By Douglas Feiden
The music was rapturous, the art was mesmerizing, the people were embracing and the long history of bad blood seemed like a fading and distant memory.
But the poverty was grinding, the standard of living was shocking, the wages were unfathomable and the sense of time rolling back into the 1950s and 1960s was inescapable.
Those were just a few of the thousands of impressions garnered by the 26 students from Pierson High School who traveled to Cuba last month for a week-long tour of the island nation that has long vexed American policy makers.
“Amazing,” said ninth grader Charlotte Johnson. “Eye-opening,” said 10th grader Emiley Nill. “Really beautiful and super-cool colonial architecture,” said 10th grader Sinead Murray. “And no one was on their iPhones all the time, which I find such a distraction, and that was just awesome!” marveled 12th grader Emma McMahon.
Accompanied by four chaperones, the high school students arrived at a historic pivot point in relations between Havana and Washington, which have been strained at best and hostile at worst since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic ties on January 4, 1961.
Now, the deep freeze is finally beginning to thaw: President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations last year, removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in half a century, eliminated many travel restrictions and has pushed Congress, unsuccessfully so far, to lift the long-standing trade embargo, which remains the last major impediment to full normalization of relations.
In fact, the students were exploring the sensory worlds of Cuban music, dance, art, culture, cuisine, gardening, orchid farming and
tobacco farming even as two new breakthrough deals were being unveiled on February 16 and 18.
In the first, commercial air traffic between the two countries will be restored. And in the second, an agreement was hammered out for President Obama to tour Havana later this month and huddle with Cuban President Raul Castro, making him the first sitting U.S. president to visit since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928.
The Pierson contingent witnessed the rapprochement firsthand. In a popular craft market selling goods and tchotchkes, students were asked the inevitable question, “Where are you from?” As ninth grader Halle Woelk recounts the story, the answers quickly came back, “America” and “New York” and “Sag Harbor.”
The vendors were overjoyed: “Our new friends!” they told her.
“Every one of them was so welcoming to all of us, and really happy to see us, and many of them had never met an American before,” Halle added. “But they were ready to be in a relationship with America.”
In a group interview at Pierson, eight trip participants said they encountered propaganda on street billboards and in classrooms, but not a single student saw or personally experienced instances of anti-Americanism in their exchanges with scores of Cubans.
Yes, there were dark and unflattering caricatures of Uncle Sam on billboards, Charlotte said. And the glorification of revolutionary icon Che Guevara is such that schoolchildren still chant, “Pioneers for Communism, We will be like Che!”
But the genuine warmth of the islanders was unmistakable. “They were open and kind and welcoming and everybody really wanted us to be there,” said ninth grader Emily Hallock.
She was so stirred by island music — Afro-Cuban, samba, salsa, rumba, mambo and cha-cha — that she’s endeavoring with other students and teachers to put together a Cuban-style band, which will play the rhythms they learned and introduce them to the East End.
The group didn’t return empty-handed. They brought back several percussion instruments, including claves, which are short, thick wooden sticks that make makes a clicking, clacking sound when struck; chekerés, which are dried gourds with attached beads that create melodies when shaken, and tambourines, for those more traditional jingling, jangling sounds.
Détente had been a long time coming. Art teacher Peter Solow and Spanish teacher Toby Marienfeld, who organized and helped chaperone the extracurricular field trip, which was sanctioned but not sponsored by the Sag Harbor Board of Education, both recall a very different political climate.
“Fidel was the enemy,” Ms. Marienfeld says. “That’s what I grew up with, and the hardest thing for me to reckon with was the propaganda that I was taught in school and in our media, and the propaganda that the Cubans have also been given all these years. The truth has to lie somewhere in the middle.”
Mr. Solow, 63, lived through the Cold War and the era of military scares and confrontations, like the botched Bay of Pigs invasion by a CIA-trained brigade of Cuban émigrés in 1961. But his students, many of whom were born after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, have an entirely different frame of reference, he says.
“The intensity of the antagonism between Cuba and the United States that I grew up with isn’t there anymore,” Mr. Solow says. “In the world where they grew up, the adversarial focus has gone to other places, like the Mid East.”
But of course, small traces of the old tensions still linger within some Sag Harbor families. And Sinead Murray says she saw signs of that a year ago when the idea of the school trip was first introduced to the community, and she told her parents she was eager to go.
“My dad is a European, and he said, ‘Of course, you have to go,’” she said. “But my mom, who grew up on Long Island, said, ‘Of course not, you can’t go, it’s a communist country.’ She was like, ‘Nope.’”
The geopolitical tides shifted every so slightly when her father persuaded her mother to let Sinead go. And they will shift a tad more in the spring when Pierson students teach the lessons they learned in Cuba to the village and its elders.
An educational exhibit about the trip will open on May 7 at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, Mr. Solow said. Student writings, artwork and photos will be on display, a student-created video with a Cuban musical soundtrack will be screened, and on May 8, trip participants will conduct a panel discussion.
“All the kids kept journals, and you’d see them writing on the bus, at dinner, in the hotels, in every waking moment,” he said, noting that
journal excerpts will be on view at the museum.
“In Cuba, journaling is the new texting,” said Charlotte.
Indeed, the students, aged 14 to 19, had plenty to write about: “It was like we had taken a step back into time,” Emma McMahon said.
How so? “It was like a giant sci-fi movie,” said 12th grader Max Micallef. “You’d see farmers on horses going down the road being cut off by cars from the 1950s.”
Unfortunately, the wages and lack of essentials were out of another era, too. Pierson students were told monthly salaries averaged roughly $20 to $25, and they saw long lines in front of ration shops where there was abundant sugar, for instance, but not enough rice.
“When we were walking on the street, there would be people asking us for soap,” Emily said.
Rock-bottom Cuban wages and the challenge of affording food and clothing made Sinead ponder her spending in America: “The fact that I spend $30 on a bracelet or $60 on a haircut was going through my head the whole trip,” she said. “It makes you feel bad. It makes you feel guilty.”
Similarly, Emma noted that a recent babysitting gig paid her $24 an hour. “That’s more than the monthly salary for most people,” she said.
So skewed is the pay system that teachers, doctors and surgeons have left their professions to become cabbies, artists, restaurant workers and washroom attendants, Charlotte said.
Why? They can make more money off-book, in tips or on the black market. “Some bathroom attendants actually make more than surgeons,” she said. “You don’t have to tip a surgeon.”
A high point for the Pierson group was what students termed an unfiltered, unscripted visit to a Havana high school, where they enjoyed private, one-on-one conversations with their Cuban counterparts.
“They made very neutral statements about Che and Fidel,” Max recalls. “But what they really wanted to know was, ‘What’s your favorite music?’”
Afterward, the two groups exchanged social media connections, as students do all over the world. Even though the Cuban internet is spotty and Wi-Fi is weak, they promised to stay in touch.
“It was little shocking to us, but they all have Facebook and Instagram accounts,” Halle said.