The Mississippi, a Cuban River

By Aurelio Pedroso (Progeso Weekly)

The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River

HAVANA TIMES – Not long ago, we were visited at home by a 13-year-old boy who had gone through six years of elementary education and was in his first year of junior high school (seventh grade, in other words).

The young boy surprised me by his deportment and good manners. Also, by the way he behaved at the table, holding the utensils in the proper manner and not talking with his mouth full. To top it off, he thanked us for our hospitality. Truly, a rare individual nowadays.

Impressed, I chose to quiz him about subjects that, in my opinion, he should know at his age. Unfortunately, my first question was also my last. I asked him to name three Cuban rivers.

Without hesitation, he answered, “the Mississippi.” Then he fell silent.

I was hoping against hope that the boy, who otherwise seemed smart, was pulling my leg, but – to personal and national shame – he had spoken with total sincerity.

Cuba, I admit, is not an exception when it comes to the status of worldwide education. Blunders similar to placing that mighty river in our insular geography have appeared in answers to college tests in the United States and Spain. But, as a Cuban, I’m hurt because for years we had an enviable educational system.

That is why I’m neither relieved nor placated by the realization that we’re manufacturing local donkeys who, with adult-sounding brays (a 22-year-old girl), explain that when the Berlin Wall fell, the Hitlerian fascists who lived in East Germany fled to the other half of the country.

The reader should not think for a moment that I was a brilliant student. On the contrary. The competition was fierce for the science-preparatory curriculum so, thanks to a deputy minister of adult education who was an uncle of renowned singer Pedro Luis Ferrer, I took the literature curriculum (we had to study Latin as if we were seminarians) and gained admission to the University, which had rigorous standards.

I still remember some of the courses I took at school of the Marist Brothers in Camagüey, the post-Revolution classes in geography using the textbook by Capt. Antonio Núñez Jiménez, and so on. That’s when teachers were addressed as “sir,” had gray hair and inspired inviolable respect.

Though it may grieve those who loudly defend the success of public education in the past 50 years, we must admit that education today is ailing and in therapy and that it wouldn’t do much good to stand the responsible (irresponsible) people at the back of the classroom with a dunce cap on the head, staring at the wall.

As the saying reminds us: “No use crying over spilt milk.”

Education is not excluded from the current process of renewal that the island is undergoing. That awesome task has been assigned to Minister Ena Elsa Velásquez Cobiella, who, sources tell me, knows well how to straighten up the years-old education mess because of her experience. May she succeed, I pray from here.

Against Ena Elsa is the fact that the necessary complement for a well-rounded education – family support – is insufficient for historical reasons, i.e., the education given to Mother and Dad. I’m talking about adults from 20 to 50 years old who, rather than students, were lab mice in an educational process that boasted of being “leading edge” and one of the best in the world.

Recently, Minister Velásquez Cobiella was challenged by the readers of Granma in the Letters to the Editor section of the daily newspaper, suggesting specific subjects and tests that could be given to the students. She was convincing when she replied that “elementary and high school education are in a process of improvement.”

Let us strive to improve, then, so that a child or a teenager can learn, for example, where we live and who our Caribbean neighbors are. After all, we have no illiterates here, and everybody can print or scratch his or her name in full. Never a thumbprint.

14 thoughts on “The Mississippi, a Cuban River

  • I agree. I don’t understand why anyone would completely diss the enormous contributions in music made by Cuban musicians.

    And what does Moses mean by his statement ‘no CUban music has ever impacted the world’..? I’m sorry to say, that statement REEKS of ignorance.

    Cuban music was *HUGE* 1920-1960. Genres like the bolero spread across the world and could be heard in as far as China. From the bolero and son came the rhumba dance that became part of the repertoire of any latin/ballroom dancer today. Tango too, which came from the habanera. Chachacha was a practically craze in the US and the UK. Mambo was a massive hit in places like the Palladium in NY throughout the 50s. And today… please, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the SALSA phenomenon.

    Cuba has given so much to the world of music, and it has the right to be proud for that.

  • I agree. Rap itself is probably originated from Cuban lyrical improvisation.

  • Neither hip-hop nor jazz were unique musical forms without prior influences. No form of music is isolated and complete. Sorry to say this Moses, but you’ve really climbed far out onto a thin limb and sawed it off.

    The evolution of jazz from gospel and African chant songs through ragtime and marching band music to early jazz styles is very well documented. Blues, swing and other influences were added over the years.

    Antecedents to rap include African chant song (again), beat poets, jazz scat singing and reggae dancehall styles.

    You could look this up yourself. Just google “origins of jazz” and “origins of rap”. It’s all out there, friend. Musicologists have identified musicians, songs and dates to flesh out the history.

