My interest in Cuba was initially sparked by a National Geographic issue in June 1999 that featured Old Havana. On the cover a young boy with a red towel draped around his neck was hanging out of an old American car, his gaze fixed on the camera. I felt like I was looking into his eyes. At the time I was an avid photographer and taking a political philosophy class at the University of Minnesota, where I was enrolled in my last two years of high school as part of the Minnesota Postsecondary Enrollment Options Program. I was drawn into the political and economic conundrums of the island in John J. Putnam’s National Geographic feature and equally taken by David Alan Harvey’s photographs of Havana. As a young, rebellious thinker I was enticed by Che Guevara’s story; I quickly read his books and thought through his theorizations alongside Marx and other political theorists I was reading in my political philosophy class. Shortly thereafter, my Canadian aunt offered to subsidize a trip anywhere I wanted to go as a high school graduation gift; I chose to travel to Cuba.
During my first trip to the island, my fascination only grew stronger. As a teenager I had idealized socialism and its revolutionary principles. On my first trip to Havana, I remember how perplexed I was when the Cubans that I met told me how difficult their lives were, how much they wished things were different and that they lived somewhere else. Through my young eyes Cuba was idyllic in so many ways. As a low-income family in a small town in Wisconsin, my family did not have full health insurance coverage when I was a child. Knowing this, I idealized a political system that offered free health care to all. As a high school student, knowing that I would have to pay for college myself limited where I applied and what I imagined was possible for my future. By comparison, Cuba’s free education system seemed like a dream. Yet, the Cubans I met told me that everything was more complicated than it appeared through my eighteen-year-old eyes.
Aside from a curiosity about socialism, I was initially drawn to Cuba as a dreamlike escape from my own life. As a queer woman of color growing up in a predominantly white small town in Wisconsin, I was always the Other, the outlier, the outsider. Everywhere we went, people stared at my family and me. Racist microagressions and more overt racial slurs were commonplace in my life. I never really saw people who looked like me in my hometown. When I traveled to Cuba, the difference was like night and day from where I grew up. I blended in, people didn’t seem to pay much attention to me, they didn’t yell out racial or homophobic slurs at me. I felt comfortable, so comfortable that being in Cuba made me realize how uncomfortable I had been my whole life. I began to see how much my own sense of self was distorted by the systems of social stratification and ethnoracial hierarchies that I grew up with.
This feeling was part of what kept me coming back to Cuba. Even after I traveled to dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Cuba was where I felt most at home. But as I grew older and lived in different, more diverse places in the United States, and grew a family of my own, I began to make a home for myself in the US. Cuba is not my home, but it is a place that allowed me to grow into myself and I will always love it for that.
These were some of the things that motivated me to conduct research in Cuba. Based on the encouragement of a good friend, Grete Viddal, whom I met while taking a class on the Cuban Revolution at Harvard University, I decided to travel to Santiago de Cuba during the summer of 2008. Before that trip I was uncertain as to whether I would do research in Havana or somewhere else on the island, but after spending three months in Santiago that summer I decided that I preferred to conduct research there. Santiago reminded me of the good things about the town I grew up in, though my hometown is over ten times the size. Like my hometown, the pace of life felt slow in Santiago. People were friendly, and they did things like stop to say hello to one another. Compared to Havana, Santiago felt small enough that I could move across the city with a bit more ease. While I had experienced Cubans as generally very warm and inviting, in Santiago I felt even more welcome and was quickly able to make friends.
Around the same time, I began to realize that I had a long-standing personal interest in food. Between college and graduate school, I began reading chefs’ biographies for pleasure, and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle fully captivated me. Before beginning my PhD program, I completed a master’s degree in public health, and my thesis project was based on food and nutrition research and the implementation of a feeding program in the Philippines. Realizing that my love of food could be part of my career, I decided to center my research on food in Cuba.
With my focus on food, in addition to my feeling most comfortable in Santiago de Cuba, the city and its people made problems of inequality, access, and adequacy even more salient for me. Santiago’s majority Black population has faced ongoing forms of institutionalized discrimination; its distance from Havana and discrimination toward its population mean that fewer resources arrive to Santiago. Given this context I observed that santiagueros experience a palpable struggle to access foods and meet their basic needs. My initial observations of the intensity of the struggle to access basic needs in Santiago was what made me call into question what an adequate provisioning system entails, and drove me to unpack adequacy and the everyday struggle to get by in Santiago de Cuba.