dad telling me growing up, ‘Close your eyes and pretend like you can hear the sea breeze and the waves crashing.’”

The woman living inside approached them hesitantly, but after Justiz told her that her family once lived there, her expression changed. She welcomed them inside and offered to make them dinner. She told them to call her “tia,” or “aunt.”

“She was incredible,” Justiz says. “She kept such good care of the house. Then I came home and got to show my dad all these pictures.”

Since coming back to the U.S., all four students have urged their friends to see Cuba for themselves. They also hope to incorporate what they’ve learned into their education, whether it be by taking Latin American studies courses or focusing on Cuba in their Plan II senior theses.

“It was a dream come true for me to go and see all of the places that I heard about,” Justiz says. “I remember my dad telling me growing up, ‘Close your eyes and pretend like you can hear the sea breeze and the waves crashing.’”

Credits: Seth Krasne and Chessie Reece


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