April 13, 2024

Henry Heredia, expert on Cuban culture and history, visited Wittenberg last week to discuss his community programs and environmental sustainability efforts in Havana, Cuba as a part of the local group Espiral.
Heredia works with the Juan Marinello Center on Culture in Havana, as well as Project Espiral.  Through both jobs, he focuses on “social, cultural, and environmental development” within the country.  Project Espiral, the focus of his talk, began in April 2000, and Heredia has been a member since July of the same year.  Throughout his time with the grassroots organization, he has worked with people from many different age groups, but typically focuses on children and elders.
Currently, the group works with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, named the “Espiralitos,” or little members of Espiral.
“They are the future,” said Heredia of the kids.  He added that since children control the home, they are the start of change in the community.  If they speak positively of Espiral to their parents, the group can gain trust in the community and begin to work at the social issues and conflicts that exist there.
Espiral also works with a senior center.  “We have to take care of our old people and protect them, and drink in their wisdom,” said Heredia.  Cuba has a problem today where many young people do not respect and take care of their elders.  As the country has a large aging population, Heredia finds this issue very problematic.  His goal with working with the senior citizens is to “make them feel as their life is not over.”
In the past 13 years, Espiral has been featured on television, radio shows, and at demonstrations.  They have worked in various communities to openly discuss problems with homophobia, race, and inter-generational differences through debates and worship.  The group typically hovers at about 30 members, who come from a variety of backgrounds and subject areas.  Heredia mentioned the benefit of having psychologists in the group, as they can interpret posture and body language.
In addition to their social work within communities, Espiral also works heavily with the sustainability movement to mitigate the effects of climate change.  They do clean-up projects as well as reforesting damaged areas.  Initially, Heredia, a “self-proclaimed arrogant 18-year-old”, joined the group so that he could teach them about the environment; in doing so, he realized how little he actually knew about the subject.  “I can understand people, I care about others, I care about nature,” said Heredia when asked about his biggest change since joining Espiral.
A research project Heredia has worked on showcases this care and interest in people.  After surveying US visitors to Cuba after their first trip, he found that their opinions greatly changed and that they would recommend going to the country to their friends and family.  His work supports having “cultural encounters instead of cultural shocks, ” said Heredia.
Although it can be difficult for Cubans to arrange for visas to the United States, Christine McIntyre, Director of International Studies and Spanish professor at Wittenberg, said “It’s important to have these opportunities happen when they can.”  She added that there are so few opportunities between the US and Cuba, that it is important for students to be a part of the change when they can be.
McIntyre recently took a group of students to Cuba to study language and culture. While there, the students met with Heredia.
“We’re living a historic moment,” said McIntyre of recent opportunities between the two countries.  While travel was strictly limited before, it is now possible for US citizens to enter Cuba with an educational visa.

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