Click here for a UNITED Conference presentation on Cuba by Natasha Gallagher and Prof. Amy Orf, along with the musical performance with Zach Bartel.

Q & A With Natasha Gallagher

Natasha Gallagher was born and raised in the Lower Peninsula, Midland, Michigan.  Through Northern Michigan University, she was able to study at the University of Matanzas, Cuba from January to July in 2011.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. How do you enjoy your experience in Marquette?

My name is Natasha Gallagher. Moving up to Marquette was just the first of many adventures for me, it made me realize that no matter where I go I will be able make a home. I am studying History and Spanish and I hope to go on into International Relations in the future. In the summer of 2010 I moved to the mountains of Chiriquí, Panama where I taught English to the young children of the Ngöbe-Buglé tribe. I originally came across the opportunity looking for a way to live in a Spanish-speaking country for the summer and attempt to learn Spanish. A friend of my Aunt’s set me up with a few e-mail addresses of people in Panama and I e-mailed them until I got a response. A church in the Chiriquí area responded and invited me to live and work at the school. I bought my plane ticket the same week and was on my way. I lived in the school with the tribal children for about a month until I met a Panamanian (not indigenous) family and they invited me to live in their home for the remaining two months. I taught English to pre-k through 2nd graders every day, helped with construction projects and traveled around the country hiking, fishing, swimming, surfing, and getting to know the indigenous culture in my spare time. The tribe spoke a tribal language so I wasn’t able to perfect my Spanish as I had hoped but it was my first time traveling alone and living outside of the country. Due to the lack of technology communication was rare and this gave me the opportunity to disconnect myself from home and really live a lifestyle that most do not get to experience first-hand.

Q: What do you study (major/minor)? What languages, etc. Has your second language benefited your study abroad? If so, how has it helped?

I am studying History and Spanish and in Cuba I took two history courses, one Theory of Politics course and Spanish courses. Before I went to Cuba I had taken Spanish up until the 300 level and I knew that it wasn’t great but after working at learning the language for so long I did not want to graduate without perfecting it. In Cuba, I was constantly practicing because there were no English speakers. Many of my peers had English courses but could not speak it at a conversational level. By being fully immersed, I was able to pick up on the language within a couple months and the more I spoke, the better I got.

Q: How did you like your studying abroad experience? How was studying & living there?

In short, I loved my study abroad experience. Studying and living in another country is always a unique and mind-broadening opportunity but by studying abroad in Cuba, that opportunity went both ways. We were the first American that most Cubans had ever seen or met and after hearing some of their perceptions of Americans I saw this as an opportunity to show them something and someone different than what they are told or see in the media. They love U.S. culture, they play the sports, listen to the music, study the language, but to them it is almost unreal, just like movies can be for us. They may dream of a “better” life somewhere else but most Cubans will always defend their homeland, “la patria o muerte”.

Q: Is this studying abroad program geared towards your degree? How is it going to help?

Studying abroad in Cuba was like going back in time in so many different ways (technology, food, government, transportation, social customs, relationships, studying, and communication) and this made me appreciate and recognize history in a new light. The media highlighted history every day in an effort to promote the revolution. Since the revolution began in 1959 the government had rewritten their text books, built new statues, put plaques on the front of every building, street or house that had anything to do with the revolution or anything negative to do with the preceding (US backed) government. This was also noticeable in everyday conversation because the Cuban people are very aware of their history and struggles; they know dates and names of important events that helped to shape their current situation. This encouraged me to study and read and made me want to know the history of my country just as well, especially because the two histories are so intertwined (even more so from their perspective, the United States was mentioned in my History and Politics courses more than Cuba was).

Q: What was the most interesting things (cultural differences) you discovered in Cuba?

Where do I start?

