Monthly Archives: July 2011

Advice for a friend who is moving to Cuba

From an article I wrote for the college magazine - Click to read it.


I came up with the title to this blog post and it sounds pretty good, very authoritative, yet still personal. I would like to read this post very much. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to be writing it and I’m not getting very far.

First of all, I’m completely unqualified to be dishing out advice (not that that’s ever stopped anyone). I studied abroad in Habana, Cuba for precisely one semester in the spring of 2004, going with a group of about 25 students from my school, Lewis and Clark College, led by one of our professors, and we took classes and lived on the campus of the Instituto Superior del Arte. It was a short experience, but one that personally impacted me a lot.

That said, I feel like I was in Cuba so briefly and that I would need to be there for years and years to be worthy of saying a lot about it. Not to mention that there have been a few minor changes since I left – for instance, Fidel is no longer Comandante-in-chief. However, a good friend of mine is moving to Cuba in a less than a month, to attend medical school and I’d like to be able to offer her more than “!Que Tengas un Buen Viaje!” Well, Nora, this is all I have for you. Maybe some others out there can put in their two cents on the advice column.

At first, you won’t understand what’s going on because you don’t speak Cuban Spanish. Then you won’t get what’s going on because you just won’t.

Cuban Spanish is way different than the Mexican Spanish that we’re used to here on the west coast – different slang, different pronunciation (talk two times faster and drop half the letters in every word and you’ll be well on your way). Ultimately, it’s not just the Spanish though – it’s the entire world view and, indeed, the entire world around you and the rules that govern it that are different.

In Cuba, every day is the DMV.

Americans hate the DMV. You don’t get good customer service, it’s unclear what rules govern the place and you easily might spend an hour in line, just to reach a bitter mid-level bureaucrat who tells you you have the wrong paper and have to go stand in another line. Nothing makes sense. It doesn’t matter how much money or power you may have outside the DMV – they won’t help you once you pass through those doors.

Get zen.

Americans, and especially American Protestants (I would argue) have an incessant can-do attitude. Sure, we ask God for help, but we largely count on ourselves to do the work. We believe we can bend the world to our will and that all problems can ultimately be solved with enough hard work (or by thinking the right thoughts for all you New Age “The Secret” devotees). Maybe that is true in America, but Protestant Christianity is little comfort in a place like Cuba.

Catholics are a little better off – more primed to accept “the things we cannot change.” They have a million saints to pray to for relief, hopeful of a miracle, but are emotionally prepared for the worst. When I was in Cuba, I became convinced that the God I knew didn’t actually have any control over the island – that the orishas had control and they were completely capricious and unpredictable – like a bunch of two-year-olds.

Although santeria, with a dash of Catholicism, is the primary religion in Cuba, I would actually offer up Buddhism as the religion most suited to life there. Buddhism teaches that happiness depends on detaching yourself from all material wants – that’s a good attitude in a place that has trouble reliably getting vegetables from inland to the city and where various imported items might not be available for weeks on end and the phones and electric lights don’t always work. Whatever is getting your goat, the answer is: RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.

Lose yourself, but don’t lose yourself.

I went to Cuba when I was 21 years old. That’s a dangerous age – you’re half-baked at best, still impressionable and malleable. Life is just one big identity crisis. I’d like to go back to Cuba now that I’m at least a little more sure of myself, though I wonder if I’m already starting to shut myself off to life-shattering experiences.

Learning another language means learning another way of seeing the world. It changes your brain so that you learn to hold inside yourself two equal, but often contradictory truths at the same time. It can really mess you up at first, but I guess you get used to it. So lose yourself, but don’t lose yourself. That’s my double-truthed, contradictory advice for you, mi amiga. If it doesn’t make sense and you find yourself getting frustrated, please refer to points 1-3.

For more fun: This was an article I contributed to our college alumni magazine about our experiences in Cuba. Featuring a photo of me in a really large hat.


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Filed under Cuba, Getting personal

Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions

If you attended fourth grade in the state of California, chances are good that you built a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Chances are also good that you remember almost nothing important about the missions’ critical role in California history nor the painful and fascinating story they tell.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Model of San Carlos Borromeo, posted by dlofink on Flickr – See the full gallery of his students’ models. Please note that even if this post calls for eliminating the mission model project, these models are still pretty awesome.

