Working with Down Syndrome children & adults in Cienfuegos

Following a quick visit to a local farmer’s market (below) the Roundtable headed to the site of the Graphical Society of Cienfuegos, a program specializing in linography, but also in community service.

Our particular interest was in the project concerned with assisting children and adults with Down Syndrome. Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality involving an extra copy of chromosome 21. It causes lifelong developmental delays that cannot be cured but can be managed with educational interventions, specialized parenting techniques, and community engagement. The local Catholic cathedral sponsors the program at the graphical society as part of a five-day a week effort to improve the quality of life of people with Down Syndrome. Society director Rafael Casades (right below), cathedral program director Anita Alfonso (left), and society volunteer Jennifer Delgado outlined the elements of the entire thing.

On Monday, the group meets for music; on Tuesday, for dance therapy; on Wednesday participants go to the farmers’ market the Roundtable toured to make their own food purchases, which they will cook on Thursday. Friday is the only day they are involved with the graphical society, which has done a remarkable job developing the artistic work and self confidence of participants, with the evidence displayed on the society’s wall.

When the participants (aged from 12 to 55 years of age) were first invited to work at the Graphical Society, most were afraid and uncomfortable , anxious about being put in a new situation with strange people, said Anita Alfonso. There was no sign of fear or discomfort as the students gathered with the Roundtable for a photograph. Most smiled and introduced themselves, eager to put their arms around the shoulders of their new friends. This was a dramatic display of the value of program in developing the social poise and sense of confidence and self-esteem of adults and teenagers dealing with the challenges of Down Syndrome.

Rick Stout of Onslow schools in North Carolina presented director Casades with gifts from the Roundtable for the students in the program and we were on our way to meet the representatives from the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba.

Cienfuegos: Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Primary School

Cienfuegos, “Pearl of the South,” beckoned on Thursday morning, a three-hour trip by coach from Havana. It is a beautiful city, located on a large open bay, loaded down with handsome French and Spanish architecture, such as the town hall.

A visit to Carlos Manuel de Cespedes” primary school was the first thing on the agenda. The school is named after a hero of a rebellion against the Spanish in 1868, a man known as the “father of Cuba.”

Rector Tania Diaz presided over a lovely greeting from the music teacher and two students. They performed two songs, the first dedicated to Fidel Castro on his death: “Riding Home with Fidel,” the second a celebration of the values of peace and freedom, “Knowing Cuba.”

On hand to greet us at the school were community representatives concerned with international visitors, a metallurgical engineer, and representatives from higher education and the school’s UNESCO liason.

The school, said Rector Diaz, serves 313 student with a staff of 49, 40 of whom are teachers. About five have master’s degrees, 11 are studying for their master’s, and seven are undergraduate students focused on pedagogy,

She feels the school has everything it needs to deliver a high quality program and proudly noted that every class has a television, while the schools has 11 computers in a lab, along with five DVD players.

School staff are especially proud of their UNESCO designation, part of a worldwide program emphasizing environmental stewardship, that includes 69 Cuban schools.

The school functions from 6:30 AM until 6:30 PM, with classes beginning at 8:30 and finishing at 4:30.
Once a month the staff meets with parents to go over student progress and advise parents on what they can do to help students move along. “We are nothing without the support of the parents,” said Diaz, who taught for 24 years before becoming Rector ten years ago. She emphasized, “We are both teachers – family and us. By the end of six years we are a family and it is possible for a student to remain with the same teacher throughout their time in the school.”

Julie Vitale presented Rector Diaz with gifts from the Roundtable – and then it was on to lunch at El Lagarto, a wonderful restaurant on the bay.

Don Mariano Marti Primary School

A highlight of the day was a visit to the Don Mariano Marti Primary School, named after the father of José Marti, “The George Washington of Cuba.” Marti was born on the street in which the school is located and, in fact, lived in what is now the school building at one point. A large poster in the lobby celebrates the centennial of José Marti’s birth.

With little to distinguish it from the street, the school is an attractive facility inside with airy, open landings.

Rector Milton Arbesuk (below) reported that it is a small school that enrolls 158 students in Grades 1 through 8. It employs a staff of 28, including 17 teachers and is proud of its association with UNESCO’s environmental protection efforts. Immunization of children is not required prior to enrollment, but all the shots students need are incorporated into the health program as part of the school.

A wonderful looking group of fifth graders, in the maroon uniforms with red ties that signify they are in elementary schools entertained us with a rousing rendition of the Pioneer Song sung by Marti’s pioneers, “Revolution: The Pride of Cuban Pioneers.”

We then visited a first grade classroom, where it was noted that the curriculum focuses on reading, writing, and mathematics and is part of a common curriculum statewide.

After Daniel Moirao presented our gifts to Rector Arbesuk, we were fortunate to get a group photo with the school leadership.

Barrio Habana

Last stop for the day was the “Barrio Habana” effort, a community-based after-school program offering sports and arts for children and youth (and the elderly) especially for at-risk children on the street.

