University Dance Group, "Los Jibaritos" Visits Cuba
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Last February the University of Michigan Caribbean dance group "Los Jibaritos" was able to participate in the "Encuentro '94" Cuban Popular Music and Dance Workshop in Habana, Cuba. Our group left Miami full of enthusiasm and curiosity about the arts in the largest of the Antilles. The flight took no time. It is hard to believe how far away the U.S. media has made us think that Cuba is. It is so close! When we arrived, café, mojito, cerveza Cristal and mango juice were the welcoming drinks we enjoyed under the swaying trees and sunny skies. The music started as soon as we stepped into Casa de Fina, the house which became the headquarters of the U.S. delegation to the Workshop. There we ate, danced, enjoyed concerts, met friends, called taxis and waited for phone calls. Because many of the people in the U.S. delegation were from San Francisco, this was also a chance to learn about Latino/a cultural events on the west coast.
In our classes and in performances we became aware of the high standards of Cuban musicianship. We had the privilege of taking classes from and socializing with such world-famous artists as Chucho Valdés, Juan Formell, groups such as Irakere, Van Van, Raíces Profundas Dance Troupe, and many others. During the trip, Chucho Valdés, the leader of the fusion band Irakere and a world-famous pianist, expressed interest in a scholarly exchange at the University of Michigan as an artist-in-residence. Dr. Lorna McDaniel, professor of ethnomusicology at the School of Music, made this important contact with Mr. Valdés.
The impressive skills of the U.S. musicians were also demonstrated in their classes with the Cuban maestros. During the closing concerts the U.S. delegates showed off what they had learned by performing with the popular Cuban orchestras Irakere and Van Van. Participant Mikael Elsila, a graduate student in the School of Music, reflected on the trip: "As I play piano these days and recall my Cuban salsa lessons last February, I realize how much of Cuba soaked into me without my knowing it. Phrases and rhythms will come into my head without warning. During the trip we were totally immersed in Cuban music. Our group of fifty amateur and professional musicians from the United States was saturated with spicy Cuban son, salsa, cha-cha-cha, and rumba music twenty-four hours a day. In just two short weeks I went from knowing almost nothing about Cuban popular rhythms to being able to grasp the basic underlying rhythmic cycle-the clave-that supports most of this West African-derived music. And I was able to get my body moving and understand some of the basic dance steps and movements in Cuban dance. I am starting to understand that in Cuba all music is dance music."
As dancers in the U.S. delegation we were fortunate to have Gladys and Antonio, perhaps the most accomplished teachers of Cuban popular dance, as their instructors. The Cuban sincope rhythm forced us to acquire different timing, which was a real challenge. Participant Rafael Pinedo-Villanueva, an undergraduate and native of Venezuela, shared these thoughts: "Being part of a Caribbean dance troupe and born and raised in a South American country, I have heard all my life that Cuba is the mecca for most Afro-Caribbean and many popular dances. Most of these dances have been disseminated throughout the Americas. One of these dances and its genre of music, known today as salsa, has its roots in the Cuban mountains and has reached places as geographically opposite to the Caribbean as Japan. Thus, attending a workshop of Cuban popular dance in the National School of the Arts at La Habana meant going to the birthplace of many dances which are performed today in every American country. It was the greatest honor for me as a Caribbean music dancer to have participated in such an event. No words can describe how wonderful it was to be in Cuba and to learn from well-known Cuban professional dancers how to genuinely dance pieces I have heard about all my life and have been dancing to for years."
During this trip we also established professional contacts with Cubans and with U.S. citizens having interests similar to our own. Marta Cruz-Concepción, a graduate student in Linguistics, was able to meet with professors from the Santiago de Cuba Science Academy. She will be instrumental in coordinating a U.S. delegation to the 1995 Social Communication Symposium. Rafael Pinedo established a relationship with the Political Science/Economics Department at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba. Pinedo has been accepted into a semester-long program there. Ethnomusicologist Lorna McDaniel met colleagues in her field of study, the music of Cariacu-Grenada, and brought valuable unpublished documents back home with her. Mikael Elsila plans to attend a summer music institute at the Cuban National School of the Arts for further training. There is potential for extensive political, diplomatic, artistic, scientific and scholarly exchange between Cuba and the U.S. The University should take advantage of these possibilities.
