by Regina Cano
HAVANA TIMES – Manuela Grau and Alfredo Gibert Flores make up the group “Amig@s (amigaos) por el Cuento”. They visited Cuba for the International “Cuenta Habana” Storytelling Festival”. They performed at different venues across the capital and in another province in Cuba.
I found them sharing stage, as the guests of Mirta Portillo and Lourdes (La Cimarrona), oral storytellers and one of their guides during their stay in Havana.
Why did you come to Cuba?
Manuela Grau and Alfredo Gibert: We were surprised because the “Cuenta Habana” Festival was an event organized by Argentinians.
Manuela: It was a positive experience. People really liked our work and we made very good friends with people here. Cuban storytellers are great masters of the art. I have fallen in love with the way they narrate and how they tell their stories with their bodies, hands and their musicality. That’s something I’m taking away with me.
Alfredo: Argentinians, Cubans, us and a person from Costa Rica attended the Festival. We could connect with people and find out about their working methods.
The best oral storytellers I’ve ever seen have been Cuban. Being here has a been a super enriching experience. It’s our first international tour. We paid 150 USD to register. My school paid for half my registration fee.
We were lucky to have met such wonderful people. We performed in Playa; at an old persons’ home in Old Havana and in Batazo, in Centro Havana. In Boca de Camarioca, Matanzas too, and at schools and libraries. It was very intense for the few days we were here.
In Matanzas, we performed in front of six hundred students aged between 6-14 years old, and we were taken aback by the respect they have for culture.
Students receive oral stories really well (you have stories, storytelling, in your blood) and they could sit and listen for forty, sixty minutes at a time.
There are important things in Cuba, which shouldn’t ever be lost.
Manuela: We performed at a school, on Jose Marti’s birthday. It was really nice to see all of the children’s presentations. We have learned so many things about the culture and life here. I am happy! because I have been able to tell my stories in hundreds of places.
What about the Cuban people?
Manuela: I like their warmth. A charming people who are generous with everything they have. They offer you the little they have. They make it easy for you to tell your stories.
Alfredo: Cubans seem to be really respectful, caring and joyful, in my opinion. They know how to laugh. They know how to live. They have education and healthcare covered, in spite of the blockade. Super important things that have already become consumerist services in Chile.
It’s the first opinion after seventeen days, which is also very complex.
There are Chileans who see Cubans depressed. I don’t think they are, I believe there is greater depression in Chile or in Haiti.
It’s a very artistic country. They have a deeply-rooted culture, generally-speaking. I believe that this is something that Chileans need to learn, respect our roots.
What about the education systems in Cuba and Chile?
Manuela: It has been a wonderful opportunity for us to see how high schools function here (in Matanzas). Just how polite and receptive the children were. They really appreciate it when you go in. With them, it was like “Wow!”, from the very beginning.
In Chile, the overly material system we have has meant that they have everything “a plenty” and they are used to everything, but of course there are different children in other social sectors.
They have many cultural guides in general and technology is very present in their lives. They have everything on their phones, everything is fast and immediate: games, information, music. It takes a lot to catch their attention and for them to get them hooked on storytelling, but it’s not impossible.
Alfredo: I was very suprised to hear them say very good things about Education in Chile, at the school in Matanzas, because of its standardized exams.
They take a lot of time, but they are like a double-edged sword. They measure you as a school, but it’s supposed to be an exam or test, that you take individually.
Many schools have taken on this exam/science. It’s a bit of a trap too.
Education is there to impart a lot of knowledge to students, but values aren’t taught, or personal development, and worse yet, they don’t work with their bodies.
Very strict, the Prussian educational system. You, a student sitting down, looking down the back of the neck of everyone else for six hours per day. Working using only your mental capacity.
It’s time we change the way we look at things a little.
In Chile, we also have the Montessori and Waldorf teaching methodologies, to name a few.
There are some private high schools, which are quite expensive. We are talking about 100-300 CUC per month.
University costs about 800 CUC per month.
Some student grants were offered under Bachelet’s government, but now Mr. Pinera is taking them away. And all of the advances that had been made, are slowly being lost.
You can study there if you have a student loan, but you end up paying it off twenty years later and even paying nine or ten times what your degree actually cost. There are people who fall into debt, and many people even lose their homes.
It’s the middle class with the most debt in the world. And if you don’t get a loan, you can’t study.
How did the Group form?
Manuela: We’ve been together for a year and a half. We met at an international Storytelling competition in Chile, where there were people from Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina (…).