Pavel Valdez, a lawyer and former football (soccer) player founded the program with his wife 12 years ago. The main athletic facilities are located in public space (available free to Barrio Habana), which he set out to clean and paint. The space (below) is basically a concrete playground that accommodates a small soccer field and it is located adjacent to what appears to an American eye to be very substandard apartment housing.

Valdez (below) described an effort to interest neighborhood children and teens in culture and museums, but found the boys in particular obsessed with football. He started with where they boys were. He sees football as just a vehicle to start a conversation with kids in the neighborhood.

Among his observations:

  • The football program has been very successful. Barrio Habana now has some of the best sports teams in the city, regularly winning city-wide competitions. Three of his “graduates” competed for selection in Cuba’s World Cup team, and eight are now in pre-selection competition.
  • The program offers chess and now boasts the best 8-year-old chess team in the city.
  • It offers an arts program and intergenerational programs with a local senior citizens center.
  • Girls are not attracted to football, but are actively involved in volleyball, softball, and dance.
  • The program subsists on donations and volunteers and desperately needs such elementary materials as Lego sets and chess boards.

With that, Susan Enfield presented Mr. Valdez with some gifts from the Roundtable and young boys who had been playing very competitive soccer in the background, crowded around him as he started to pass out some of the goodies.

The University of Havana

The University of Havana is rich in history and tradition. Founded in 1728, it will celebrate it’s tri-centenary in about a decade. According to Sergei, our guide:

  • It enrolls 15,000 students, including 2,000 foreign students.
  • Some 1,500 faculty members serve the students.
  • The University of Havana is completely free for Cuban students living in Cuba.
  • The blue-eyed owl atop the administration building (below) symbolizes the wisdom of white people. Prior to the revolution, black Cubans were not permitted to enroll at the University of Havana.

Foreign students are welcome. Sergei in fact admits them. The fee structure is complicated for different years and levels of study, but a rule of thumb suggests that annual tuition for foreign students is about $5,000.

The university has several impressive buildings, including the library and law school building below (where Fidel Castro studied in the 1940s). The library also contains a spectacular large meeting hall for important sessions. During our visit, the Minister of Education and the university chancellor were concluding a meeting launching a new program named in honor of Raul Castro’s son.

Graduating classes typically have their picture taken in front of a statue of Alma Mater and the Roundtable graduates of the tour of the university were pleased to take advantage of that tradition.

Gender, Race & Inequality in Cuba

Wednesday was another busy day with lectures from a distinguished sociologist, a visit to a Cuban elementary school and to the University of Havana, and the opportunity to meet with the director of an after-school program providing athletic and other opportunities for young men and women on the streets.

Marta Nunez retired three years ago after 50 years on the sociology faculty at the University of Havana. She proved to be a treasure trove of information all things cultural and Cuban. Her particular interest focuses on the place of women in Cuban life, but she also offered keen insights in racism and inequality on the island.

With respect to LGBTQ issues, Nunez pointed out that:

  • Cuba is a highly homophobic society that has had to battle against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
  • Oddly, however, having analyzed 17 years of Cuban television programming, she found that treatment of gay men and women in these shows was quite sympathetic.
  • And in December 2014, at an international Cuban film festival, film goers voted “Bridal Gown or Wedding Gown,” a film about a woman trapped inside a man’s body, as the most popular film in the festival.

Nevertheless, families encourage boys to play after school and to spar and box, so that they can avoid the label of “sissie,” while girls are required to work in the house and do well in school.

Equality for women, especially professional women, is a major issue. Women make up 40% of the workforce, but 66% of all professionals. But when women get home, they are expected to go to their second job of doing housework. Of 51 universities on the island, only 8 of the chancellors are women, although they make up 60% of the faculty.

In response to questions, she offered the following:

  • Domestic violence is an issue, due to machismo, but for men to beat their wives is a risky business. Due to the housing shortage, when couples marry, they move in with the bride’s family. Beating a woman in her own house, is likely to get the man evicted. Private ownership of guns is not allowed in Cuba, which minimizes fatal domestic encounters.
  • Teenage pregnancy exists, but it is minimized in Cuba because abortion is completely legal and above board and contraception is widely available.
  • Racism is a challenge. The belief that white skin is more desirable is pervasive. Asked the color of their skin on regular censuses and 66% of Cubans report they are white – a nonsensical finding as common experience in Cuba demonstrates.
  • Inequality remains a challenge, in some ways grounded in decisions made shortly after the revolution. In 1959, all Cubans were given the dwelling in which they lived. The dwelling could be one room, or a small apartment in a larger building, or a mansion. Ownership passed down through generations helped accentuate this inequality.
  • Meanwhile, while citizens are paid in Cuban pesos, Cuban exiles frequently send “remittances” to family members in more valuable dollars. The exiles are typically white, so the remittances become a ratchet that cranks inequality to new levels.

“Housing, transportation, and low pay are the major challenges facing Cuba 50 years after the revolution,” concluded Nunez.

A riot of art and color

The afternoon was spent in a riot of color and art. First up was “fursterville,” in the community of Jaimanitas, a fishing community of some 4,000 people a few blocks from the Caribbean.

Fuster, an artist in plaster and tiles, converted his neighborhood into an art project featuring murals, plastic art, and other designs. He transformed his own home in this way, and he and other artists then spread the concept to the surrounding streets.

