Cuba’s most curious visitors this week did not arrive aboard Air Force One. They did not command the attention of the foreign press, make headlines in Miami or draw the cheers of the Cuban people.
Not unless you count the schoolchildren who greeted the group of middle school students visiting from a Palm Beach County charter school.
Accompanied by their principal, Renatta Adan-Espinoza, the kids arrived with suitcases filled with school supplies for the Cuban children – markers, colored pencils, glue, the things that are difficult to find in the impoverished, Communist-ruled country.
“We put more supplies in our bags than clothes,” said Adan-Espinoza, known as “Ms. E” to her students.
The reception at the Rolando Perez Quintosa primary school in Guanabacoa, a colonial suburb of Havana, greatly impressed her students, says the principal.
“The kids put on a show for us. My kids loved it and all the little things,” she said. “They loved the art teacher, and how she recycled everything in that school.”
That’s exactly what inspired visiting student Malik Pastor.
“I liked how everything was made or recycled for their art, how the children seemed so happy, and especially how the school was self-sustainable with a small garden in the back,” said the seventh grader.
Eighth grader Christina Paszkiewicz says she was “overwhelmed” at the scarcity she found at the Cuban school.
“All I could think was, ‘Wow, we have a special room for supplies when they barely have any at all,’” she said.
Angelica Maldonado, an eighth grader who hopes to study film or photography, echoed the feeling.
“It was nice to see how people could survive despite the things they didn’t have. They didn’t have supplies, so they use paper to build art projects and toys. They were extremely happy to see us, and they were really grateful,” said the 13-year-old student who packed 11 boxes of glue and five packages of white chalk into her suitcase.
One thing she and her fellow students wish they had packed in great quantities: toilet paper.
“You had to ask for toilet paper everywhere,” said Maldonado, who offers this tip to aspiring travelers. “If anyone’s thinking of going to Cuba, they should carry around a roll of toilet paper wherever they go.”
The students say they found no scarcity of pride in the schoolchildren and parents they met.
“Everywhere you looked you could see contributions made by parents (to the school), from supplies to furniture to food,” said Pastor, the seventh-grader.
For an American principal who, like many other principals, struggles to keep parents engaged in her school, the parental involvement she found in Guanabacoa moving.
“You could be the poorest person, but their kids’ uniforms were ironed and their nails were clean. They were lacking a whole bunch of things, but the parents were involved,” said the principal. “My students didn’t understand how a government did not help one of its schools with basics. I told them, ‘It’s a different society.’ Yes, everyone goes to school, but they saw the bathrooms. They couldn’t believe how much these kids were lacking.”
Ms. E says she tried to enlighten the kids about the differences between Cuba and the United States’ governing systems.
“I told them, ‘This is a Communist country. It’s different. They go by what their government tells them to do. They don’t have freedom. It’s not a democracy,’” said Adan-Espinoza, who led a group of five students and close to 10 chaperones.
The principal got a broader look at Cuba, thanks to an exploratory trip she made last fall.
“We do a lot of humanitarian trips. We’ve gone to Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. I usually go to the country first to meet with people and make sure it’s safe,” said the principal, who led a fundraising effort to take the kids to Cuba. She haggled for good rates and managed to pull the trip together for far less than what an official tour would cost, she says.
Hers is not a wealthy school. The Lake Worth A-graded school she founded in 2004 is a Title 1 school where nearly 90 percent of the students are on a free/reduced-price lunch program. But it is a school of curious students, like Angelica Maldonado, who sums up her trip as an “adventure.”
In addition to visiting the school, the Lake Worth students toured Old Havana and its landmarks. They swam by the waterfalls at Las Terrazas. In two rented buses, they toured the countryside, stopped for fresh guava and cheese at a roadside stand, sipped juice from a pineapple, and met the brother of the late Cuban songwriter Polo Montañez (and were thrilled to learn Marc Anthony, one of their idols, once recorded his songs).
Oh, and they saw the plane carrying Cuba’s most famous visitor of recent history: Air Force One.
On their final day in Cuba, as they waited to board their flight to Miami, they caught a glimpse of the First Family’s plane on its descent into José Martí International Airport. The principal’s daughter, 11th grader Victoria Espinoza, took a video of the plane on the tarmac. They all craned for a look, but could not see Obama and his family. They cheered, nevertheless.
“When President Obama landed I couldn’t believe I was in a two-mile radius of the President of the United States,” said Paszkiewicz, the eighth grader. “It was a crazy thought that the man who runs our country was just on the other side of a wall.”
Another kind of thrill awaited in Miami once they landed, recalled the principal.
“The kids were screaming, ‘Oh my gosh, toilet paper!”