The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Four Months in Havana: My Neighborhood, Vedado


Editor's Note: This is Claire's February 2020 installment of her study-abroad experience in Cuba, before returning to the United States.

I’ve begun a daily rhythm here that, just as at home, fluctuates around my classes and homework. I live with a host family and two other students a street away from the university, and am taking four classes. The streets are set up in a grid of letters and numbers, so it’s easy to explore and relatively safe. Havana has struck me in its mannerisms as having the same bustle of every other city—people lining streets and buses to get to work, neighbors stopping to chat and sit on doorsteps and sidewalks—with notable differences stemming from different everyday realities. The street right next to mine is lined with food places and restaurants, and there is a notable lack of consumerism and commercialization, with considerably less clothing stores and commodities than in the US. Certain food or items can be hard to get, or people will have to wait in long lines for them. What is available fluctuates, and internet is particularly difficult, although considerably easier now than it has been in the past. For internet, you have to buy internet cards, each worth an hour for the cost of about a dollar (1 CUC) and can only use them in WiFi parks or hotels, for the most part. You can buy data by the GB, and I’m currently using 1 GB of data for about 10 dollars for just using WhatsApp—which is what a lot of people here do. 

My neighborhood, Vedado, used to be the rich-vacation part of Havana, with a lot of houses created for wealthy Americans (from what I understand), and it’s lined with beautiful houses with tall ceilings and porches and plenty of old Spanish buildings, all positioned right along the waterfront. The weather can be just as hot as you might expect, but the breezes that float in off the ocean tend to balance it out, and some days, when the wind is too strong, the waves come crashing off the Malecón (sea wall) so strongly that you can’t walk by without getting soaked. A lot of times children will play in them to cool off, and the other day I walked from Vedado to Old Havana along the Malecón during one of these days with a lot of waves and wind, and chatted with a man who was sitting on the sea wall playing the trumpet, completely unbothered by the rain and waves. 


Once again, as with Jordan, the language has become an essential focus of my time here—which was my plan, but being here adds extra emphasis to the importance of communication. I am constantly learning new ways that language is essential to learning about a place, and to creating connections there. I feel the difference when I am interacting with people in Spanish than in English, and try to only speak in Spanish, especially in the street. It’s a humbling experience, because as I make friends in my classes and at school, I feel the frustration of not being able to be myself with ease in another language. Speaking in another language feels like such a vulnerable experience—finding new ways and words for expressing yourself and your personality—and I can only imagine the extra weight of this experience for people who have not elected to have it, for whom the language switch is not temporary and who cannot fall back on their first language. It’s a weird balance of doing local enrollment as a study abroad student from the States, because plenty of foreign students do fall back on English, and we often have the choice of staying within study abroad circles. While I’m trying to avoid slipping into English—and actually think, in a lot of situations, it becomes disrespectful when study abroad students are talking in English in front of Cuban students who may not understand English, and it can feel invasive walking down the street talking in English. I do feel the difference in comfort between my first language and my second. 

I will elaborate on this point, but I believe that everyone in the United States should study Spanish, and have an understanding of Spanish and Latin American history and thought. There is so much we don’t know about countries and peoples that we have impacted so heavily, and continue to, and a lot of that narrative is lost in the difference in language—which is one of the reasons speaking English in the street feels invasive here. One humbling experience that highlights this is the difference in how the word “America” is understood between languages and places. For example, people here don’t refer to people from the United States as Americans—quite correctly, we are North Americans or Estadounidense (United States-ian ). This is an important difference. All of this continent is America, and yet we continue to not think about it that way, and that sentiment is reflected in every level of our foreign policy, domestic immigration policy, and general attitude towards Latin America. 


The University of Havana is a beautiful space, with tall elegant buildings and plants—one building in particular has a garden in the center courtyard with trees and bushes and it’s currently my favorite space to study. The school system works differently, and students in each faculty are set on a specific track with little flexibility. They take the same classes with the same students each year, can’t take classes outside of their faculty (kind of operates like majors) and then provide options for electives senior year. This system is called the Carrera System, but as a semester exchange student, I can take classes in the Faculty of Philosophy and History, Sociology, and the Faculty of Arts and Letters. I am currently taking Latin American and Cuban Sociological Thought, Cultural Realities of Cuba, Cuban Art, and Philosophical and Sociocultural Controversies in the Revolution. I’ve joined a soccer team in a tournament among Faculties (I’m playing for Philosophy), which has become pretty intense, and Friday we played in the finals and lost, winning a silver medal. This has been such a wonderful way to meet other students, and I really like the team. I went to a meeting for a club that started a creative writing magazine on campus, and they had me read out someone’s poem in the magazine in English. I went to a theater club meeting a friend invited me to, but have stopped going because they’re preparing now for a show. The campus is constantly busy with students hanging out and studying, and students get close with their whole classes because they spend so much time together. I’m really enjoying my time at this university. 

Spanish Words

Estadaunidense or norteamericano: Words to describe people from the United States, their nationality, or what we would usually describe as “American.” 

Chuchos: This is a word in Cuban slang that means jokes or teasing, it’s used in a sentence like “she gave me chuchos,” which, in English, we would say "she made fun of me."