Then it was on to the Merger Gallery, a collaborative project of three artists, Mario Gonzalez, Niels Moleiro, and Alain Pino. Each of the three contributes to each piece of art, which is signed by “The Merger” not by the individual artists. Many of the pieces include stainless steel, formed (like the Peter Pan producing the United States as Wonderland) by high pressure water hoses generating 6,000 pounds per square inch. The Pan piece fetched almost $35,000 at an auction at Sotheby’s.

Next stop: the home and studio of three emerging artists, Frank Mujica, Adrian Fernandez, and Alex Duenas, who work in different forms, including paper forms. They have converted their modern home into a gallery to display their work.

Finally, we stopped for tapas and cocktails at the home of art collector and art consignor Milagros Borges, where we were encouraged to wander freely through a treasure trove of impressive contemporary Cuban art.

Still not finished, we ended the day with a private performance by a renowned singer and songwriter, Frank Delgado at the Café Madrigal, owned and operated by film director Rafael Rosales. Delgado regaled us with stories of the development of “troub” music – troubador music that developed indigenously in Cuba in the 19th century and became the foundation of much of what we know as African-Cuban music and cha-cha, the bossa nova, and samba.

Cuba’s Museum of Literacy

The site of the old Columbia Barracks in Havana, home to 8,000 soldiers and its commandante, Fulgencia Batista, a brutal and despised despot, was turned into an educational campus following the revolution. Old barracks buildings now house kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools, vocational programs, and a university program training teachers. Batista’s former home in the barracks (below) now serves as the administrative center for these schools.

One of the buildings tells the story of a remarkable transformation that took place in Cuba in a 12-month period. Fidel Castro told the United Nations during a two-hour speech that, “Cuba will be the first country in Latin America in which it will be possible to say that not a single person is illiterate.” How did he pull this off? Rector Risa Campos (below) led us through the story.

An educational miracle transformed Cuban society through an army of 334,000 volunteers, drawn from students, social workers, academics, and housewives. This army include 100,000 students between the ages of 10 and 16 who went out into the rural areas to provide instruction in reading and writing to Cuba’s peasants. (Campos, above, is standing beside a mannequin modelling the uniform worn by these students.) Below is a picture of an 8-year-old volunteer.

One 102-year-old woman learned to read and write for the first time (below). Another elderly man wrote to Castro that he had not truly felt like a Cuban until he became literate.

On December 22, 1961, according to Campos, just 3% of Cubans could not read or write, a figure that had stood at 24% on January 1. A year later, with illiteracy defeated, free public education for all was launched for the first time in Cuba. The literacy rate in Cuba today is 98.8%.

Cuba subsequently launched programs throughout Latin America and in parts of Eastern Europe. Campos estimated that Cuba has helped more than 10 million people learn to read around the world with fully one million of them continuing their education through at least sixth grade. By way of thanks, the Roundtable presented Campos with a modest gift of school materials for students (below).

The record is a stunning testament to what a quiet and charming, queen-like little woman can accomplish when she sets her mind to a task with confidence, determination, and good humor.

Cuba’s National School of Music

Tuesday morning introduced us to some stunning high school musical talent – Jorge Fernandez Acosta on the piano; Emmanuel Unquias Linones on guitar and voice; and Sarbelio Matos Fernandez on violin – at the National School of music.

Jorge drew our attention with a piano composition he created at age 14, “Romance of the Autumn,” below which was one of several pieces he created for a documentary on four different women turning 50 and thinking back on their 15-year-old coming of age ceremony, the quincienera. The four came from different strata of Cuban life and he needed to create four separate moods, Jorge reported.

Sarbelio, quiet and shy, dazzled us with his performances, including “Hey, Jude,” where Emmanuel brought the house down by producing John Lennon’s vocals at the conclusion.

We wrangled a group picture with them so that when they become famous, we can say we knew them when.

Daniela Valdez, vice rector (in striped dress above), has been with the school for 50 years. She explained that it draws on the best of the best students from across Cuba, enrolling a total of 500 students over 3 years, with 300 of them living on campus. The school provides instruments to the students and permits them to keep the instruments for two months following graduation, after which they are returned to the school. Most of the students are able to earn enough money from their music during those two months that they can purchase their own instruments.

A total of 30 schools of art exist in Cuba, all free to students and permitting the development of remarkable talent not only in music, but also in important areas such as art, ballet, and drama.

Pelegrin Center for the Arts

Before returning to Havana we visited the Pelegrin Center for the Arts, a collection of rustic outdoor cabins providing after school tutoring and arts education to community children and many elderly people (known as “accumulated youth”!). The Pelegrin Center, now 19 years old, is the first of its kind — providing after school and arts opportunities for children and adults in an isolated, rural community of 7,500 people without a movie house, dance hall, or community gathering place of any kind.

Lourdes Pelegrin, the sister of the artist-founder, showed us around. We saw paintings from her brother, outdoor classrooms, a vain peacock, the community library, organic plots for vegetables, and children’s art work.

   We were happy to present Roundtable gifts for the children.