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Oscar Duran in Havana

Seven questions:
Senior Oscar Duran gains
a Cuban perspective

By Michael Klitzing

Cuba has been many things in the American imagination over the past six decades: A forbidden destination. A focal point of Cold War anxiety. A political wedge issue.

Since the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s and the icy standoff with the United States that ensued, Americans have largely seen Cuba only through media depictions stoking fear by portraying the menace of communism lurking a mere 90 miles off U.S. shores.

San Diego State University social science senior Oscar Duran had heard that side of the story before.

Over the summer, he sought out a different perspective on Cuba.

Duran took part in his second study abroad experience, this time with a group of SDSU students who traveled to Havana as part of SDSU’s College of Extended Studies faculty-led program “Culture, Society and the Contemporary Cuban Experience.” The course, held at the Centro de Estudios Martianos, examined Cuba’s history, politics, health care, international relations and economy − all from the perspective of Cuban professors, scholars and ordinary citizens.

Recently, we chatted with Duran, a Palomar College transfer who is the son of Mexican immigrants, to learn more about his trip to Cuba and how it altered his perspective about the country and its history, and how the experience resonated with him in ways he was not expecting.

Why did you decide to study abroad again this summer?

Last summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain. It was the first time I was able to do something like this, and it was an experience I enjoyed very much. It helped me grow academically and personally. Therefore, I knew I wanted to experience something similar again.

So why Cuba?

I saw Cuba as the perfect opportunity to explore and learn about a Latin American country I knew almost nothing about. Growing up in the U.S. and going through the K-12 system here really limits our understanding of the history of countries outside of our own. Often, we are given an image that is far from reality, and we grow up thinking that it is the only truth. I wanted to learn about Cuba from the Cuban people themselves, and I wanted to immerse myself within their culture to fully understand — or at least try to understand — the conflict that has existed between our nations for quite some time now.

Overall, what was your experience like?

My experience in Cuba was amazing. Honestly, I felt very welcomed by the people there and it was almost as if I was at home. Academically, it was very constructive and I definitely learned a lot in the classroom about their history, government and economy. However, I feel like I learned the most outside the classroom just by walking through the streets and interacting with the locals. I also definitely felt like speaking Spanish and being of Latin American heritage myself, as a Mexican, made me closer to their culture. The conversations I had with many of the people were genuinely engaging and also eye-opening. In a sense, it made me realize and question my own privilege.

That’s an interesting point. Do you have an example of that?

I do. I started talking a lot to the security guard at our hotel; I would see him almost on a daily basis every time I walked down to the lobby to use the internet or make a phone call. We both shared a passion for sports, especially soccer, and we became very good friends. I would hang out and chat with him a lot when I was back from class, mainly about sports at first. When I told him I was studying abroad he would ask me about the things we learned about Cuba that day as a class, and he would give me more input and his perspective. Throughout the weeks we got to know each other very well and he shared his life story with me and I shared mine with him. He even said that if I ever returned to Cuba I had a place to stay at his home with his family. I remember him saying, ‘no es la gran cosa pero para un amigo sincero las puertas siempre estaran abiertas’ That means ‘It's not much, but for a true friend the doors will always be open.’ I appreciated this gesture very much.

On the last day when it was time to check out, I put some things together in my room to gift to him since I wouldn't be needing them back in San Diego. They were just small everyday items such as granola bars, a couple of used shirts, a hat, some disposable razors, aftershave, shampoo, etc. Or at least that's what they seemed like to me. When I went to say goodbye to him and hand him the bag, that's when I realized that small things in our eyes could mean so much more in someone else's eyes who has lived a different reality than us.

Coming from a very humble family myself, were both of my parents had experienced extreme poverty as children in Mexico, I had always been aware that this life isn't fair most of the time. However, it had been a while since I had reflected on this fact. My parents showed me the value of being generous and always remembering where you come from regardless of where you make it to in life. Therefore, this moment I shared with him grounded me to my values once again. He almost started crying when I told him thank you for everything and handed him the bag. We exchanged a hug and he reiterated that this meant a lot to him and he would never forget it. Never had I seen someone been so grateful for receiving a gift. It made me realize right there and then, that we complain so much in our materialistic society back home. We're always worried about having the latest cellphone or the ‘coolest’ brand of clothes that we forget about the little things in life.

As you mentioned, Most Americans only know Cuba from media depictions. Did anything about being there surprise you?

I wouldn’t say anything specific surprised me, but all my experiences in Cuba collectively helped clear my perspective of how the media does portray Cuba, especially when it comes to politics and government. It made me analyze a lot more in depth, how and why the history we learn about Cuba in our educational system comes from a biased and politicized agenda. This approach hurts our education and does not do justice to the people of Cuba and their experiences.

Has this study abroad experience shaped your future plans or aspirations?

I aspire to a career in the educational field. I want to serve as an academic counselor at the high school and/or community college level helping students − specifically first generation underrepresented students of color -- navigate the college transfer and transition process. For many of them, being in this new and unknown position can be very challenging and even intimidating at times. I say this because I was one of these students myself. After studying abroad in Spain and now Cuba, I want to share these experiences and knowledge I gained with the students I will be working with.

What do you think your advice to them will be?

I feel like every student should maximize their potential while having the opportunity to study at a university such as SDSU. Not everyone has this privilege. Taking advantage of the various resources and programs offered, such as study abroad, can really make difference and have an everlasting impact in your life. So, step out of your comfort zone, experience new things, challenge yourself to grow, learn and develop as a scholar and as a human being. Whether it be Cuba or any other country, don’t take for truth everything other people tell you about the world. Go out there and experience it for yourself.

Oscar Duran in front of Havana mural

What country would you like to experience? Explore your study abroad options by visiting the Aztecs Abroad database.


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