by Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — The entrepreneurship of my fellow Cubans, in and outside of Cuba, and their ability to capitalize on opportunities never ceases to surprise me. Maylena Chaviano Cubillet, a 30-year-old Cuban woman, has lived in the United States for 10 years and in June 2016, she started up a small business: organizing trips to bring US citizens who were interested in getting to know Cuba.
These aren’t your typical holidays of sun, beach and mojitos, but are about learning to dance Cuban rhythms, going beyond the basic “one, two, three” which tourists normally learn, and going further than casino or salsa dance forms. It’s especially about getting to know Cuba, our people and culture, up-close.
Maylena has wanted to do this for years, but it took her a long time to decide to finally go ahead.
Maylena: Sometimes, the fear of failure stops us in our tracks. Making changes in our lives can seem difficult. Last year, something very heavy happened: my father passed away. That made me understand that I had to overcome my fears; it might not work, but I wasn’t going to be the one to stop myself.
However, she is a woman who is very familiar with change and taking risks. When she wasn’t even 20 years old, she left for the United States, without her family or a boyfriend and no English whatsoever.
Maylena: I was never obsessed about leaving, I never even thought about risking my life. An opportunity arose which would let me help out my family and I took it. I worked at a bed factory there and at a car parts dealer on the weekends; I was a waiter in Latin neighborhoods because I couldn’t speak English and when it got better, I worked at Starbucks.
She has also been a dance teacher, which has played an important role in her travel itinerary.
Maylena: Art and dance have been essential to me, ever since I was a girl. I studied Dance here at the School for Art Instructors, I left in my final year. In the US I continued and I now give dance classes. Nearly all of those who came on my trip are my students. Although I have other programs in mind, I wanted to start off with this one because it’s the one I have closest to my heart. However, none of them will be 100% touristy. I want them to see the real Cuba. That’s why we stay in casas particulares, [homestays] we eat home-made food; they play dominoes, they share experiences with Cubans. The important thing is that they find out who we are; that’s the best thing they can take away with them from Cuba.
When she brought her first group, in June, she didn’t know a lot and she wasn’t sure that it would work. That’s why she has only chosen people among her students instead of promoting the trip, something which she hasn’t done up until now. On the second trip, some of the students who came on the first trip came back as well as others who had heard about the experience and wanted to see it with their own eyes. For Maylena, the best promotion has been what those traveling with her tell others when they come back.
On the legal side of things, she needs to buy the tickets through an agency which has a permit to sell air tickets to US citizens who travel here, provided that they don’t come for tourism. There are 12 categories for those traveling to Cuba; the trip organized by Maylena classifies as “cultural” as that’s her goal.
Maylena: Even when it becomes possible for them to come as tourists, I never want my trips to just be touristy. It’s an educational and cultural itinerary, which revolves around dance. We’ll go to the beach one day and have a mojito, but the best way to get to know Cuba is to not stay in a hotel.
The teachers who give classes during Maylena’s trips are graduates from Art Schools, the Cuban National Folklore Ballet’s principal dancers. She doesn’t criticize those who know how to dance salsa and Afro-Cuban rhythms and teach foreigners, because they’ve watched it ever since they were little and because all Cubans (except for myself) have music running through their veins.
Maylena: If somebody dances well, they can teach and get paid, it’s great. I come from an arts school and I appreciate the training, hard work and sacrifice that it takes to become a professional artist. I know that there are many talented artists who have never stepped foot in an arts school. However, I go to the people I know and trust, because they have been training ever since they were children and have kept this hard work and passion throughout their entire lives.
My students don’t come here to learn casino. They have five hours of classes everyday: three in the morning, Yoruba dances, and in the afternoon, they have an hour of rumba and another one of casino or son. They also go to talks. For me, it’s not only about learning the steps, but about understanding why you’re taking that step. These aren’t tourists who come to learn the “one, two, three”. Obviously, a week is still a very short amount of time, but they go back home with the best they could get out of a week. I can assure you they danced, we have videos. They cried when they left, saying goodbye at the airport was an extremely emotional experience.
