I was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut in the Spring of 2010 when I went to Cuba to conduct dissertation research toward my Ph.D. in History. My work was about an American colony living on what was then called the Isle of Pines during the first half of the 20th century. As a student of U.S. foreign relations, I wanted to examine how Americans and local Cubans (known as pineros) got along with one another at the grassroots level before Cuba’s 1959 Revolution.
Merely getting to Cuba was a project in itself. Thanks to longstanding U.S. and Cuban policies that have only recently been relaxed though not altogether eliminated (“Thanks, Obama!”), there are many bureaucratic hoops to jump through for an American to get to Cuba. Fortunately, conducting academic research is one of the exemptions.
With the appropriate licenses and visas in hand, I spent the first few weeks of my Cuba trip in Havana, the capital. There, I worked at the Archivo Nacional de Cuba as well as the Biblioteca Nacional “Jose Martí,” two of the country’s biggest repositories. But the main event of my research would be on the Isle itself.
From Havana, it’s only a 30-minute flight to the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), an island off mainland Cuba’s southwest coast. But the flight felt a little longer given my nerves and skepticism as to whether this antiquated puddle-jumper would actually get me to my destination. It did – all while giving me a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the place that I had been studying about for the past few years.
Working at the Archivo Histórico Municipal de la Isla de la Juventud was unlike any other research experience I had before. The building is a converted church from the early-20th century. The reading room only had two tables for researchers – not that they were expecting many takers. There were roughly 20 staff with no more than two patrons a day. A 10:1 ratio is pretty good for a college classroom – maybe not so much for an archive of that size.
Archival protocols were a little different than I was used to. Archives are usually stuffy places, literally and figuratively. Given the need to preserve and safeguard the delicate materials, there are often set rules about how to handle documents and what a researcher can bring into the room (e.g., no book bags, no pens, no cameras – essentially, a lot of no’s). That wasn’t the case on the Isle.
They would usually offer me a tea or coffee as I researched. (Food and drink are verboten in U.S. archives.)
They enjoyed frequent cigarette breaks (Is smoking allowed indoors anymore?).
And around 3 p.m., when school let out, children of the staff would run around and play in the reading room. (Archivists reading this might want to find some pearls to clutch.)
But, hey, when in Cuba …
None of the staff spoke English. Fortunately, my Spanish had improved significantly since my arrival in the country a month earlier, so communicating wasn’t much of a problem. But I could tell that many of the workers were wary of me. Most of them didn’t really engage me in much conversation, either because they didn’t really understand me, didn’t want to bother me, or just weren’t sure what to make of me. After all, I may have been the first yanqui any of them had ever met; one of the staff told me I was the first American she had seen at the archive. Sometimes, I felt like a zoo oddity.
Eventually, some of them came around and started asking about life in the United States. They seemed to have this perception that American cities were like Robocop’s Detroit. As the Obamacare debate was reaching a crescendo back in the U.S., they couldn’t believe that Americans were seriously questioning government involvement in health care. (Access to state-run health care is a right in Cuba’s socialized society.) They asked me about race relations. Cuba has a substantial mixed-race population, including many of the staff. A lot of them presumed that all whites were racist. They even asked me, point-blank, if I was racist. “Creo que no,” I replied. After a while, I noticed that although not everyone was comfortable talking to me, whenever I would talk about life in the United States they all stopped what they were doing and listened intently. It was like I was E.F. Hutton.
Considering I only had a finite time on the Isle, I would often work through lunch. But on a couple of occasions, the staff invited me to eat with them at the commissary. The meal was little different than typical institutional food (in contrast, home-cooked meals where I was staying were usually fantastic). Lunches would often consist of bean soup, rice, plantains, and some sort of meat product. I think it was pork, but I figured it would be impolite to ask.
And contrary to my fears before the trip that bureaucrats would stifle my research at every turn, the staff brought me any files I wanted with no limitations. At no point did I ever feel stymied or given the run-around. Everything in their finding aids was fair game for me to peruse.
One of the most interesting collections was from a U.S. citizen. Adolph B. Kelm had lived on the Isle for more than 60 years. He was one of a handful of Americans who remained on the Isle after the Revolution. Kelm left his correspondence – copies of letters he had sent and received over the years – with the archive. Most of his collection was in English, which made my work easier. But the staff couldn’t read English, so they weren’t quite sure what they had. Often, they would ask what I’d found. Kelm detailed the struggles that many Americans faced in the 1930s and 1940s after their businesses failed and they couldn’t afford to return to the United States. The staff were surprised to learn that many American settlers were upset with the U.S. government for not annexing the Isle at the turn of the century. They had presumed that all Americans had conspired to take it. (The Isle was always Cuban territory and U.S. officials after the War of 1898 had little interest in it because the surrounding waters were too shallow to sustain a naval base; they acquired Guantánamo Bay instead.)
In the end, my time at the archive produced what I hope was a mutually beneficial intercambio. On the one hand, the documents and letters I found were invaluable, helping me to flesh out this story of an American colony on the Isle of Pines. At the same time, I hope I was an able ambassador and provided my Cuban hosts a better sense of Americans and the United States. I find it fitting that while I was doing a project about the history of U.S. foreign relations, I ended up engaging in some of it myself.
Michael E. Neagle is an Assistant Professor of History. His book, America’s Forgotten Colony: Cuba’s Isle of Pines, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.