Deanna White

Martin Luther King Center, Havana, Cuba

 As the sun makes its climb in the morning sky, it doesn’t so much stretch and yawn before its ascent but rather steadfastly declare with an orange gleam unapologetically bright that it is here, it is awake, it is time for a new day. However, if Cubans needed the sun’s approval before journeying from their beds to the streets, one would never know it. As a rooster crows for what could only be the fourty-seventh time this morning, Cubans are sitting outside on the sidewalk conversing just the same as you would see them at 1:00 in the afternoon. Clumps of children in maroon, navy, tan uniforms and high socks make their way to school with a bag slung over one shoulder. Two working youth riding in a horse and carriage make their way through the streets pulling a cart full of produce behind them. The man on la calle croaks his daily refrain- “Aaaajooooo” “Aaaajooooo”- answering the needs of Cuban women already thinking about the dinner they are going to prepare later tonight. It is evident that Cuban society doesn’t need the sun to jumpstart its day. With espresso as their trusty sidekick all day long and a never-failing propensity to constantly engage in conversation, Cubans sin miedo stride right into the day before them.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Pogoloti, Marianao, an Afro-Cuban barrio vibrantly thriving in the middle of Habana, the swooping dive into the day is no different than it is in the streets. Promptly at 8:00 am, an ant-line of foreigners groggily make their way down the stairs from the dorms on the third floor to get their Cuban breakfast- a hodgepodge of bread, butter, and jam; a hardboiled egg; sliced guayaba, pineapple, fruta bomba, and mango; and of course, espresso. Perhaps without taking in its significance, they walk by a colorful mural of Martin Luther King Jr. to enter the cafeteria. Maybe this week the cohort of foreigners is from Colombia or maybe they are from Asheville, North Carolina or Angola. Only when breaking from a fourth piece of morning bread, does one look up and notice the decoration of t-shirts on the wall signed with “thank yous” from around the globe of past delegations that have previously left pieces of their hearts here in this center. What have all these groups done here in this community center in Pogoloti, Marianao? Nothing other than solidarity work.

As the delegates venture out from the cafeteria, stomachs achingly llena with one too many morning pastries, a group of senior citizens gather on the front porch. Nicely dressed and chatting as strong as their coffee, they fill the porch waiting for the community outreach event run by the church every few days. As the ancianos make their slow and careful-stepped journey into the building of the church, they pass a bookshelf loaded with publications about community work. Upon closer examination, running each slow finger across each glossy page, flipping through enticing photos and headlines, one notices that these magazines, titled Caminos, are actually published in-house through a journalism department upstairs. Stowing a copy in a bag to read for later and continuing to walk past the photographs of friendship and love of work upon the wall, one comes to a group of students from the United States chit-chatting and checking email on the terrace just before one of their classes start. Perhaps their topic of study for today is history of Cuba or perhaps it’s religion or race relations. Upon their third month here, one listens to their conversations and hears a possible trace of anxiety in their voices, mixed with the special ingredients of commitment, dedication, responsibility, and love. They are internalizing and externalizing what these weeks of experiences have meant to them and what it will mean to them once they return to the United States. How do they act upon what they have learned? How do they convey to their family, friends, and society their personal journey and impetus to act? Each day as their friendships and knowledge expand and bound tighter, they create a brotherhood of allegiance between Cuba and the United States. What is it that they have learned new about solidarity from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Pogoloti, Marianao? What really is solidarity?

Solidarity at the center takes its roots in the local community of Pogoloti. Outside the center, a cola begins to form, winding into the streets, where on a break from work, community members gather with empty jugs eager to be filled. One by one, they fill their bottles with fresh, clean water to bring to their homes to use when cooking and for drink. It may seem like a small project, but to the people who have voiced their needs and have had them heard, clean and easily accessible water means everything. Further down the block after several rights and lefts, one comes to an empty framework for a house. Youth from the church and older men in the community wipe the sweat from their brows, leaving traces of dirt smudged on their faces as they work the construction jobs to build new houses for their community members. This was a house that was previously declared unlivable, crumbling actively into bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens, and with the help of the church, this family, who is led by a mother who is disabled, has the opportunity to have a safe place to live. Her son, a boy molded and empowered by the church every day after school since his days of three feet tall, is a current medical student.

In a few more rights and lefts, there is a home on the corner where a man warmly waves to each passerby from his bed. Neighbors stop in and out, in and out, in, his house the most hopping destination in the neighborhood. At the age of fourteen, he was in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. Hopeless, spiritless, lifeless I hear he was, but as I see him now, he carries with him a light that can brighten an entire town. His house too was rebuilt by the church and he now supports his family as a working vendor, a gracias a Dios y la iglesia. Upon the walk back to the center, a right and left and a right and left away, passing by a hairless ratdog and amigos, street corners of trash and flies, and blasting reggaetón that seems to be the natural background noise to Cuban life, there is a local bodega. With the recent law changes that allow Cubans to open their own small businesses, the church has given out loans to help their neighbors open their doors to local commerce, and later their successes come back to the church to help the next family do the same. Solidarity is seen in the streets and felt by the people here locally in Marianao.