Knowing how the missions were built is, indeed, the least interesting thing about them – who build them and why is the story that is really worth learning. For example, when I was a docent at the San Francisco de Solano Mission in my hometown, Sonoma, I could have casually mentioned that the original chapel stood on western side of the four-sided complex. The more interesting tidbit that it was burned down by Native Americans revolting against Father Altimira’s tyrannical rule (yes, the man for whom one of Sonoma’s middle schools is named). My favorite thing about history is that it’s surprising – shocking even. You would think that historians would really have this pinned down by now, that we would know definitively everything that every happened and why. The reality is that the past is as expansive as the future. If you ask the question: “What really happened?” you can spend a lifetime chasing the answer.

I love California history because it is practically a telenovela – full of unexpected twists and turns and lots of crazy characters. To that end, I’d like to take all of you back to fourth grade and share some of the things you should have learned when you were instead gluing together sugar cubes and spray-painting macaroni. (If you were wondering what you were supposed to learn, please refer to History and Social Science Standard 4.2 on Page 13. Note that “Students must be able to build a scale model of a mission” is not indeed a standard. If anyone has insight into the origins of this tradition, please let me know!)

California was not empty.
It’s hard to say exactly, but there it has been estimated there were more than 200,000 Native Americans speaking more than 100 languages living in California when colonizers started showing up. You think our state is diverse today?!
Back then, everyone wanted a piece of California. The first explorers to land in California hailed from various world powers – England, Spain, Russia…Those countries’ rulers were doing anything they could to get a foothold and get control of California’s abundant resources. Spain’s approach was to found missions, with military outposts alongside them, which were supposed to become fully functioning towns.

The mission fathers were benevolent AND cruel.
It’s hard to make a broad generalization about an entire group of people. First and foremost, remember that these priests were political operatives, tasked with turning Native Americans into Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the crown. They grew so powerful that the Spanish crown eventually expelled all the Jesuits from the new world, secularizing the church’s assets.
That said, they were on the front lines and anyone well knows that things look different from the frontier than they do from headquarters. I won’t discount the good works that individual priests did in their mission communities or the advocacy of those like Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the few people at the time who chronicled and protested the mistreatment of Native Americans. But the priests were also spreading and perpetuating a system that did tremendous harm to California native peoples and that, too, cannot be discounted.

The Native Americans got the raw end of pretty much every deal.
If you think that slaves in the south liked having a master, then maybe you also like to imagine that the missions were happy-go-lucky places and the Native Americans were always thrilled to be there. The treatment of Native Americans is one element of mission history that is probably most disputed and I would encourage you to read different perspectives, but if the only one you’ve heard is “Spanish priests were doing God’s work to save the souls of the Natives and give them food and shelter,” please dig deeper.
Yes, many Native Americans signed up at the missions by choice. However, once baptized, they did not have the choice of leaving and were forcefully kept there and even hunted down if they ran away.
There were a lot of different factors at play – this was a period of huge change. One factor that drove Native Americans into the mission system was that the Spanish introduced livestock to California, which had a huge impact on the environment that Native Americans relied upon for their traditional hunting and gathering. There was also the devastating impact of disease, made worse by the concentration of the population at the missions, which helped disease spread more quickly. The Native American population dropped by an estimated 90 percent during this period. Please try to imagine 90 percent of the people you know dying.
Apart from life under the mission system, the period that followed was possibly worse (refer to the novel, Ramona, which is California’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Once most Native Americans were fully dependent on the mission economies they had build up through their labor, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions. There was talk of splitting the land among the neophytes, but ultimately most of it went to powerful and wealthy men and the Native Americans were thrown out with nothing and ended up having to work on the new ranchos.

If you thought the Spanish and Mexicans were bad…
The Americans soon proved to be just as bad, if not worse, in their treatment of the Native Americans. Spain at least had the stated goal of preparing Native Americans to be citizens with full rights. The United States had no such intention. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, the United States took over many of the former mission properties, generally didn’t recognize the land titles held by Native Americans and put the reservation system in place.

This is far from a definitive account of the history of the California missions, but I hope it spurs you to visit a mission near you and find out more. And when your child’s fourth grade teacher demands you spend your weekend building a model of a mission, I suggest you take your cue from the mission Indians and revolt.


Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico