Jose Marti and His Stories in a Massachusetts Classroom

Jovann Silva with some of his students.

By Julio Antonio Fernandez Estrada (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Jovann Silva was one of the last students I taught Legal Studies to at the University of Havana. He graduated in Law in 2012, and that same year emigrated to the United States. From 2012 to 2018, he worked at a series of banks, until he got a job as a Spanish teacher in a Massachusetts high school near Boston.

Jovann is one of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who’ve had to make rapid 180 degree turns in their lives in order to reinvent themselves in the new world they emigrated to. However, Jovann seems happy in his new career. He received his Master’s in Education and Spanish Language in the United States and Spain, and he speaks passionately about his work.

A few days ago, I met a group of Jovann’s students. We toured the Harvard Art Museum, and I witnessed their earnest efforts to answer a sheet of questions in Spanish regarding pictorial styles, artistic movements,d and the great masters of each era.

At the end of the field trip, we held a conversation. They asked me about my life, always in a highly correct Spanish, as well as my stay at Harvard and my experiences in Cuba.

One boy’s question really made me think: “Why is there money in Cuba if they say they’re a communist country?” the teen asked me. My answer isn’t relevant to this interview, but I was impressed by the questioner’s deep thinking, and by the fact that he showed an interest in Cuba. I presumed that interest had been sparked by his teacher, Jovann.

Jovann treats the students like a Cuban teacher, with that easy informality of Cuba, shaded now and again by adding Señor or Señorita in front of his students’ names.

But the most touching moment I experienced in the museum was when these 15-17 year olds, who come from a school outside of Boston, began to name passages from Jose Marti’s famous children’s collection La Edad de Oro [“The Age of Gold”]. “What’s going on here?” I wondered. This conversation with Jovann Silva centers around that surprise.

Jovann – why and how did you become a teacher in the US? Did it pain you to give up Law, or do you still have some ideas of pursuing it? Do you use it in your Spanish classes?

The answer is surprising, but by leaving the field of Law, I was only straightening my path and fulfilling my dream of becoming a teacher. It’s a vocation I’ve had since I was a child, but because of social pressure in Cuba I never made it a reality. They told me too many times that going into teaching wasn’t a good idea for an intelligent student who got the best grades, and that I could “aspire to better things.” My immaturity and lack of vocational awareness caused me to heed those who advised me to study something different. The sad reality of conditions for teachers in Cuba also convinced me that Law or any other career were better options.

However, the five years of law studies went very well for me, and I learned to love the career. I haven’t abandoned it completely. I’m now the unofficial legal advisor for relatives and friends on topics of US, Cuban and Spanish laws. Above all, I assist people who come to me through acquaintances, seeking assistance in immigration issues. I frequently help them apply for immigration benefits through the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In order to be able to do that, I was certified as a Notary Public by the State of Massachusetts. This doesn’t mean I’m invested with the trusts and powers of a notary in Latin America, but I can certify the validity of legal documents and their translations.

Jovann Silva’s classroom, decorated in celebration of Cuba’s original independence day on May 20. Courtesy photo from Jovann Silva.

In addition, at Pembroke High School, the school where I work, I’m the advisor for the Mock Trial club. That’s a program sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association to motivate high school students to become familiar with the laws, the legal processes and the state’s legal system. The students who belong to the club prepare a trial based on a hypothetical case. Later, they have to test their abilities as lawyers and witnesses in a competitive mock tribunal. The process of preparing students for the competition involves explaining the essential elements of legal proceedings in civil and criminal cases. This exercise also keeps alive my passion for the legal profession and my knowledge of comparative law.

What’s the difference between the Cuban and the US school systems in terms of the ages and grades of the students?

The short answer is – there isn’t a lot of difference. In the United States, primary school is called elementary school and in my school district goes from preschool to sixth grade. In some other districts, it only goes to fifth grade. What we in Cuba call “secondary school” is known as “middle school” in the US, and it covers seventh and eighth grades in my district, but in other districts may include sixth grade as well. Preuniversity is called high school and comprises four years of study, from ninth to twelfth grades.

The ages of the US students coincide with that of Cuban students in the same grade. For example, a student who begins ninth grade in September is usually fourteen and will be turning fifteen sometime that school year. Students graduating from high school are 17 or 18 years old.

What differences have you noted between the education of middle school and high school students in Cuba and that in the US?

The first great difference is the immense power that the school districts have in the United States to make decisions regarding the schools in their assigned territory. The educational districts would be comparable to what we call Educational Municipalities in Cuba. But a school district is an educational municipality ramped up on steroids.

The school districts must respect the federal norms in educational matters that come from the US Department of Education, plus those established by each state’s Department of Education. That still leaves each school district a very broad authority in many areas. For example, they administer the funds raised within their districts via property taxes, and the money that comes through state and federal subsidies for certain educational expenses.

The decentralization in decision-making extends to the districts’ freedom to shape the plan of studies and the subjects offered in their schools. Many times, one district offers classes to students that aren’t available in others. For example, my school offers four different foreign languages the students can opt to study: Spanish, French, Latin and Arabic. However, the high school in the next town over only offers Spanish and French.

During the pandemic, I was very surprised that the decision to return to in-person classes or to maintain online classes was left to the school boards of education, that are formed by neighbors elected by others living in the district area.

Another big difference is the attention given to children with special educational needs. In Cuba, these children are segregated from the rest and sent to “special” schools in yellow buses that everyone identifies as those of the “retarded” school. In the US, children with special needs are integrated in the schools that the rest of the children attend. Although they do receive help and specialized attention, they share the play spaces, physical education classes, art and lunch with the rest of the educational community.

It’s pretty well known everywhere the limitations that US residents have in the field of geography. Having seen the problem from inside the educational system, I think the principal cause is that the plans of study don’t include the subject of geography in either middle school or high school. The kids only learn brief brush strokes of the world’s political and administrative divisions. Nonetheless, I have students who on their own have developed much greater knowledge of geography than what I had when I was in high school, thanks to their unlimited access to the internet. For three years, I lacked a geography teacher in Cuba, due to the chronic scarcity of professionals from that sector in Cuba.

I could speak of other differences that put Cuban education on very shaky ground during the nineties and two-thousands, the years that I was being educated in Cuba. But I’ll only affirm that US students finish high school much better prepared for life than their Cuban counterparts. The level of economic education, the understanding of essential elements of business, their skill with the new technologies, the capacity to speak other languages, the practical scientific knowledge, and the artistic skills of the average students in the United States greatly surpass the knowledge and skills of the Cuban students. Perhaps the education in this country doesn’t delve as deeply into material, as we did in a high level class at the Lenin high school, for example, but one thing I’m certain of is that students here learn in their math classes to visualize and foresee the practical utility of arithmetic, geometry or algebra in their future.

Some of Jovann Silva’s students.

In Cuba, the government for a long time branded as traitors the thousands of people who left the country. That stigma would seem to make it impossible to be a Cuban patriot after abandoning the island. However, I’ve witnessed how you celebrate important dates in Cuban history with your students, a patriotism that doesn’t appear in the official Cuban media. How is it that your students know about Marti’s La Edad de Oro? What do you do in your class to recall Cuba, to celebrate its culture and customs?

One of the things that satisfies me most on a professional level is that my students learn Spanish with a Cuban accent. They hear about Cuba and its people in my classes. Beginning with my first year teaching in the school, I began using Cuban children’s songs like Barquito de papel [“Little paper boat”], Un dia de paseo [“A day strolling around”], or La calabacita [“The little pumpkin”] to motivate my students to learn Spanish. Reproductions of paintings in Havana’s National Fine Arts Museum decorate my classroom. From the very first day, I hung a Cuban flag on the wall, and a little while ago I put up photos of Celia Cruz, Ana de Armas and Andy Garcia on the windows of the classroom door.

But to be honest, teaching about Marti and introducing my students to the stories in La Edad de Oro wasn’t in my plans at first. It wasn’t something premeditated or calculated. In the beginning I didn’t see a way to incorporate it into the curriculum. Marti appeared spontaneously in my classes when I refused to celebrate the May 5th holiday. On that day in the United States they hold parades, beauty contests and parties, as part of what’s called the Day of Latino Pride. The increased popularity of this holiday is the result of successful advertising campaigns sponsored by Mexican beer companies Corona and Modelo, encouraging the celebrations that Mexican immigrants began to hold during the 1940s and ‘50s, in commemoration of Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla.

The way those in the United States treat this holiday is riddled with stereotypes and false beliefs. Many think that May 5th celebrates Mexican independence. They use the fiestas as a pretext to dress up as Mexicans, with wide-brimmed mariachi hats and false black moustaches, and to drink huge amounts of beer. I’ve never managed to connect with that celebration.

However, students in Spanish classes in the United States are used to having their teachers do something special to commemorate May 5th. On the first May 5th I spent in a classroom, I explained why the date wasn’t celebrated in Latin America, or even in Mexico. The reaction from one of my brightest students – coincidentally the one who asked you about the existence of money in a communist country – was to accuse me of simply not wanting to do the work of preparing the party. In a few words, he called me lazy. So, I responded that, yes, we’d celebrate, but on May 20th, in order to commemorate Cuba’s Independence Day. That day I bought them sweets, set up a piñata, and decorated the classroom with Cuban flags and balloons in the national colors. I explained to them that the celebration of this day is one of the many things that have been denied to Cubans for a long time.

The first year, the party was limited to decorations and a piñata, because I had only 15 days to prepare it. Early in the next year, it occurred to me to introduce a costume party. The idea would be for students to come on May 20th dressed as a character from one of Marti’s stories, as in the Marti parades that children hold in Cuba. With that in mind, from the beginning of the school year I began reading the stories from La Edad de Oro in class. I think I began with “The enchanted shrimp.” The story of Loppi and especially of Masicas was so successful that I even motivated the students to take on the reading of other stories as homework.

The results were excellent. On May 20 of my second year teaching, the party included students dressed as Thumbkins with his axe, his brother Pedro, Pilar with the little pink shoes, Baby Mischief tearing up a book, a blackberry with a pearl collar, Loppi, the enchanted shrimp, and a number of Piedad’s with her black dolls. One thing that made the students excited about the project was understanding the moral of each story and identifying the values that Marti wanted to impart to the children of the Americas. From then on, I’ve repeated the project every school year. Each year we read La Edad de Oro and hold a party on May 20. Even though in Cuba itself the government refuses to have Cubans recall this part of our history, there’s a Cuban in Massachusetts who enjoys that day as few can, with his children from this part of the Americas.

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