Notes from Cuba IV - Cuba - January 27, 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011

Rocio...some thoughts about young people and education in Cuba

Rocio, whose name means morning dew, is my 18 year old ¨niece¨ here in Havana or so she identifies herself ..a young woman who I have known since before she was born.  She is the daughter and only child of my best friend Anita, who I met on my first trip back to Cuba after an absence of twenty years in 1991. Anita was having a difficult pregnancy and had been ordered on bedrest in her small top floor apartment. She and her husband Jorge had constructed a sleeping loft above their tiny kitchen to which I climbed many afternoons to sit and chat with Anita. Our lives are completely different, we are 15 years apart in age, and yet each time we see each other there is a strong connection, a connection of the heart and the soul, that has never been broken.

In the first years of Rocio´s life, I visited Cuba often. During the difficult days of the ¨special period¨ I tried to help the family as much as I could. Summer frocks and sturdy shoes for Rocio when she was a toddler, then prescription glasses and vitamins when she started school. Photo albums chock full of pictures of Rocio at every stage in her life. On this visit, I have brought acrylic paints and brushes to help her complete the required thesis for her pre university art program.

I had not seen Rocio since she was eight years old, but she threw her arms around me and hugged me tight when I first crossed the threshold of her home in Vedado, the leafy tranquil neighborhood where she has always lived. ¨Tia Elena!¨ she exclaimed, and I remain her Tia Elena as she guides me through the pleasures and rigors of life in Havana as only a teenager could.

In some ways, Rocio is like teenagers everywhere...opinionated, strong willed, concerned about her appearance, impatient with her parents. We have to allow an extra half hour before we depart for any excursion for Rocio to try on several different outfits. ¨Dime si esto pega o no¨ she demands. Tell me if this scarf goes with my outfit. And then whips it off before I can respond, already looking for another. When she is finally ready she has put together a funky blend of top, shorts, boots and scarf that would be at home on the streets of the East Village. Reed thin and delicate, she looks like a model.

The small room that serves as living and dining room in her house has been completely taken over by large paintings on the walls... canvases waiting to be finished lean against every piece of furniture, paint tubes and brushes and other paraphinalia of an artist´s work cover every available surface. Rocio attends a well known art school, a pre university program, from which she will graduate this spring after an exposition of her thesis. Her work is original...strong photo images of children that she manipulates in collages and then paints. The finished paintings are full of opposing and conflicting images, deliberately provocative, that are hard to reconcile with the babyish, somewhat spoiled kid who wraps herself around me on the sofa and puts her head on my shoulder while we watch TV.

Rocio has a boyfriend...and I expect to meet another somewhat immature adolescent...but Ricardito is five years older than her...tall, handsome, a little shy. He has already graduated from the same art school and is working with a group of artisans, selling handcrafted items to tourists, to support his painting. He often spends the night with Rocio. They sleep together on the hard and lumpy sofa in the living room, while Anita, Jorge and I occupy the bedroom one night.

I get a glimpse of Rocio's feelings about politics in Cuba when we arrive after a walk around the neighborhood to find an open air meeting taking place across the street from her building.  Anita heads across to put in an appearance at this meeting of the local CDR, or Committee in Defense of the Revolution. In a bit of paranoia probably left over from the days when it was looked upon with disfavor to entertain foreigners in your home, they shush me and Rocio whisks me quickly upstairs. Then she bursts out laughing. ¨My friends, did you see them? They go the meeting but they don't pay any attention. Es siempre lo mismo blah blah blah. Its always the same viejitos saying the same things. Did you see my friends on the side? They weren't even listening." Are there young people joining the UJC...the Union of Young Communists...there must be..but I have yet to meet any on this trip. Anita arrives about an hour later...the meeting was not a short one.  What did they talk about? I ask. The new economic reforms. What did they say? Ay quien sabe. Siempre es lo mismo. Who knows, she says, echoing her daughter, it's always the same.

Rocio, like most young Cubans, is extremely well educated. Cuba has compulsory education up to the ninth grade, and free education through university and graduate programs for all those who qualify through grades and exams. To give you an idea of just how well educated Cubans are, Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.8 percent, which I´m sure compares quite favorably to the literacy rate in the U.S. It is not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a cab driver or waiter to find that he or she is a doctor or engineer abandoning their profession for more lucrative work in tourism. Cuba has enough doctors to export them to the rest of the developing world in what they call medical diplomacy, and educates doctors from all over Central and Latin America and Africa in its Latin American Medical School. Cuban doctors played an extremely important part in the medical rescue efforts after the hurricane in Haiti...they were already on the ground and integrated in the Haitian health system. I just learned yesterday from a Northamerican friend who lives in Cuba and does health work here that the Bush administration initiated a policy, still in place, that allows any Cuban doctor working in any developing country that has a U.S. embassy to just show up and ask for asylum and they will be allowed to emigrate to the U.S. This is our enlightened Cuba policy!

One day last week I walked with my friend Ingrid as she brought her six year old son, Rigel, to his primary school in Boyeros...Escuela Primaria Martires de Playa Giron...named for those who lost their lives defending Cuba against a U.S. sponsored invasion in the early years of the revolution. The school was large, spreading out over a whole square block, with classrooms opening onto open air courtyards where kids were playing ball and hopscotch. Rigel´s teacher is a young, Afro-Cuban woman, who greets him warmly with a kiss as she brings him into the classroom. Ingrid tells me this is one of the best schools in Havana and she is very happy with Rigel's education. I was taught by a viejito in a class of 40 or 50 students, she tells me. But now there is a new regulation that no class can have more than 20 students, and indeed Rigel's classroom has desks for just about that many.

But the university system is feeling the effects of the economic crisis. Cuba has too many professionals, Rocio tells me. The government says we need more workers, so they are cutting the places in the university. I don't have specific details about this change, but I wonder what it will mean for Rocio, a budding artist, as she seeks a place in this world.  She is practical...choosing theater design as her major rather than painting she feels may give her more opportunities to work.  Her parents have already sacrificed a lot more than space in their crowded apartment. When Rocio was first accepted to art school they were called to a meeting of all the parents where it was made clear that they would have to help their students by buying all of the paint, canvases and other materials they would need. One canvas of the size Rocio paints costs 50 CUC which is the equivalent of about two months salary for the family.

Yesterday Rocio gave me a tour of the Museo de Bellas Artes, the main Cuban art museum in Havana.  As always, her opinions were well formed and articulate, with very little room for doubt or uncertainty. We started with Cuban painters at the turn of the century, then progressed to the 20's and 30's where social themes began to be expressed, then to the pre revolutionary artists of the 50's and finally to a series of galleries of revolutionary painters clearly influenced by socialist realism. We pause at one painting that is a series of repeating images of Jose Marti, painted on squares of different colors. The revolutionary Andy Warhol, Rocio tells me laughing at the pop art reference she has found in this painting.  I am impressed by her knowledge and self confidence as we make our way around the museum, but this has always impressed me about Cuban kids from my first trip to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade when we were met by young Pioneros everywhere we went - who recited poetry or sang in full voice with no shyness or timidity on display.

Rocio sighs and shrugs as we make our exit from the museum in a sudden downpour. That's about it, she says, the Cuban art museum. I wish I could visit all those other museums in your country, she continues - the MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan - I wish I could see them all. I wish you could too, my Rocy, I respond, hugging her close under my umbrella. I wish you could too.

Let's be friends

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