    As for impacting the world, that depends on who you ask and is largely a function of marketing. American musicians have greater access to marketing than Cuban musicians do. I would rather listen to Ibrahim Ferrer than to Jay-Z, and that just my personal taste. But I guarantee you 50 years from now, nobody will be listening to Jay-Z’s trite rhymes while Ferrer’s music will still be performed.

    The fact is that Cuban music derived influences from the many contributing cultures on the island nation (African, Spanish & French the most significant) and then gave back to the world new innovations, forms and styles which can be called “Cuban”.

  • To be sure, and I know this is off-topic a bit but each of the musical distinctions you highlighted are nuances to the original. My argument is that even in music, Cubans have contributed no original work that has impacted the world. I would use hip-hop and rap as an example. Like this style of music or not, it is worldwide and here to stay and it is an undeniable “invention” of the urban African-American community as opposed to a derivative of something else. Jazz, as you mentioned earlier, and the Blues before it were distinctly original American musical styles that are now treasures to the world. To this end, Cuban education in general, and music in particular has produced no “original” treasures.

  • To be sure, while they might not know much about Mozart, the people of Florida are more familiar with that corporal from Austria, the one with the funny moustache.

  • Aside from the particularly Cuban genres of guaracha, son, trova and danzón, there have been many wonderful Cuban musicians who have contributed to the development of various international musical genres.

    In jazz, the late Bebo Valdez and Ruben Gonzalez influenced the growth of a Cuban jazz piano style, as distinct from the more general Latin style. As vocalists, Celia Cruz and Omara Portuondo certainly made their marks, and more lasting than disco.

    The “habanera” style of Cuban classical music has influenced composers such as Ravel, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Fauré & Albeniz. The rhythm is similar to that of the tango, and some believe the habanera is the musical father of the tango.

    I recommend Alejo Carpentier’s masterful book, “Music in Cuba” for a thorough history of the development of Cuban music up to 1940.

  • The Cuban educational system has mixed results. That every child can attend a publicly funded system is a very good thing. That illiteracy was eliminated was a very good thing. That the children are forced to swallow reams of propaganda is tragic, and that there are so few books the literate Cuban is allowed to read is a crying shame. It’s nice that qualified high school graduates can attend university free of charge. But it’s pathetic that they must pass an examination of their “political characteristics” before being granted permission. And it’s a cruel joke that a new graduate with a degree in engineering or science will make more money waiting tables or driving a cab than she would in her chosen field, assuming there even was such a job waiting for them.

  • Once we get to meet at a Starbucks – whose horrible, watered-down expresso costs 4 times more than a regular expresso in a dirty bar – please remind me to punch you in the face because “I suppose, for a poor third world country, that is a good thing.” is as offensive as one can get.

    You ‘forget’ one tiny little detail in your stupid Cuba/USA comparison – resources. $$$. Yes, science and technology takes a lot of resources (which in the case of the USA are pillaged from other countries directly, whether by warmongering or economic exploitation).

    Context, please.

  • The only possible claim I have ever seen even partially confirmed is that the whole disco music scene of the ’70s normally attributed to Disco 54 in New York City really started in Havana and then became popular internationally after these Cubans brought it to the US. Name one more ‘advancement’ in pop, jazz, classic, or any other music genre that began in Cuba (not Miami) by a Cuban.

  • Moses: what you call sharing problems of Cuba is basically producing insults and idiotic polemics.

  • On the other hand, there are many great advances in music in the last 100 years that can legitimately be claimed by Cuban musicians.

  • Hahaha! You are hopeless. I share my doubts that the Cuban educational system is or was as good as the Cuban government claims it is and you respond by criticizing the US. American advances in science and techology speaks for itself. This blog is about Cuba genious! Why try to defend the indefensible? Most Cubans can read and, I suppose, for a poor third world country, that is a good thing. To claim more than that yet to be proven.

  • yeah sure Moses, not everybody is as intelligent as the Us-americans. Tha`ts why people in Florida think that Mozart was the president of Austria. Not to talk about the sharks in the ocean around. Maybe there´s a new species: the mountain sharks.So far so good.

  • I have often read the self-proclaimed plaudits of the cuban educational system. I can’t help but wonder if the educational system is (was) as good as the Cuban propagandists claim. If so, where is the proof? What great advances in society in the last 50 years can be claimed by Cuban inventors? What technological or medical leaps are due to Cuban ingenuity? How has the world been made a cleaner, safer, more comfortable, or more efficient place because of a highly-educated Cuban scientist, or businessman or engineer, a product of this heralded system? I dare say that building more schools and mandating all children go to school is really all the Castros did. Cubans learned to read but they were not allowed the think for themselves.

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