By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
HAVANA, Cuba — This past October, I traveled to Cuba on the invitation of Sacramento community legend and Black maternal health advocate Kathryn Hall-Trujillo. Along for the educational journey was OBSERVER staff photographer Louis Bryant III. We didn’t go as journalists due to strict rules for visiting the country. We traveled as a part of Hall-Trujillo’s friends and family group to offer support for the people of Cuba, bringing with us donations of clothes, toiletries and nonperishables.
The country had just been hit hard by Hurricane Ian and we briefly wondered whether we’d actually be able to go. We ultimately decided to take a proverbial page from the Cuban people’s book and keep it pushing. During our trip, we heard about and witnessed first hand the resilience and ingenuity of people who reminded me a lot of African Americans and our strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Who else can not only find a way to keep 60-year-old cars running without access to new parts, but also turn those vehicles into money-makers, using them as taxicabs?
Hall-Trujillo is the founder of the Birthing Project USA, a program begun in Sacramento and duplicated worldwide. In years past, Hall-Trujillo, known to many as “Mama Kat,” regaled us with harrowing stories of how she first started traveling to Cuba with Pastors for Peace, defying the decades-old embargo to bring humanitarian aid. She shared her immediate sense of kinship with the people she met.
“I felt that I had a country that claimed me. I wasn’t fighting my country to be a part of it,” Hall-Trujillo said.
The trip was an opportunity for her to show us Cuba, her adopted country, through her eyes.
“Everyone that I’ve brought to Cuba, I’ve held my breath because it’s like letting someone into your family and seeing all the good, all the bad, all of the everything. You don’t know what they’re going to think or what they’re going to say or who they’re going to talk to,” she said.
The trip was eye-opening. Most Americans know of Cuba only what they learned in school and much like what’s taught about our own history, it’s done through a skewed lens.
During our stay, we engaged in informal, yet deep, conversations about everything from colorism and patriotism, to generational differences and the benefits of universal health care, something Cuba has and America doesn’t. And, of course, there were discussions about the impact of the embargo that has been in place since 1962. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the blockade. Most of us on the trip weren’t yet born when then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposed sanctions that limited trade and financial transactions with the island nation.
One of the first things we did upon arriving in Cuba was visit Hamel Alley, a vibrant area where we learned more about Afro-Cubanism and the West African roots that make the country unique.
“I love how African it is,” Bryant said. “I have been to a few Central and Latin American countries, but the connectedness to the African roots is very prevalent, especially through art and entertainment.”
We also visited the Fidel Castro Museum and Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a packed nightclub that doubled as an art space. We took walking tours of Old Havana and rode in a horse-driven carriage during a torrential downpour that our Cuban guides took in stride. There was also a trip to the Mercado de Artesania, a maze-like flea market that reminded me a great deal of the African Marketplace at Florin Square. We also supported a nearby Black-woman-owned business, Beyond Roots. We tested and expanded our Spanish skills by ordering local cuisine and some members of our group enjoyed a few of the cigars the country is known for.
“Cuba is special,” Bryant said. “Even with such a brief stay, we saw and experienced so much within Havana and with the people of Cuba. The people of Cuba, at least the people we met and spoke with, including our “fixer”/translator, were kind, generous and offered much knowledge and depth about their country and society.”