Expanding the Bridge Between Harlem and Havana

At the age of 18, my twin sister, Patricia, and I spent a semester abroad in Europe. The experience was pivotal, revelatory and transformative. By the time we returned home, I believe I had a deeper understanding of who I was as a woman; a Black woman, and an American. Later in life, I realized that understanding different cultures not only stimulates curiosity, imagination and appreciation of diversity, it informs our own journey. Without face-to-face exchanges with people whose life experiences are different from our own, we are unable to fully realize our innate equality and common bonds as human beings.

The experience of cultural exchange was further heightened when I toured around the world with Dance Theatre of Harlem. All of these travel experiences early on in my career are at the root of my work at Walker International Communications Group. Positive cultural exchanges provide real educational opportunities and offer a window into the world of what is possible. That was my most recent experience as one of four senior delegates traveling to Havana with the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s People-to-People Tour of Cuba. The stimulating and historic, 7-day trip during Black History Month was planned to bolster efforts to expand opportunities for more tourism to Havana and to make additional plans for a major cultural festival there in 2018.

The genesis for planning the Harlem/Havana festival preceded former President Obama’s 2014 announcement to normalize relations between the U.S and Cuba. Harlem and Cuba have an historic bond. It is widely held that Afro-Cuban jazz was born in Harlem, and the uptown New York neighborhood has been home to immigrants from the Caribbean country for many generations. The joint history also includes a 1960s stay in Harlem’s famed Theresa Hotel by the late Cuban President Fidel Castro, and a collaborative effort to fight against apartheid in Southern Africa.

Following Mr. Obama’s actions, New York became the first state to launch a trade mission to Cuba in 2015, and the plans for the first international cultural exchange were set in motion. GHCC hosted the first Harlem/Havana Music and Cultural Festival in 2016. The event, held during HARLEM WEEK, featured international visual and performing artists, as well as fashion, education and culinary exchanges.

I was deeply honored to travel to Cuba in February 2017to help launch Phase 2 of this initiative, seeking to further expand the bridge of cultural understanding and exchange between these two historic communities of the African diaspora. The delegation consisted of 52 community leaders, representing the interests of business, education, government, health, law, the arts, faith-based organizations and cultural institutions, along with a few interested travelers.

Activities during our stay in Havana included meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Culture to plan and discuss the cultural exchanges for this year and 2018. We went to the studio and gallery of contemporary artist Eduardo Roca “Choco” and we toured the National Museum of the Fine Arts, which houses an extensive collection, from the colonial era to contemporary Cuban history. The museum’s education director Omar Diaz Liria provided an interesting and colorful tour of the collection’s highlights. Art and culture are the backbone of life in Cuba, as evidenced by the murals, statues and public art displayed throughout the city.

We also met with musicians, dancers and other visual artists. Another major highlight of our trip was seeing the historic, outdoor amphitheater performance of Havana Tropicana – the bejeweled production of singers and dancers that has been depicting the life and music of the Cuban people for more than 80 years. Elsewhere, we witnessed high-energy and powerful Rumba dancers, and music performances were featured at every restaurant, showcasing top-quality musicians. We loved sightseeing, especially in Old Havana, and either singing or engaging in dialogue with local residents. Drummers played the cajón all over Cuba, and those powerful and potent rhythms became the soundtrack of my nightly dreams.

I returned from Cuba with a renewed determination that all the people of New York City (and hopefully other parts of the country and the world) will journey to Harlem this summer and Havana in 2018 for a life-changing, educational opportunity and a positive cultural exchange.I encourage all of you to brush off your passports, or apply for one, and engage with diverse cultures. Understanding how people of different cultures live can be life-changing and, at the very least, will foster a deeper respect for our common humanity. With the arts as the driving force, we can build bridges for open dialogue, cultural exchanges and the forging of humanistic bonds.