Walter Thompson-Hernandez
Credit: Walter Thompson-Hernandez
Walter Thompson-Hernandez
Walter Thompson-Hernandez

His words have rung true in my life, especially as I reflect on the four months I spent living in Centro Habana (a borough of Cuba’s famed capital) this past summer. As a Los Angeles-based multimedia journalist and PhD student pursuing Chicana/o Studies (the study of Chicana, Latina, and Mexican Americans), immersing myself in Cuban culture has not only exposed me to an invigorating culture and energy; I’ve also gotten a chance to experience Cuba as it tries to redefine itself for the 21st century, while simultaneously holding onto a set of social and political mores that have stagnated since the 1950s. My experiences there have fueled my academic, artistic, and personal growth.

1. Communities don’t have to stifle individuality.

I lived in the Barrio Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Centro Habana. With it’s eclectic mix of office spaces, retail stores, bars, and clubs, it was one of the most electrifying and dynamic areas I’ve ever called home. Each day brought together a unique cacophony of colors, rhythms, and smells that shape the neighborhood. Whether I was listening to one of the fruit vendors pitching his product at the top of his lungs outside of my window or overhearing (and sometimes participating in) intense neighborly debates about sports, Centro Habana’s energy never failed to captivate me. Sharing with one another, offering your support – be it shopping local or participating in those conversations – and having compassion for your neighbors were essentially neighborhood rules. Witnessing how deeply invested the residents were in the overall well-being of their community taught me a lot about the importance of being there for one another in a way that fosters both individuality and a collective spirit.

Walter Thompson-Hernandez
Walter Thompson-Hernandez

2. There’s always another way to do things.

While in Cuba, I traveled to Santiago de Cuba, a city located on the eastern side of the island and near the infamous Guantanamo prison. It’s the epicenter of a music scene that has historically been the backbone for son, boleros, and rumba, and the region beams with an eclectic mix of reggaeton, salsa, and hip hop tunes 24/7. There, I learned that Cuban musicians living outside of Havana often struggle to break into the music industry, partly because they have limited Internet access. The scarcity of wifi in their country means they are dependent on foreigners to buy and send them any equipment needed to play or record, to handle their financial matters, and to promote their projects and tours on social media, all of which requires a great deal of trust and hustling. But these musicians are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met, so of course they don’t let any of that stop them. They work hard to build tight-knit networks and stay in constant communication with trusted friends or associates who live outside of Cuba and can help them stay connected. Case in point:

A rising generation of Cuban artists are founding first-of-their-kind musical festivals like Manana, a Cuban/British nonprofit that brings Afro-Cuban folkloric music to the electronic community to create buzz and raise awareness for the Santiago music scene.

3. There are no quick fixes.

Cubans now have access to wifi at designated parks in every major city on the island. Still, in-home Internet is not affordable for the average Cuban, who makes $20 to $30 per month. Each Internet card costs approximately two to three Cuban pesos (roughly $3). If the average Cuban is to have to same ability to stay connected with friends and family via social media, or to become part of the global ecosystem, there’s much more work to be done. Still, based on the enduring adaptability of the people who live there, something tells me Cubans will get there.

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