By Sandy Pattison ‘19

Being a senior American studies and Spanish double major, I am constantly intrigued by the relationships between the U.S. and Spanish-speaking countries.

Just last year, I took a class at Occidental during the Spring that included a trip abroad to Spain for the first two weeks of summer. The class was called Latin American Writers in Spain, taught by Professor Adelaida López, which was amazing! Leading up to the trip, we learned about famous Latin American literature that arose in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and we observed not only how this particular society affected their writing, but also how their writing reflected on their position within society. Having the opportunity to then contextualize everything we had learned at Oxy with Spanish professors who had experienced the history themselves in Spain was so exciting. This experience in Spain motivated my decision to explore elsewhere for my semester abroad.

I started talking to other students who had visited countries in Latin America, and although I didn’t meet anyone who went to Cuba, I was drawn in by my interest formed from other classes. I had previously learned about the Cuban revolution in my American studies classes; we spoke a lot about nationhood, place, how physical and ideological borders can make people a part of or separate from a nation and how the U.S.’s political and ideological influence deeply impacted national and international perceptions of Cuba’s global positionality, culture, and people. I had also spent a lot of time in other Oxy courses talking about ideas of national and international social movements and revolutions and was excited about the idea of living in a country that still considered itself in a state of revolution ideologically and temporally (all calendars in Cuba state how many years it’s been since the triumph of the revolution in 1959.  Ex. 2018 is year 59.) Although I was aware of the travel restrictions for U.S. citizens to Cuba, this didn’t deter me from wanting to visit such a beautiful country. I quickly realized that because of these restrictions, studying abroad in Cuba during college was the only way I was going to get a real experience of life there—I wanted more than the tourist experience. I felt this was understood by Oxy as our International Programs Office (IPO) were instrumental in helping us prepare the required documents. It was such a stress-free process, shout-out to Julie in IPO who was wonderful!

Through my study abroad program, I was able to take all but one of my courses with Cuban students at the University. Classes included "Contemporary Cuban Society" which centered on international political relations. For this course, each week professors from all over Cuba focused on different aspects of Cuban society, ranging from religion to government structure to education. Although it was mandatory for all students in my program, including two other Oxy students, it was nevertheless enlightening. My other classes were "Bioethics in the Environment" and "Political Economy," which looked at capitalism and socialism, and concepts within those structures as compared to other socialist countries. My fourth class at the university was on "Theory and Ideology of the Cuban Revolution." We read Fidel Castro’s speeches from the revolution, and observed his rhetoric from primary sources-- something that seemed impossible to do elsewhere. The class also placed a huge emphasis on interviewing Cuban residents that were alive during the revolution I loved getting to interact with Cubans and learning their perspectives.

Classes were really cool, but only took around ten hours a week, which is very different from Oxy and definitely not something I was used to. I had so much freedom and time to walk around, look in stores, go to restaurants, take the bus and explore. Our program offered a lot of planned excursions for the exchange students, enabling us to do things that tourists perhaps couldn’t, like scuba diving! We ventured outside central Havana to other cool neighborhoods, to the beach, specifically playa girón (Bay of Pigs). We all took salsa classes with our program director’s husband and since there isn’t much internet in Cuba, it very much feels like a small, saturated community that everyone is in together in society. There were posters everywhere for different music events, so if we wanted something to do that night all we had to do was look outside.

Staying with a host family, I learned so much. First off, it is super common for three or four generations of a family to live in one house. My host mom was the grandma of the family, and her kids and their kids lived there also. I would always have dinner with them, and they would take me to a park where all families go, where people had horses for kids to ride on, bouncy castles open to the public, it was so fun! As for the language barrier, initially I wasn’t worried about my Spanish at all; I’d taken a few 300 level classes at Oxy already. Then the day I arrived, the program director’s husband, who ended up being our salsa teacher, picked me up from the airport and I had no idea what he was saying. Cubans speak SO fast, I had never experienced anything like it!

It took time to get used to the speed and the language used by Cubans, but it was such a smooth process, people really wanted you to understand and there were many times where I forgot about the barrier. Everyone is so friendly and open. Although Cuba is huge, each part is community-oriented—almost like Oxy. I learned so much fun slang, too: "Asere que bolá!" meaning "whats up!", and "washiñar", which refers to getting hyped!
I still stay in contact with my Cuban friends through Facebook.They love it, since the internet is limited out there. I introduced them to Bitmoji and they are obsessed with it! I often chat with my host family on Skype, too. I miss it a lot, but having that experience and getting to return to Oxy makes me so grateful. The experience made me realize I want to utilize the opportunities that Oxy offers, and now I am able to offer a Central American lens in the classes I take, which is such a privilege, and all of it would have been impossible without Oxy and IPO.


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