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All of Cuba becomes a classroom for U-M professor, students

January 22, 2013
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A photo of Ruth Behar leading a student tour of Cuba.

Anthropology professor Ruth Behar (fourth from the left) leads a group of students in 2011 on a study tour of Cuba.

Ruth Behar’s house in Ann Arbor is painted in tropical hues of sea green, turquoise, lavender and purple, with a pink and yellow striped porch. It’s intended to reflect the type of home found in her native Cuba. The University of Michigan anthropology professor left the Caribbean nation in 1962 when her family fled the regime of Fidel Castro.

She has written numerous books, many of which focus on Cuban themes, including An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba. She was named a MacArthur Fellow – commonly known as the “genius grant” – in 1988 and was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995. But she said one of her proudest accomplishments is sharing her Cuban culture with U-M students.

Beginning in 2010, she has taken students to Cuba for a three-month study abroad program through the Center for Global and Intercultural Study  in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Although several universities run study abroad programs in Cuba, Behar says this is the only one led by an anthropologist.

This month, she left with a group of 13 students for another Cuban study program.

Behar first headed back to Cuba as a graduate student in 1979, eager to learn about the place where she was born. She didn’t return again until 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union. She has visited numerous times since.

A U.S. trade embargo and travel restrictions, effective since the 1960s, have made visiting Cuba difficult. But in recent years, Washington has been relaxing its policy. In 2011, new rules were issued, making it easier for religious, student and cultural groups to go to the island.

It’s a particularly exciting time for students to see Cuba because the country is at a “fascinating crossroads,” Behar said. While the nation tries to preserve its communist system and ideology, it also allows “penny capitalism” as peddlers sell items like brooms and socks on the street, she said.

Ever since Behar began teaching “Cuba and Its Diaspora”—an anthropology class that is cross-listed with Latina/Latino Studies—a decade ago, students expressed interest in going to Cuba. She said that support from LSA’s Department of Anthropology was instrumental in making it happen.

Because of the trade embargo that the U.S. has in place with Cuba, U-M staff must go through complex legal negotiations and a tricky procurement process to plan the trip.  Credit cards are not allowed as a method of payment, so students need to bring cash. As a result, Behar said the trip caters to self-motivated students who want to “see an edgier place and are willing to go and rough it.”

Behar said the students find it’s well worth the effort.  They benefit from the opportunity to mingle with her 20 years’ worth of contacts, helping them experience an authentic Cuba. She wants to share the Cuban experience she cherishes with young people, creating a cultural bridge between students and Cuban scholars and artists.

As part of the program, students take four classes in the morning taught by Behar and Cuban professors in Spanish, ethnography and the art and culture of Cuba. The afternoons are spent immersing themselves in the country’s culture, visiting art museums, neighborhoods and Afro-Cuban shrines.

“We treat the entire island of Cuba as our classroom,” she said.

Behar says that every student has been changed by this experience. Each one of the seven students on the 2011 trip has returned to Cuba since their study abroad visit. Behar feels she is creating ambassadors—young adults who are forming their own ties to the country.

“They have the networks,” she said. “They understand how Cuba works.”

(A longer version of this story is available at LSA Today.)



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