Family Ties

April 19, 2012








Kiersten Miller ’12
Kiersten Miller ’12 reunites with her great aunt Silvia Acosta.


In a tiny apartment at the intersection of 12th and 21st Streets in Havana, Cuba, Kiersten Miller ’12 flips through a stack of faded and frayed photographs while her great aunt Silvia chatters on in Spanish. It’s lucky she has brought her friend Alia El-Assar ’12, a fluent Spanish speaker, on this unscheduled side trip, otherwise Miller would barely understand a word from the Cuban relative she is meeting for the first time.

This is an unexpected experience that Miller hadn’t anticipated when she registered for this spring’s (Re)Discover Cuba field study. The granddaughter of a Cuban-born woman who moved to the U.S. in the 1950s, the marine biologist major wasn’t told a lot about her heritage growing up, only that she had a great aunt and a second cousin who still lived in Havana, and that perhaps she could seek them out during her trip.

One afternoon near the end of the trip, Miller and El-Assar set out to begin the search. “My father had given us directions to her apartment, but once we got to the intersection, we didn't know which building was Silvia's, so we started asking around. We saw an older woman leaning out of the window on the second floor and we asked her "Do you know a Silvia Acosta?" and she replied, "Yes!  That's me!"

The woman invited them inside and the walk down memory lane began. “She had pictures of my sister and I when we were little, of my mom and dad at their wedding, some pictures of my cousins, and some of people whom I've never met,” Miller recalled. “It was a really amazing experience, because I had never really felt tied to Cuba up until this point in time. I knew vaguely that I was part Cuban, but my family didn't really talk about it. I always felt very separated from my Cuban roots. I definitely feel much more connected with my family after visiting Silvia and seeing the city where my grandmother grew up.”

While Miller’s story is exceptional, the experience inspires the hope that as diplomatic tensions and travel restrictions ease between Cuba and the United States, perhaps a new era of friendship is dawning for the two countries. For Visiting Instructor of Economics Robert Reinauer, the time seemed ripe for Rollins to rediscover the controversial island.

“The regulations changed in January of 2011, which allowed us to apply under a general license as registered students participating in a for-credit excursion,” said Reinauer, who co-lead the trip with Assistant Professor of Modern Languages Patricia Tomé. “Cuba is one of the most vibrant, culturally rich yet undiscovered countries and a fertile ground for studying things like economics, politics, and the arts. My aim is always to give students the opportunity to go somewhere really different and intriguing. A new Cuba is unfolding right before our eyes—it definitely falls in this category.”

On March 2, Tomé and Reinauer traveled with 17 students for the 11-day adventure that journeyed into Cuba's most important cultural and political sites, and included participation in academic conferences focused on political economy, music, dance, film, and architecture, among others, and numerous activities with Cuban college students.

The itinerary was packed with activities that even the most ardent of travelers wouldn’t get a chance to experience—dialogues with local musicians, visits with up-and-coming artists, discovering hidden gem restaurants—culminating in a trip of lifetime for students who won’t likely be able to travel to Cuba again easily, at least in the near future.

“Learning about any other country is important per se” Tomé said. “However, Cuba is unique in the sense that it is one of our closest neighbors and due to political disagreements on both ends, we, the citizens of both countries, have been constrained from sharing our experiences, culturally, socially, and educationally.”

It appears as though that constraint, at least for Miller and her great aunt Silvia, has ceased. “This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip,” said Miller, who has already started corresponding with Silvia via letters, translated by El-Assar. “My dad had always talked to me being Cuban, but I never really felt like it.” As a result of this field study, Miller walked away with the best souvenir a traveler can ask for: a connection to her past.


By Kristen Manieri

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