In Chile, we’ve performed mostly in Santiago and its surrounding areas. I would love to travel across Chile too.
As we are actors, we tell our stories in a bit of a theatrical way. He plays the guitar and the music gives the story a lot of atmosphere. Other storytellers in Chile are purists.
What is your academic and professional background?
Manuela: I studied Spanish and French Language and Literature at university, and then Theater Studies. Later, I studied to become a Yoga Instructor, and then to become a Storyteller.
I spend more time on the storytelling, which has allowed me to create things that are simpler than theater. It’s direct: it interacts with the audience. It’s shorter and has a message that you transmit. Stories don’t have a Fourth Wall.
I think every form is wonderful.
I am exploring this new world and look, I’ve traveled. I’m in Cuba and I’m very happy!
Who is Alfredo?
I am from Chile, I live in Santiago de Chile. I am also a primary school teacher. I work at the Andino Antuquelen school, 20 kms away from Santiago. We work using the Paulo Freire teaching methodology, a critical pedagogical model, and we have declared ourselves an anti-patriarchal school.
There is a feminist movement underway here in Chile, which is gaining momentum and I believe that its time remove patriarchy from our classrooms.
What about Chile?
Alfredo: I have met many people in Cuba who say: “Chile… Chile…,” with a great deal of admiration. But, “careful”, Chile is a great country for the foreign investor.
It’s the only country where water isn’t sovereign, that’s to say they don’t belong to Chile. If I want to put in a well in my backyard, I have to pay for it.
You pay approximately 50 CUC per month for water. It’s expensive to live in Chile. It costs a lot!
Plus, you have the Spanish firms that own all of our telecommunications companies, copper is managed by another non-Chilean company, etc.
Thirty or forty per cent of our population live in poverty.
People here say good things about Chileans, but of course, Chileans who can afford to come to Cuba aren’t your average Chilean.
Cuba has a lot of things, but for example, it hasn’t been affected by drugs like Chile has, where you can buy them wherever you go and it isn’t very criminalized.
The Mapuche population is in decline. All of their lands have been taken away from them.
Chile is quite colonized culturally-speaking, it’s very foreign. It looks more towards European culture, than Latin American culture.
It’s the second country in the world with the most shopping malls.
Do I love Chile? I think it has a lot of good things, but you also have to wear your critical hat, especially when our Cuban brothers and sisters have a picture of Chile that isn’t real.
Colombians, Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans have come on their journey pursuing the American dream. However, the majority of people are selling or are living in poor conditions.
Unfortunately, some fellow Chileans charge a lot for rent. There’s a lot of overcrowding.
There are also good Chilean hosts, but when people get there, they realize that things aren’t as they imagined they were.
What’s financial sustainability for Manuela?
Manuela: I make a living off of my work as a Yoga Instructor. It’s impossible to get by as a Storyteller. You’d have to dedicate all day to it and I still haven’t taken that step. Doing that would mean giving classes, workshops and working at schools.
For me, stories are just an extra and something that brings me great personal joy. It has allowed me to take a different approach to acting. I adapt it to my own being.
I am Spanish and an immigrant through and through. My parents emigrated to Paris, during Franco’s dictatorship.
We lived there for ten years and when they had saved enough money, we went back to Spain and they set up a business.
I spent my teenage years in Spain. In my last year at university, I applied for a grant to study in France. I studied Spanish and French Language and Literature. In my final year, they offered me a job at the university where I stayed on for a further two years. Then, I taught Spanish classes at the Sorbonne for another year.
I met a Chilean guy and moved to Chile, and we separated after a while.
I’ll go back to Spain at some point. I would like to spend time with my parents, as they are getting older.
Being an immigrant is an enriching experience and you absorb things from every place you go. Things you love, things you don’t love so much. I believe that it really opens up your mind. To not believe that your country “is” the best.
And that’s the way I am, in Chile and all the other countries I’ve lived in.
Alfredo told me: “I don’t hear you criticizing Chile”, and I told him: “That’s because I’m living there.” There are things that I like, but there are also things that I don’t like.
There are French immigrants who I know, who say: “Ay! Chileans are like this and like that” “… but you are here. If you really don’t like it, what are you doing here? You’re taking advantage of things here, you’re here for a reason.
Any more thoughts about Cuba?
Manuela: I’ve really enjoyed it. If only it would open up. Not fall into the clutches of Imperialism, mind you. Strike a balance, not that and not this either. I wish you all the best.