I was fascinated by the love and respect for El Comandante, Fidel, as the Cubans refer to him. I was told his presence has diminished since his younger brother, Raul took over as the leader of the Communist Party in 2008. However, Fidel still plays a large role inside the daily life of any Cuban citizen. He writes Reflections by Fidel, a two or more page article in the newspapers multiple times a week giving his view points and suggestions about local and world events, they are also read aloud on the evening news. Fidel appeared on television only two times while I was there, once at the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in April, and once in an interview with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela regarding his recent diagnosis with cancer and how the Cuban medical system would help him. More than anything, he is present in everyday conversation, children, women and men quote him and look to him as a guide.

Communication in general was difficult. I had a phone in my room and there are pay phones throughout the country and you buy phone cards to use them to call anywhere inside the country. To call outside the country you have to buy a different type of card, depending on what country you are calling. I did this a few times and it cut out more than I was able to talk so it wasn’t really useful. My mom was able to call me a lot but it would cut off after a while and certain topics or keywords seemed to push that time limit and it would cut off sooner. I also had a TV in my room and there are 6 channels, all Cuban which show movies, soap operas, a lot of dubbed government conspiracy shows from the US, and morning and nightly news. The internet was slow but they gave me a university email and I was send messages that way. The internet was extremely restricted and monitored, any type of social networking is blocked, any government websites outside of Cuba are blocked, and even BBC was unavailable. There is a national newspaper, Granma, and a provincial newspaper for each province; in Matanzas it is called La Joventude. Headlines are more than not about the United States. Because everything is state owned and run there is no advertising anywhere, anywhere that we might find advertising (TV, billboards, newspapers, and internet) there is propaganda for the government and the revolution.

In Cuba there are two types of currency, the Cuban convertible peso and the national money peso. The CUC is used in stores and kiosks while the national peso is used in the market and the black market. However, uses of the two currencies vary from situation to situation; for example, national money is used for the buses, bike taxis and trucks while CUC is used for taxis. As far as dining goes, it depends on the restaurant and you can usually tell based on the appearance and the clientele which currency is used. The CUC is mainly for tourists but Cubans can exchange their national peso for CUC at the CADECA (casa de cambio) to purchase things in the stores they can’t find on the black market. This concept is most interesting when you look at the workers of the tourist industry. Due to the exchange rate 1:25, 1 CUC is a lot of money and anyone in the tourist industry is likely to be tipped in CUC since tourists are not permitted to use the national peso. As a result, the people who work in the tourist industry have an increasingly better lifestyle while professors and doctors remain the same. This system is what creates two separate Cubas.

(1) The government does not provide easy issuance of passports to the general public.  Cubans are not allowed to leave the country for any purpose with few exceptions such as international marriage.

(2) All Cubans are required to join a three-year civil service; this is how they pay back the free education they receive. The school education from preschool to PhD is all free to any Cuban. Men and women can choose to serve in the military for one year and to work for free in their relevant areas the two years following graduation.

Q: How about the food? Is it very different from American food? Do you like it or not? What’s your favorite dish(es)?

Outside of the tourist industry the food is in national money and is completely different, every couple of houses there is someone selling coffee, juice and bread from their window or door. This increased even more after the economic changes made at the 6th congressional meeting of the Cuban Communist Party in April. In Matanzas there were a few different markets which all sold the same fruits, vegetables, beans, rice and fresh meat for the same prices. The people selling them were very honest and helpful even though I was clearly foreign. Kiosks are on almost every block as well as in the university and sell packaged products: hygiene products, soda, oil, frozen meat, and candy. Anything packaged and made in Cuba, such as sugar or coffee can be found on the black market instead. They sell most everything that they sell in the stores on Main Street but sometimes they run out of stock faster and might not have an item. The prices and name of each product remains the same throughout the country. Seafood is very hard to find if you are not in a tourist area. Fishing is illegal and people that are fishing are fishing for the government and those fish end up going to the hotels. Beef is also illegal and actually holds a taboo among the population. Since the beginning of the revolution beef has been reserved for the elderly and the sick, for that reason it is illegal to kill a cow (it is 20 years in prison, 15 years for killing a person). However, the hotels and tourist restaurants that I visited had beef readily available. Food rations still exist today in Cuba, each household has a little black book that they record their household information in and food is distributed based on this. There are rationing stores, bodegas, on almost every block. (milk, bread, rice, oil, sugar, toiletries) Cubans still need to shop for their own food and supplies because the rations are not enough to survive on.

