The Harvard Cubans Documentary Premiere Shares Untold Story of US-Cuba Relations with a Harvard Twist

November 2, 2017

By Julia Cohn '15

The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) hosted the world premiere of the documentary Los Cubanos de Harvard (The Harvard Cubans) last Monday, October 23, during the inaugural Worldwide Week at Harvard (October 22-28, 2017). The 72-minute film was directed by Cuban journalist Danny González Lucena and produced by the Cuba Studies Program at DRCLAS. The Harvard Cubans tells the story of a group of nearly 1,300 Cuban schoolteachers who attended Harvard Summer School in 1900, an expedition that is considered to be the most significant instance of people-to-people exchange between Cuba and the United States to date. The evening began with an introduction to the film by Jorge I. Domínguez, Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico and Co-Chair of the Cuba Studies Program at DRCLAS. Domínguez is interviewed in the documentary, as is his Co-Chair of the Cuba Studies Program, Alejandro de la Fuente, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics. Other key figures interviewed in the documentary include Cuban historian Dr. Marial Iglesias Utset, and the Cuban poet and essayist Victor Fowler, who co-wrote the script for the documentary with González Lucena and was a visiting scholar at Harvard in 2015-16. Following the screening, DRCLAS Associate Director Erin Goodman moderated a lively discussion between González Lucena and Iglesias Utset, who is currently a Visiting Research Scholar at the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center at Harvard. The film project is inextricably linked to Harvard's history, and many individuals across the university participated in the production. As González Lucena expressed in the Q&A, The Harvard Cubans greatly benefited from the involvement of Harvard faculty members and administrators, as well as bibliographic assistance from Iglesias Utset and Lynn Shirey, Librarian for Latin America, Spain and Portugal. The year 1900 was a tense moment in the history of Cuba, and González Lucena’s documentary depicts this tension, presenting the two dominant and contrasting views of Cuba’s future during this period. The Treaty of Paris of 1898 that ended the Cuban-Spanish-North American War established Cuba’s independence from Spain, and a month later, the U.S. military arrived to occupy the island. The Military Governor appointed Harvard Law School graduate Alexis Frye to serve as superintendent of the Cuban school system. Schools were considered very important for the recovery of the country and for the formation of a new national identity after the three wars for independence. Some Cuban independentistas were initially suspicious of Frye and wary of “Americanization.” To the surprise of his skeptics, Frye implemented reforms that strengthened and expanded the Cuban public school system. The Cuban Teachers’ Expedition to Harvard is one example of an initiative proposed and organized by Frye. The 1,273 Cuban teachers who participated in the expedition hailed from all over the island and comprised half of all public schoolteachers in the country. They were warmly received in Cambridge and concluded their visit of the U.S. with a tour of New York City, Philadelphia, and the nation’s capital, where they met President William McKinley. The primary sources on the expedition, as analyzed in the documentary, reflect a substantial positive impact on both individual teachers who spent their summer at Harvard and the schools, school systems, and communities to which they returned. The Harvard Cubans, however, argues that the impact of the expedition did not end with these teachers and the communities they served; rather, surprising revelations from González Lucena’s research for the documentary include implications for attitudes towards race, gender, and class in Cuban and U.S. society as a result of the exchange. Though there was much ritual and ceremony to welcoming the Cubans to the U.S. and Harvard—on many occasions, the national anthems of the U.S. and Cuba and flags of the two countries were often played one-after-the-other and side-by-side, respectively—there was also considerable dialogue. The documentary is organized into five chapters, each rich with primary sources that were made available to González Lucena during his time at Harvard in the spring of 2016 as a DRCLAS Cuba Visiting Scholar. The material ranges from archival photographs and handwritten diary entries of Cuban teachers who participated in the expedition to clippings from U.S. and Cuban newspapers that covered the expedition. In his archival research, González Lucena even came across the original pins that were given to the Cuban schoolteachers to serve as the equivalent of identification cards during their stay at Harvard. Much of this source material was collected by the librarian William Coolidge Lane in 1900 and kept in a time capsule that Iglesias Utset researched when the documents were uncovered in 1996. González Lucena drew upon these documents and others held at Harvard’s University Archives and the Cambridge Public Library, employing a graphics team to animate still images and artifacts to tell the story of this historic program of exchange. The Harvard Cubans film is historical in focus, but it also stimulates discussion about the current state of U.S.-Cuba relations. In the cultural arena, González Lucena expressed the desire that scholars and artists continue to explore exchange between the two countries, including the ways in which U.S. popular culture influenced Cuban society.