Interview with WHEELS HS on their Annual Cuba Research Trip
Last year, a group of students from WHEELS (Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School) High School's Critical Theory and Social Justice Club made history by becoming the first public high school from the United States to visit Cuba since the recent easing of travel restrictions. The students spent time researching Cuban life and will focus on getting first-hand accounts about the country's history, day-to-day life in Cuba, relationships with the United States and learning about Afro-Cuban culture. Daniel Morales-Armstrong, Lead College Counselor/Faculty Advisor, Critical Theory and Social Justice Club at WHEELS and former WHEELS students Dilenia Santos and Katherine Santos answered some questions we asked them about the trip.
Daniel Morales-Armstrong. Lead College Counselor/Faculty Advisor, Critical Theory and Social Justice Club at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School.
How did you and the students decide on the idea of the trip? How did you land on Cuba?
I was talking with a fellow teacher about the opportunity and experience gaps that affect our students (compared to their higher income peers), including the opportunity to travel during high school. Having worked and trained in international education, it had always been a goal of mine to take students from our community abroad to see and learn about a culture beyond the tourist experience. With the support of the principal, planning began in early fall. To keep the opportunity equitable, I surveyed about 40 students and found that a reasonable cost range for their families was $150-350. I set the student cost for the trip at $225 and worked on fundraising the rest. Students in the Critical Theory and Social Justice Club were presented with the idea and given tasks to research population statistics, historical narratives and inequality at our top choices: Haiti and Cuba. They presented their research to the entire group and we voted on Cuba because of the historical moment (the opening of travel opportunities from the U.S.) and the ability to study AfroLatinidad, a concept that came up often in our conversations. We ran it by the NYCDOE and were approved, although it came with additional administrative hurtles.
How did you learn about working with AfroLatino Travel? How did you find the experience of working with them?
I found AfroLatino Travel while searching online for AfroLatino resources/communities. I had met one of the group’s founders, Dash Harris, several years before at the screening of her docu-series “Negro” about blackness in Latin America. Having a personal interest in global blackness and AfroLatinidad, and an avid traveler myself, the mission of the group resonated with me. I also knew the quality of work she brought to the original project and trusted that the politics were sound for connecting with my students. AfroLatino Travel was worked hand-in-hand with me in planning the trip and tailored our itinerary to my vision for the trip (to continue the students’ research/discussions in a meaningful expedition abroad) and the requirements of the NYC Department of Education. Our experience in Cuba, where we had little to no contact with NYC, was like being welcomed by family, primarily because of the incredible work of AfroLatino Travel. We got an authentic and rich experience with Cubans beyond the museums and my students were able to discuss and ask questions in an ongoing discourse with Cubans across Havana for our stay. Between the depth of our cultural experiences, affordable prices, and the fact that it’s an AfroLatinx business (support fellow black folks!), it can’t be beaten. Not only would I recommend that other adult and student groups work with AfroLatino Travel, I connected my parents with ALT… and they just got back from a similarly amazing visit to Cuba, coordinated by ALT!
How did the students form the Critical Theory and Social Justice Club?
In fall 2015, I found that many of my students were talking – and wanted to talk - increasingly about social justice issues. With the increased visibility, especially on social media, of police brutality and injustice in our country, and city, they wanted to create a space to talk about and process these events. Each week, we discussed a current event, the stakeholders, lenses of oppression, and potential solutions. We also discussed pressing issues in our communities related to injustice – from anti-blackness in the Dominican community to gentrification and dehumanizing language used in the presidential campaigns. From the group, we planned and implemented several social justice-themed initiatives, including sending holiday cards to young people in immigration detention centers, a coat drive before the coldest week in January and a justice themed open mic at our school.
What did you want the students to learn while in Cuba?
I wanted the students to connect their research about Cuba, and the narratives in the United States about the island, to real experiences communicating with the people of Cuba. It was important for me that they hear Cubans’ perceptions of the recent developments in US-Cuba relations to compare. Likewise, I wanted them to get an understanding of not only how deep the African roots are in the Caribbean, and for many Latinxs, but how blackness is perceived, performed and celebrated. The reality of the trip exceeded my expectations, and the students came back with experiences acknowledging, discussing and celebrating blackness that made clear the absence of that discourse in our school, families and community. To be in an unapologetically black learning space was transformative for the students and educators alike.
The students seemed to have a good understanding of blackness, how was that developed with the students? Was that something done through the social justice club?
