Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 7 –Friday, July 17
A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.
We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.
Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.
While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.
One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!
The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.
As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!
A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.
We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.
This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):
Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director
Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director
Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director
Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program
Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home
Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience
and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services
These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.
I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.
The Day’s Takeaways:
Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.
Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.
I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!