The Cuban people have been able to produce and promote the arts in spite of economic and political hardship. The spirit of the people is conveyed in their music, and their contribution is felt worldwide. During our trip we saw the struggles of this "periodo especial" first hand. We saw a country fighting to survive the U.S. economic embargo without the support of the Soviet Union. Before visiting Cuba, we knew about the people's economic hardship, but not about the strength of the Cuban spirit. It was the perseverance of the people that most impressed us. The Cuban people seem to value human companionship and creativity more than material goods. Cuba is a marvelous example of survival under the worst circumstances. It has been standing on its own feet with dignity, amid terrible winds that hope to see it dashed to the ground, destroyed and accepting its incapacity to survive.
NOTE: What follows is an interview with Marta Cruz-Concepción, member of Los Jibaritos, by Siobhan La Piana.
La Piana: Perhaps you could talk a bit about your impressions of Cuba. What were your expectations and how did the place conform to them?
Cruz-Concepción: I first went to Cuba in 1984. One thing that has changed since then is that because of the energy crisis you see very few cars on the streets. People use bicycles instead. Consequently there's not that much pollution; you don't see fumes or hear a lot of horns. 1984 was the height of Cuban wealth, and this meant a lot of cars. Now Cuba is really a country of contrasts. You see highrises next to horsedrawn carriages and bicycles. These bicycles and carriages show the spirit of the Cuban people. They won't give up even when things become very bad. There's a big section of Cuban people who believe that the revolution will prevail, in spite of the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc and the U.S. embargo. There is strong nationalism. People are tired, but not giving up.
La Piana: Is it in any way a struggle to retain national identity?
Cruz-Concepción: Oh no. That's as clear as water. That's not an issue. It's a question of economic survival. The Cubans have touched upon many alternatives to oil. Before the revolution there was so much external influence on the island, such foreign control, and racism was rampant. That's something that the revolution crushed. And that's one reason why people defend the revolution and continue the struggle. I am from Puerto Rico. We in the Caribbean are not white in the majority. We are greatly of African descent.
La Piana: How has that impacted Cuba?
Cruz-Concepción: It matters because it was white people and wealthy people who were controlling Cuba before the revolution. Cuba was a playground for white Americans. The Cuban revolution, in 1959, corresponded timewise to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.
La Piana: Tell me more about what Cuba was like before the revolution.
Cruz-Concepción: From what I understand, it was very rich and very poor, very white and very black. The black people were never to have a chance at anything. The revolution changed that. I say this with pride because in 1986 and 1987 I was a cultural attache for the Cuban delegation to the Indianapolis indoor track and field competetion, and also for the Pan American games. I worked particularly with Javier Sotomayor, who held the world record for the high jump. His trainer, don Jose Godoy, was black. He came to me once and said: "You know, Martica? I would never have made it where I am today with Javier, and I never would have been able to travel so much if it hadn't been for the revolution. I would never have made it in Cuba before the revolution." To me, this testimony is valuable. The revolution gave dignity to the black people of Cuba. The revolution gave us an opportunity to educate ourselves, to eat, to have good health and to put our name in the world sphere.
La Piana: How did it come about that you visited Cuba in 1984?
Cruz-Concepción: At that time I was in Law School. I went as a member of the United States delegation of Latino Law Students. Our goal was to study the law system in Cuba under a socialist government.
La Piana: And what were your impressions of the Cuban legal system?
Cruz-Concepción: I thought it was more advanced than the U.S. system. The prison system was one of rehabilitation, not of punishment. I think though that at the beginning of the revolution things may have been much more harsh. At that time many people of the upper classes fled to Miami. They left their homes, their belongings. That's why you see so many mansions in Cuba. I have never seen so many mansions in my life. But these mansions are now day-care centers, retirement homes, centers for cultural development, dance studios.
La Piana: So none of them are kept as private homes anymore.
Cruz-Concepción: Oh no. There is a serious crowding problem in Havana these days. A big part of the population is concentrated in Havana, as in other large cities in Latin America. It's not a priority in Cuba to take care of the physical appearance of buildings. Things like painting are secondary. The priorities are feeding the people, keeping them healthy and providing them with education. Yes, food is rationed. It has always been. And people have less now than before. But everybody gets that little bit.
La Piana: Is there hunger, though?
Cruz-Concepción: I didn't see any hunger. People have. Not necessarily enough or sufficient, but they have. It's not like people are going to bed without eating a plate of rice and beans. And children are provided with milk. In fact I was impressed by a government store which provides every mother with everything necessary to take care of babies. You get a cradle, a mattress, sheets, diapers, toys, everything is issued to you.
La Piana: And are children raised collectively, in nurseries, or privately by their families?