Several of the students already had a basic understanding of racial identities, oppression and liberation movements, but had not had sufficient spaces to discuss them in depth prior to joining the club. In it, we often talked about the ways that the many –isms manifested themselves in current events and microaggressions. Two of the topics that were ever-present (in the news and our conversations) were systemic racism and anti-blackness within Latinx communities. In addition to readings, discussions and the examination of language as a vehicle for anti-black dehumanization, we had two guest speakers – CUNY City College Diplomat in Residence Usha Pitts and Columbia history professor Frank Guridy, both of whom had been to Cuba and helped contextualize race, class and culture in Cuba prior to our trip. Throughout the year, students developed vocabulary and liberation ideologies from authors, pro-black/feminist/anti-oppression news sources and our conversations in the group. Those conversations spread throughout their friend groups and on social media.
Dilenia Santos. Freshman at SUNY New Paltz, former co-chair and founding member of the Critical Theory and Social Justice Club
Katherine Santos. Freshman at CUNY John Jay, founding member of the Critical Theory and Social Justice Club
How did interacting with Cubans help you understand blackness in the world? How do you compare the experience of black Cubans with black Americans?
Dilenia: Going to Cuba and interacting with cubans helped me understand blackness bc it helped me see that you can be both black and latino. It also helped me get a sense of that mixture, looking back at history. The Atlantic slave trade, Swahili trade, all of these trades were based on making money off of black people/black bodies. Being in Cuba made me see that although it was a history of exploitation, from that cultural mixing and diffusion came several beautifully mixed cultures. We see also that when you looked at AfroCubans, you saw that Cuba was one example of how the rest of the world is: it's mixed. So many parts of the world were influenced by the different cultures and beliefs of black people and blackness. My experience in Cuba was a huge eye opener: it showed me how different beliefs could come into one, for example through the synchronized religions (Yoruba and Christianity). When Africans were enslaved and brought to new lands, they were forced to leave everything, but brought religion with them and some of that lives to this day.
When I think about meeting with the black Cubans, I feel like there's a deeper level of knowledge and pride about their history than I'm used to seeing here. Once you step into America, you're forced to assimilate and you need to leave behind a lot of things about your culture to be a part of it. The black Cubans really embraced their roots through religion more; over there, in some ways, you can't distinguish between religion and culture. In America, we can't do that - we have to be "civilized," but what does that even mean? It means we're less free to show our identities and what we believe.
Katherine: While I was in Cuba I got to experience a beautiful thing. Our tour guide, Yuco, a black young Cuban man referred to other black people from around the world as his brothers. I remember once asking him why he called other black people his brothers and he answered "we all come from the same place, from the same suffering, from the same beliefs, from the same religion, from the same land - Africa. We all have the same blood running through our veins." This is something I'm never going to forget. I remember just staring into his eyes as a way of telling him I totally understood. This made me think about black Americans - do they think the same way, too? Now as a college student I've been able to experience different culture and race. I met an African-American student and I asked him what he thought of his culture and he answered "well all I know is that my family is descendant from Africa but I am American, we all are. I don't know anything about African culture and why should I if we were born and raised here?" How come they think differently? Is it the way they are raised? Is it the religion? Is it the country they live in which influence their way of thinking towards their roots? These are questions that for me are still unanswered.
What was your favorite memory from the trip?
Dilenia: My favorite memory was when we went into the Museo de la Revolución on our second day. When we entered the museum, we went up the stairs and saw the bullet holes on the marble walls. When I saw that, I was transported into history. I felt like I was being shown little by little how the country was able to evolve from the Batista dictatorship to Fidel's revolution. In that palace, we were seeing the history and imagining them overthrowing Batista. I really imagined what was going on and the force it took to overthrow the government in the fight to combat inequality. Seeing the bullet holes, the desk, the paintings all made it real for me.
Katherine: My favorite memory from the trip was visiting the Asociación Cultural Yoruba De Cuba museum. In this museum I got to learn about each Orisha - the gods of the Santeria religion. This was a great experience. I got to learn their names, their power, their influence, and how is determine which Orisha is the one looking over each person's life
If this was not your first trip out of the country, how does Cuba compare to one country you have visited before?
Katherine: Visiting Cuba was an incredible experience that I'm never going to forget. Before going to Cuba, I imagined Cuba to be similar to the Dominican Republic and to Puerto Rico - where I am from; with the only difference that it was going to be 1950s looking. The weather is the same, the food is kind of the same, the music - more specifically the instruments like the drums. Cuba is unique. An island full of culture, traditions, and beautiful welcoming people. What I think that makes Cuba different from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico is the presence of and beliefs in Santeria. This is what caught my attention the most. Every person I met new some kind of information about it and believed in it. Their devotion to Santeria is interesting and something that in the future I'd like to understand more.