Q: How about the people/professors? Are they helpful or easy to get along? Is it easy to get involved with the community?

The professors were all really amazing with us, when I first got there my Spanish wasn’t great and the thick Cuban accent didn’t help, everyone made a point of being available for help and made me feel comfortable with the other Cuban students in the classroom. Everything in the classroom was oral, including evaluations. The most interesting part about the courses I took were the differences from courses I might take here. I didn’t have any previous knowledge of Cuba but I did buy a British book on the history of Cuba and often referred back to that while studying out of my Cuban texts. Both politics and history are based of Karl Marx. The history department is actually called the Marxist-Leninist Department.

Q: How about clothing? Is there anything particular you want to say about the customs there?

Cuban style is very Latin, they take a lot of pride in their clothes and if they can afford to do so, they dress up to go outside of the house. They wear a lot of flashy clothing, bright colors, high heels, sparkles, and everything is always washed and ironed. Most households did not having washing machines so they wash their clothes by hand.

Q: How about housing? Is it cheaper or more expensive than American standard? Do you have all the facilities you expect to have?

I lived in the little motel on the campus; this included a sitting room with a television and a phone, a kitchenette, a bathroom and two bedrooms. I lived there with two German girls who were there on a yearlong work-exchange program; they studied Spanish and economy for six months and then taught German to Cuban students for six months. This is an ongoing program that their university has with UMCC (University of Matanzas Camilo Cienfuegos). We were the only students who lived in the motel. All of the other students (Cuban and foreign) lived in residence halls on the other side of campus. These residence halls were concrete buildings with holes punched out for windows, community bathrooms, and 15-by-15 feet rooms shared by five students. Cubans were roomed together and foreign students were roomed together for security reasons. These halls had no running water except for 15 minutes daily in the afternoon and no electricity during the day under the government’s call to save resources. During a drought in Cuba my room would often run out of water by the end of the day (sometimes we didn’t have water all day) and we would have to walk to the back of one of the buildings on campus where there was a water spout and fill up buckets. When this water source ran out an old, rusty water tank truck that read “drinkable water” in spray paint would come to the campus and people would fill buckets up there.  

Q: How about transportation? Can you get around the city fairly easy? How is the traffic there? Do you have the chance to get around and explore the community?

I found that Cuba had a great transportation system. There are public buses that run through the city of Matanzas and pass by the university bus stop. These buses cost 1/3 of the national money peso (which is 1/25th of the convertible peso, which is equal to $1.10).  To travel to other parts of the country there are charter buses (a gift from the Chinese government) that leave daily from the bus station downtown. These buses have waiting lists for several weeks ahead of time but for a couple extra CUCs you can get on the bus the same day. If you don’t get on a bus there are trucks with covered backs that you can ride in even more inexpensively. I was able to travel to 14 of the 16 provinces while I was there and traveled with friends I met through school. There are also taxis, all those old American and Russian cars. All the cars are owned by the government unless a family owned the car before the revolution, but certain government workers use the cars as their own. In the bigger cities such as Camaguey and Santiago, motorcycles are the main form of taxi. Any vehicle is actually a taxi (meaning that anyone would give you a ride for a couple CUCs…or free). Monday through Friday there is a government worker standing at every bus stop along the highway and stopping cars to make sure they have full seats, this is their system of carpooling. He asks the driver where he is going and then announces it to the people at the bus stop and if anyone is going there or somewhere along the way they can ride with that driver for one national money peso (this could potentially take you from Havana to Santiago on one peso). My German roommates had brought bikes from home so I was lucky and could use that for quick trips into town. There are also bike taxis and horse drawn taxis everywhere. 

