A New Bridge from Old Stones

More than 50 years of an oppressive US blockade of Cuba have never deterred the people of Cienfuegos and its hamlet of Pepito Tey. They continue to welcome and embrace American visitors. After a third visit to this island nation I feel more than ever that people, not politics, will pave the way to lasting change.

I first visited Cuba in 1979 as part of a teacher union delegation. We saw wonderful advances in education in a country with a very high illiteracy and poverty rate prior to the revolution of the 1950s. I remember riding buses where everyone seemed to be reading or talking about books. Although the ink from the books came off in my hands, I was excited to bring back plays and stories to my bilingual theatre students that we could begin to use in classrooms. In Cuba, the arts are supported and embraced.

I returned in 2015 to embark on a film project that has taken off. “Dos Idiomas-Una Comunidad/Two Languages-One Community” tells two intertwining stories:  the struggle to implement bilingual education (now called dual language education) in Boston during court-ordered desegregation in the mid-1970s, and also the story of Margarita Muñiz a school leader who fought for the rights of  young people to be educated bilingually.  We premiered the film at the Museum of Fine Arts in November, 2016 and have since had showings at Boston University and Harvard University. On August 30th, the Mayor’s office of the City of Boston, will sponsor a showing in Jamaica Plain. Here Mayor Walsh talks about his commitment to bilingual education.

Margarita came from Cuba and was part of the controversial Peter Pan brigade of young children. She wound up in a Catholic orphanage in Louisiana where she finished high school. She was re-united with her parents four years later in Belmont, MA.   More at: https://lindanathan.com/2015/07/29/love-loss-and-friendship-in-havana/

 

 Members of Margarita's family, and my son (far right), watch the film.

Members of Margarita's family, and my son (far right), watch the film.

The purpose of this year’s trip was to give the film to Margarita’s family and to visit Benny Moré Art School in preparation for a cultural exchange between Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) students and Cuban students.  

We were delighted to learn that the Cuban people find the film as uplifting and important as our American audiences. We hope to have the film submitted to a festival there, and to show it in the cultural center in Cienfuegos.

 Our guide, Hermes.

Our guide, Hermes.

Again and again we met individuals such as historian Orlando Martinez Garcia who had been a fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society in the late 1990s. He knew the former Massachusetts congressman, Chester Atkins, and the complex history of that family’s ownership of the sugar plantation in Pepito Tey, where Margarita grew up and her parents worked. We visited the Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico) originally owned by Harvard University where our guide Hermes, upon learning that we were from Boston, asked if we knew the Atkins family or the Claflins or perhaps the Weeks?

 The principal and head of the music department at the Benny Moré school.

The principal and head of the music department at the Benny Moré school.

They are all related and their names adorn bridges and buildings across the city of Boston.  While their families may have been stripped of their ownership of the sugar plantation, the people of Pepito Tey and Cienfuegos still are eager to document their decades of involvement. The more people we met, the more we realized that making this movie was also about re-telling history and making connections again so that Boston-Cienfuegos can build new bridges.

Our visit to the art school was thrilling. Numerous students performed for us—at a level higher than many equivalent age groups I’ve observed in the U.S. Yet the issues were similar: complaints about space, lack of equipment and funding. The pride in one’s students was also the same. I loved watching the teachers as they watched their students!

We hope to return to Cuba with a group of musicians from CLCS in February. We also are talking about an exchange including Boston Arts Academy students as well. Cubans are eager to learn and talk with those from outside of Cuba. Even as Trump threatens to turn back the clock on Obama’s advances, our people, not politics, are paving the way to lasting change.

Linda NathanComment