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Faculty Members To Lead 25 Students On Cuban Visit In March

Published: February 1, 2012

Four CSULB faculty members will lead 25 students in a historic visit to Cuba March 23 to April 1 as part of a collaboration between the Department of Romance/German/Russian Languages and Literatures’ (RGRLL) Spanish program and the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies (CHLS).

RGRLL’s Bonnie Gasior and Claire Martin will join CHLS’ Victor Rodriguez and Jose Moreno in a tour of Havana that will include visits to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Centro Memorial to Martin Luther King and the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina.

“Trips to Cuba had been cancelled by many educational institutions (including CSULB) because of very strict conditions issued by the Department of the Treasury,” explained Martin. “Since the rules have been relaxed, we are conducting our first trip when we expect that 25 CSULB students will be able to experience and witness the interesting changes taking place in Cuba as it opens its economic system. I am delighted that we are collaborating with the Chicano and Latino Studies Department in this effort.”

Students must be registered in Spanish 490, a three-unit class this spring semester. These units can count towards the major or minor in Spanish. To earn credit for this course, students must complete the trip in its entirety and participate in all events, in pre- and post-departure workshops as well as writing an eight-to-10-page paper by the end of the semester. Students can also opt to take the course and not go on the trip. Interest in the project began when CHLS’ Rodriguez approached RGRLL’s Gasior and Martin with idea of promoting the Cuba trip to their Spanish majors and minors.

“I am the director of a program that used to be supported by IRA funds, ‘The Latino Transnational Experience in the Caribbean’,” said Rodriguez. “Under this program, we carried out four previous trips to Cuba. Since the regulations were relaxed earlier this year, we decided to resume the travel to Cuba. Since our last trip in 2006, we have been traveling to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. We thought this would be a great opportunity to extend our collaboration with their department. Bonnie and Claire met with me and we decided to make it a joint effort. The response has been overwhelming. “

“We both realized immediately that going to Cuba represented a great opportunity for our students and for us,” said Gasior, a member of the university since 2001. “As advisors, we know our students well, and we’re eager to share this experience with them. This is the kind of trip they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

The braiding together of the two courses carried special challenges. “We scheduled the two classes at the same time on Mondays so that both cohorts of students could work together,” explained Martin, a member of the university since 1988. “When Dr. Rodriguez lectures about the historical context of the Cuban revolution, both groups will get a chance to hear it. They will both read foundational literature about Cuban culture such as Columbus’ first descriptions of Cuba. The two groups will meet and discuss the texts together and read secondary sources. Unfortunately, not all the students enrolled in the two classes will go on the trip because Cuban accommodations offer space for 25 students, period. That translates to two to three students per room.”

Martin points out that all participating students are bilingual. “They all speak Spanish,” she said. “They will be able to have direct communication with the people of Cuba without any kind of mediation or interference by government or media. There is the possibility of real, unfiltered communication between the students and Cubans. Their perspective on the country will carry the authority of someone who has actually been to Cuba and who has seen firsthand how people live. I’m sure our students will be critical of what they see in Cuba. There’s plenty to be critical of. But the goal of this university and of this course is to promote critical thinking and I am certain the students will come back with a critical eye, both for Cuba and for their own country.”

Gasior is pleased with what the students will see in Havana. Martin added, “I believe the students will be interested in these sites because they are both culturally and historically significant. Look at the significance of the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina to the Cuban people. The school offers free medical instruction for all Latin Americans who must then return to their countries of origin and practice for two years. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is one of the best museums of its kind in Latin America.”

This is the first visit to Cuba for both faculty members. Gasior has traveled extensively through Latin America and anticipates a degree of culture shock in separating the media images of Cuba from the real thing. “Cuba is kind of a question mark for me but I’m very excited about going,” said Gasior. “I’m eager to talk with the Cuban people but I’m also eager to watch our students. I’ve seen our students go abroad before and it’s an amazing sight. There is always a moment of epiphany when the student discovers something they never thought about before.”

Faculty Members To Lead 25 Students On Cuban Visit In March
Claire Martin (l) and Victor Martinez (c) poise with group of students they will be leading to Cuba in March.

Martin thanked the RGRLL Department for its support. “We circulated our flyers among our colleagues and students and the response has been very positive,” she said. Gasior is especially pleased to offer this chance to visit Cuba to a university that qualified as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. “I hope these courses reach out to a lot of those students who will literally be taking the trip of a lifetime,” she said.

Rodriguez suggests that one of the qualities that make this trip unique is that not every institution of higher learning offers the chance to travel.

“We are one of the few universities in Southern California that offers the opportunity to visit a very peculiar society that is unknown to many Americans,” he explained. “The special aspect of this trip is that this will be the most instructional of any of the previous four trips we have sponsored. We will have presentations by Cuban scholars on Afro-Cuban religion, culture, politics and economics in addition to museum and visits to historic sites. We contacted, thanks to a CSULB colleague, the Institute of Philosophy to be our local sponsor.”

Martin stresses the travel comes in tandem with course work. “For many travel courses, travel is the only goal. There is neither feedback nor follow-up. But for this course, while travel is at the heart, there is instruction before and after,” she said. “This trip offers a real academic experience. We will have discussions based on cultural and literary readings, oral presentations and a paper to tie things together. Many student trips are wonderful experiences, but they are not academically as sound as they could be. Students end up robbed of the possibility of having the best of both worlds. But this trip is not only a new wonderful opportunity to travel, it is academically grounded in several disciplines.”

All faculty members are veteran world travelers and have a double packing priority: laptops and cash. “The well-traveled scholar must take her laptop to Cuba,” laughed Gasior, “but the most important ingredient is cash. Traveler’s checks are not accepted, nor will we have access to ATMs in Cuba. Students must make sure they have enough cash so they don’t run out. The travel price really covers everything they need except what they want to buy, excluding the most coveted items for many—cigars and rum.”

Gasior and Martin hope their students gain a new awareness of the world and their own country from their Cuban journey. “Cuba has been a four-letter word to the average American for 50 years,” said Gasior. “I am confident, however, that our students will return from their time abroad with a more positive image of Cuba. It depends on what each student wants to get out of the experience. I hope they come away with a greater awareness of everything from Cuban heritage to Cuban cuisine.”

Martin believes the participating students are ideal visitors because they will approach Cuba with fewer preconceived notions than perhaps earlier generations of students.

“They will come to understand that the Cuban situation may be more complicated than they were led to believe,” she said. “This trip will open their minds in many different ways. It also offers them the chance to become virtual U.S. ambassadors.”

Rodriguez hopes his students take advantage of Cuba at a historic turning point. “Cuba is in the midst of liberalizing its economic (in some sense parts of its political system) so we will have the unique opportunity to see a society changing without the kind of turmoil (until now) that we have seen in the Arab Spring,” he said. “I hope our students will value their experience of another Latino culture.”