Q: Have you experienced any festival celebrations? Tell us more details…..

There are very few national holidays in Cuba (only seven, including the recent reinstallation of Christmas after the visit of the Pope in 1998) and all of them have something to do with the revolution or the Communist Party. I was there for the celebration of the 1st of May or National Workers Day. On this day all businesses and schools were closed and everyone met downtown at 8 A.M. wearing the national colors, red, white and light blue, for a march. Everyone carried a Cuban flag, photos of Fidel, Raul and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and posters and signs supporting the revolution. We marched for about two miles and at the end of the march there was a government official announcing names of important revolutionaries into a microphone. I carried a Cuban flag and a poster that read “With our feed and hands in the earth”. Signs read: “Socialism is the only guarantee to be free an independent.” “Bay of Pigs is the victory of socialism.” “Long live the 26th of July” (the first attack on the previous US backed government).

Q: What’s the lifestyle there, with a slower or faster pace?

Life is run at a much slower pace. The first and most essential word in their vocabulary seemed to be “mañana”, meaning tomorrow, putting off things for the following day was more than okay. Because of the lack of technology, communication in daily life relied mostly on word of mouth and chance encounters. Cubans are very relaxed, the second most essential word is “tranquilo”, meaning calm, relaxed, casual. Yet, never lacking a contradiction, Cuba is as strict as you’d expect, there is an extreme absence of personal liberties for anyone who has lived outside of that lifestyle. 

Q: What entertainment is available? What do you usually do during spare time?

I am not sure that spare time is a concept in Cuba, to be honest. Because everyone is given a job, there is often more than one person doing a job that only requires one person. In my opinion, this has led to the laziness of a lot of the workers, the do the minimum amount of work because they have been trained to do an unproductive job. In my spare time I would go running, read, talk to people, go to the market, study, go to the computer labs, and watch the soccer games on campus. Anyways, Cuba is still full of entertainment. During baseball season, baseball games are broadcasted on TV every night and everyone watches them. Outside of baseball season there are Cuban, Brazilian and Colombian soap operas that are very popular. Dancing is by far the most popular form of entertainment in Cuba, the Cha Cha and the Rumba were both invented in Cuba. The beach is across from the university and in attempt to escape the heat most students go there in the late afternoon after classes and before dinner. Students also play soccer and baseball on campus, not as an organized sport but just as pick-up games. Women do a lot of knitting, cooking and gossiping. Ah yes, and the old men, young men and boys can all be found playing dominoes under a tree in the park, on their front porch, or at the bus stop.

Q: Do you think studying abroad an eye-opening experience? What would you say to current NMU students?

I remember the idea of studying in Cuba being presented to my Spanish class at the end of the semester last fall and I remember walking out of the classroom and saying “I think I am going to go”, and I did, and I would do it all over again in a second. The opportunity speaks for itself; we are 1 of 16 universities in the nation approved to travel here let alone study here. I am a curious person, that’s why I’m a history major, because I question everything and I want to know and understand why things are the way they are. This experience gave me the opportunity to not only learn about another culture but to learn first-hand about another government system, class system, belief system. All things that are part of every culture, but here they are uniform, they are concrete. I have never been told to believe anything, I have never been told not to question something, and here I was instructed to do both of those things.

Q: What suggestions do you have for beginning students in terms of studying the language (Spanish)?

I had a notebook where I wrote down unfamiliar words that I heard or read and at the end of the day I would look those words up in my dictionary. The next day I would do the same thing and go back and re-read the words that I had written down the previous day and focus on any words that came up multiple times.

Q: What are your other interests/hobbies?

I like doing all sorts of things that Marquette has to offer, hiking, going to the beach, cliff jumping, and biking. I like to spend a lot of time with friends and I enjoy cooking, crafts and reading. I also love to travel, obviously!