However, solidarity at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center does not stop at the borders of their local town. As gathered from history, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which arose out of the church next door, was named to “pay tribute to the black Baptist pastor in the United States who, in the face of social and economic injustice, took a stand for the people based on his faith, Christian identity and pastoral vocation” and “to acknowledge the profound Afro-Cuban roots in the Cuban people’s history and their essential contribution to the culture and independence of the country.” Simply from the name, one can gather that this center’s effects extend past any blockade that one nation can impose on another. Thus, past the robust roads of Marianao, through the flying traffic of Habana, and into the quieter campesinos of other provinces, one will find Popular Education workshops led by the workers of MLKC. Into the fields of tobacco or bananas and weaving through the mango trees, one can see agriculture reform led by the dedication of workers here at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Still, the MLKC goes further, making ties of solidarity internationally. Back in Pogoloti, workers, students, and community members alike gather hands, share sentiments, shed tears, and in a united circle they stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan people during recent political happenings. At the University of Habana, in a crowd hundreds deep, flags wave from all around the world as neighbors stand and unite for hours at a concert/political event to demonstrate- no- rather live their solidarity with their Venezuelan neighbors after US-Venezuela relation changes and a new embargo. Still, diving deeper into the Caribbean sea and swimming through oceans in every direction, one steps foot on the lands of these countries themselves, and even onto the lands of other continents, watering seeds planted by MLKC in these nations. Latin America: Venezuela, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, to name a few. The United States, Africa, Russia, Germany, to name a few more… In the hearts of communities around the globe, one sees the work of MLKC being carried out. But more importantly, one feels it being given back. Brothers and sisters in these nations stand so close to us here in Cuba that it’s as if they are at our sides, holding our hands, stepping forward together.

We all share different struggles but together we fight. Solidarity isn’t a buzzword, a term, a fleeting commitment: it’s a feeling, it’s a relationship, it’s lifelong. Solidarity takes its roots and grows at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Marianao, but the tree of solidarity here is tall, it’s roots are deep, and there are seeds within all of us to spread around the world. I have had the privilege of witnessing and participating in the work of this center every day for the last three months. Before this trip, I had an idea of the term solidarity from my work on campus among student activists, or my “solidaridad” internship at a non-profit, or the little I engaged with a caravan fighting for the rights of child migrants at the border. But from what is concretely described as “solidarity” work in the United States, I only had a mere idea of what the term solidarity meant. I understood it to be empathizing with the cause of another. I saw it manifest itself in student protests or advocacy work. I saw it become a talk on campus about an issue happening on the other side of the world. And I saw it disappear the next day from the majority of minds and hearts. From my three months stay in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and more generally in Cuba, for the first time, my dictionary definition of solidarity was made tangible. For the first time, the concept was more than just a dictionary definition or a buzzword. I could feel it. Solidarity, throughout history, means something different, means something real, here in Cuba.

What has captured many moments of my time here in Cuba is studying, personally and academically, the way in which community development manifests itself in a socialist society on both an individual and organizational level. I have always understood as a given that there were three separate formal mechanisms through which to serve society: One could pursue societal change through the government, business, or NGOs. Besides the appealing of funding from one another, these three avenues are largely, if not entirely, unconnected. Furthermore, in the Western world, the only way in which have defined the sector that is solely dedicated to serving society, NGOs, is by what it is not- NON-governmental and NON-profit. But here in Cuba, I have learned that these lines are largely blurred, that ways in which to serve your society do not have to be separate but rather unified.

Through the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban government was created with the main purpose of improving the lives of all citizens by all citizens. The main priority of the Cuban government was to create equality among the population, to better the living standards for all. Cuba, as a third-world country, has one of, if not the most, thriving medical systems in the entire world in which every citizen has access to free healthcare. Cuba sends doctors, today and throughout its history, all around the world in solidarity efforts and not just in times of need. Cuba created a free international medical school, ELAM, that recruits students from all around the globe, including the United States. Additionally, it's education system is thriving with ALL education, including college and graduate school, free of cost. Therefore, Cuba has the lowest rate of illiteracy in the entire world, with 99% of its population literate as declared by UNESCO. I am not saying Cuba is a perfect nation: To do so would be a lie and a blow to the people who live in this stand-still economy. However, I am saying this to make the point that Cuba is a nation in which the government invests the little money it does have into the systems that will better its people. The NGO or religious organizations that arise throughout communities here do not do so to fill a void in governmental efforts, as is commonly seen in the US, but rather to work alongside the government to improve the community and to improve the revolution.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center is an example of an organization that uses the values of the Revolution to better the people in its community locally and globally through efforts of solidarity, popular education, and the church. I am thankful for my experiences with this center, to be among some of the most incredible people who live solidarity every single day of their lives like I have never seen before. I am thankful for the opportunity to understand alternative methods of going about improving society, and I am sure to incorporate what I have learned here in any future organization that I plan to start, using horizontal mechanisms to create change. However, mostly, I am thankful to feel solidarity in a way that I have never felt it before and I, with my full heart, will try to act in solidarity each day of my life.

Click the following link for more information about UAlbany's program in Cuba: 

History, Politics, and Culture of Cuba (Summer and Semester Options)

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