By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Libies Martinez
To hear Libies Martinez speak of Cuba is to hear the good, the bad and the hopeful. Martinez has travelled the world as a translator, supporting her family. Genoa Barrow and Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Traveling to a foreign country when you don’t speak the language and have no access to Google Translate can be tricky. Luckily for us, there was Libies Martinez.

While a few members of our group (including OBSERVER photographer Louis Bryant III) did speak rudimentary Spanish, Martinez was our main translator during our eight-day visit. The Black Cuban woman was quite resourceful and well versed in Cuban history and culture.

We relied on Martinez to communicate with the people we met and the many cabdrivers we encountered during our stay in Havana. During one of the rolling blackouts that Cubans seem to take in stride, I spoke with Martinez about how she wants the rest of the world to view the country.

“I want people to know the Cuba that’s loving, open and friendly,” she said. “The Cuba that has a lot of good things even though there is no perfect system.”

Martinez calls Cuba a “work in progress” that is struggling economically post-COVID 19.

“The economy has always been bad, but now it’s the worst I’ve seen in my entire life,” she said.

As a translator, work was virtually nonexistent when the pandemic slowed international travel. While Martinez feels “blessed” to be back working regularly, things remain tight.

The country already deals with food rationing and shortages of basic necessities because of the embargo and the aftermath of inclement weather. The rising costs of what they can get hasn’t helped. “I know inflation is all over the world, but our inflation is multiplied by 100,” Martinez shared. “You have a basic salary, which sometimes is not really enough. With inflation you feel like you’re asphyxiated because you want to do things, and I’m not talking about fancy things, I’m talking about standard things.”

Traveling to work as a translator has enabled Martinez to provide for her extended family.

She may have to leave soon. Others find themselves facing similar dilemmas. If they get the opportunity to leave, many do. Some return. Others don’t. It’s a sad state of affairs because as we saw and heard throughout our visit, Cuba’s greatest resource is its people.

Libies Martinez, left, and Akilah Hatchett-Fall, right
Libies Martinez, left, was our translator and “fixer” during our trip. She helped us find taxis, bottled water and tried to aid fellow Sacramento traveler Akilah Hatchett-Fall, right, in locating a local hair salon where she could conduct a natural hair demonstration. Genoa Barrow and Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

You’re Speaking My Language

As a linguist, Martinez has been fortunate to work in places like Fiji and the South American country of Suriname. 

“That has opened a million doors for me,” she said. “The ability to communicate with so many people in so many different cultures and countries; it’s amazing what you can do when you can communicate and people can understand you.”

As a child, Martinez envisioned herself in a lot of careers.

“I had a list of 22 trades I wanted to learn,” she shared. “I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to help our economy, but I also wanted to be a hairdresser.”

She wanted a career, or careers, that would grant her economic independence.

“I remember my grandmother looking at my list and laughing and saying, ‘I’ll be dead by the time you get to half of it, so you’d better do it quick,’” Martinez recalled.

In school, Martinez originally wanted to study French, but another student who was ahead of her in line took the remaining spot in class to be spiteful. Martinez was given English class instead.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” she said. “Because I speak English I have been able to do so many things I wouldn’t have been able to do with French. At 18 I couldn’t say a sentence and now I’m fluent. Once I started learning English, I was like, ‘You were born for this.’”