A professor switches between English and Spanish as he explains how Cuban music, like the rumba, has influenced other genres around the world.
“What I’m trying to do in this class is create a sense of Cuban identity," he says.
It seems like the standard fare for a place like Miami, saturated with Cuban culture. But for these students, who’ve just arrived from Cuba as part of a rare exchange program with Miami Dade College, this is the first time they've been allowed to study their country—and how it’s viewed in the world—from outside the island.
Danilo Maldonado, one the students participating in the program, says that in Cuba, the history he learned has often focused on people in power, the revolutionaries, with little criticism.
Now, for six months, he’ll take classes in economics, business and English. And recently, he learned about Cuba’s large expat community. He says back home, Cubans abroad were often cast as criminals. Now he’s hearing how many were dissidents, not unlike Maldonado himself.
In Havana, Maldonado is a graffiti artist. And his art’s often critical of the government. He brought some of his canvases with him to Miami and worried they’d be confiscated at the Havana airport.
They weren’t. But he knows the risks.
“I was arrested once and held for four days,” he says in Spanish. “The government wanted to know who was supporting me.”
He says he was arrested once in Havana, held for four days because his art was considered anti-revolutionary.
He hopes that Cuba's decision to let him come and study in Miami means that things are changing, but he’s skeptical that flexible visa restrictions would extend to freedom of expression.
Maldonado will find out if there’ll be real change once he’s back home in six months, when his student visa expires.
Raudel Collazo, 36, is one of the older students in the group. Back home, he’s a well-known rapper. One of his more popular songs, “Decadencia," or "Decline" in Spanish, is about poverty and crime—issues he knows well after growing up in Havana’s slums.
“I've always said that I was attracted to Cuban hip-hop, to rap, out of necessity,” to express what Cubans with fewer privileges worry about, Collazo says.
So why let Cubans like him, critical of the government, study in Miami in the first place?
He says when he heard about the program he applied, and he’s not really sure why he was chosen. But he’s glad to be here.
After class, Maldonado works on his graffiti. He sprays broad black strokes on a wall.
“I just have a can of spray paint and I'm painting something that could be there forever or disappear tomorrow,” he says.
Maldonado steps away from the wall. He’s scrawled the words "El Sexto," his Cuban pen name in one corner.
And it’s something he feels free to do here in Miami and, he hopes—once he gets back to Cuba too.