For Maylena, organization has been the hardest thing, timetables, resolving problems that pop up on the spot.
Maylena: Unexpected things happen, like a music system will break. That’s why I tell them very clearly at the beginning: if we’re going to get to know Cuba, then we’re going to see the good as well as the bad. I don’t particularly stand and point out a building if it’s in ruins and falling apart, but I don’t point out the ones that are in a good state neither. Those things are there, you can see them by yourself. Maybe some of them don’t speak Spanish, but they can see.
Those who come with me must have an open mind and be flexible if things don’t go to plan. However, in any case, they must see that I’m doing the best I can.
In spite of her incredible care for detail, the professionalism of her dance teachers and the high-quality service at the casas particulares, some things are out of her hands.
Maylena: When I came with my first group, the water was cut for a day. This time, we reserved tables for a rumba show; when we got there, they were ready but there weren’t enough chairs. They immediately sat on top of one another, sharing their seats; they were more worried about us Cubans having a seat each.
Maylena also studies International Development at McGill University in Montreal, where she now lives; she can’t come back to Cuba more than twice a year, for the time being. During the summer holidays, she could try and come back twice. Preparing all of the logistics of the trip is a lot of work, that’s why she prefers not to take on too much. One day, she’d like for her students to stay for a whole semester of dance classes at the ISA (Academy of Art) or the ENA (National Art School), instead of staying for just a week.
Maylena: The idea is to show them what Cuban education is like too.
Maylena belongs to the first group of students that studied at the School for Art Instructors and is grateful for the education she received in Cuba.
Days later, David, one of Maylena’s students, told me that the US’ interest in Cuban rum and cigars was due to the embargo; that as soon as they lifted it, their interest would dwindle. Could the same thing happen with their interest in Cuban music and dance?
Maylena: Maybe, something else would dwindle, but I really don’t think they would with regard to these services and products. Their interest, and not only the US people’s but other people’s in the world, is founded on the quality of Cuban rum and cigars. I believe the same thing about our dance and music. Take Salsa for example, it’s so popular in the USA (like it is in other countries) and there’s no political ban on that. I believe that the same thing will happen when the embargo is lifted: the US people like many others, will appreciate the quality of a product or service more than the fact it was banned because of politics.
If I had to make changes along the way, the important thing would be to never lose the essence of what made me start out at the beginning. This is something I apply to my personal life and which a friend of mine told me before leaving. He said: “all of the things you see and live don’t matter; what matters is that you never change your essence.”
She isn’t worried about the impact that Donald Trump’s election as the president of the United States might have on her business, although she knows that he is unpredictable. She hopes that the businessman in him will come forward.
Maylena isn’t too interested in US things coming (like McDonalds and Starbucks) but hopes to see Cuban things seen outside.
Maylena: We have a lot to offer: our coffee, rum, cigars; our music, artists and teachers. US chains like McDonalds and others have reached many other countries. Has that meant improvements in these countries? Puerto Rico is a US territory and is full of problems. I have a lot of Puerto Rican friends; when I look at that country I say to myself that that isn’t what I want for Cuba.
I have lived in both countries and this has let me compare and understand people both here and there. At the end of the day, no government or system is perfect. In my opinion, it’s important to see how both cultures can reap mutual benefits.
Maylena thinks that the changes that have taken place in recent years in Cuba have been very positive, especially now that more people have mobile phones and the chance to access the Internet via WIFI.
Maylena: It was really difficult for me to communicate with my family for years; now we can see each other with video chat. You feel closer to Cuba. It also helps me with my trip; I can communicate with the people I work with. This technology allows me to help my country, bringing people here.
Although she started up this business alone, Maylena now relies on the help of people like Dave and Juan Zavala, who have helped her a great deal.