Cruz-Concepción: I don't believe they are raised collectively in Cuba. The closeness and the bonding of family is a strong Latin American tradition. And I don't think that's different in Cuba. In fact the hard times of the country make it necessary for families to be close and rely on each other. Things are crowded and part of the reason for this is that due to the economic crisis building materials are scarce. The resources are not there for building.
La Piana: I imagine one of the reasons for the overcrowding in Havana is that people who work there really have to live in the city now, due to the fuel crisis.
Cruz-Concepción: Yes, but those who live outside Havana will wait two and three hours for a bus. They get up very early. One of our dance teachers lives in a large complex outside of Havana. She gets up at 5am and faces a two-hour commute. But then again you think of people who commute from New Jersey or Connecticut to New York City. They might sit in a traffic jam for two hours. It's not so different. And so we cannot say, "Oh what a terrible thing, that Cubans have to wait for two hours." Many aspects of the way of life in Havana are not unique to socialist Cuba. They are a reality of large urban centers. Those are the kinds of things that I want to stress in talking about Cuba to Americans. And Cubs lacks many of the urban problems found in other countries. I went to Lima, Peru a few years ago and saw all sorts of people living in the streets. I saw a woman with a shopping cart and she had her merchandise on top and underneath she had a baby, sleeping in there. She said she was homeless and had to live this way.
La Piana: And you never saw any homelessness in Cuba.
Cruz-Concepción: I never saw homelessness and I never saw begging. In Cuba kids didn't ask for money. They asked for chewing gum and candy, instead.
La Piana: It seems to me that anti-Soviet, anti-communist propaganda has worked so well in the U.S. that even these facts cannot be acknowledged by some Americans.
Cruz-Concepción: I think Clinton could learn some things from the Cuban health care system. If Clinton would dare, all he would have to do is take the example of Cuba to the American people and show them how well it works! Of course, that would never happen. But do you know that one of the big income sources in Cuba is medicine? They have what's called medical tourism. They have world famous eye care and a world-renowned women's hospital. They have excellent pharmaceutical products which can't be sold because of the embargo. Recently they donated a vaccine against a children's disease to Chile. They had to donate it, rather than sell it because the U.S. would not allow the Chileans to buy it from them.
La Piana: How would you describe the relation between Cuba and its Latin American neighbors?
Cruz-Concepción: Cuba is respected highly by all Latin American countries. There is communication. But there are some countries that have had to go along with the United States in order to protect their national interest.
La Piana: What are your thoughts on the embargo? Do you think it will be lifted?
Cruz-Concepción: It has to be. There's a big movement in New York working toward this. Another pro-Cuban initiative is the Caravan. This is a project organized by American citizens to send material goods to Cuba. Medecine, food, paper, computers.
La Piana: What kinds of people are involved in this?
Cruz-Concepción: People from all different walks of life. This group is part of Pastors for Peace. There are religious leaders, civic leaders, pacifists and many others involved. Just a few weeks ago a group of Senators testified in favor of lifting the embargo. Even Cuban-Americans from Miami want the embrago lifted. Of course, there is a segment of Cuban-Americans who want Castro to be assassinated, but there is a bigger segment that feels differently. We have an excellent resource at this university in Ruth Behar, who is a great supporter of Cuba.
La Piana: Do you think that things are opening up between Cuba and the U.S.?
Cruz-Concepción: Yes, but it has always been somewhat open. It's not necessary for people visiting Cuba to be afraid they won't be able to return. In the 1960s the revolution was very harsh. People had to be expelled for the revolution to work. That has changed now. In the past the music of Cuban dissidents like Gloria Estefan could not be played. But now you hear their music all over. So culturally there has been an opening up, even to the work of people who have defected. On the other hand, there is still a war in Cuba. Even though Castro will die, what he symbolizes for oppressed people will not die. The people of Cuba are the best educated in Latin America and they are the healthiest. Cuba is in its own category. I would say though that they did become dependent on Soviet aid and consequently some segments of their development stagnated.
La Piana: Is there a concern on the part of the people that things in Cuba could get worse? If they have only just enough now, do they fear that even more might be taken away?
Cruz-Concepción: There's a problem with transportation of goods around the country. But people see this as temporary. They can't buy their oil from the Soviets anymore. Columbia or Peru was about to sell them some oil, but the U.S. stepped in and limited how much they could buy. I see the U.S. as a kind of Uncle Sam who is trying to strangle Cuba, to see how much Cuba can take. The unfortunate thing is that it's the average person who is suffering, not the government. But people still believe in the revolution.