My son is in 6th grade. In a few days, he will have a Cuban History exam and he has asked me to help him study. The time period being tested is 1898-1952, which makes up the first three chapters of his text book. Too much for one exam, I thought.
We start off by talking about Chibas, because the last class he had at school was about him. Chibas was honest, good and generous, my son says. Then, we talk about Guiteras and his work during the so-called “One Hundred Days Government”. Guiteras was honorable, brave and just, my son says. Then, we go in retrospective order and we get to Villena. The poet. The man who suffered from tuberculosis. The man who, according to my son, was honest… and etc… etc… more of the same. My son doesn’t know anything, he just has a Manichaean idea of what a patriot and a villain is, of what is allegedly “good” and “bad”.
My young son has a sharp mind, but he’s only repeating what he’s told to say in chorus at school in order to get a 100 when it comes to taking the exam. The most complex and important subject, which we must face as social beings, is being taught in a lazy and superficial way at a primary school level. As a result, no seeds of passion for History are being sowed, but apathy instead.
We continued to talk and I wasn’t expecting my son to be so surprised, his eyes widening, when I told him that Fulgencio Batista was born in the same place as Fidel Castro, in Holguin. He thought that Batista was from somewhere else. In his mind, it’s inconceivable that such a man (who he only knows negative things about) is Cuban. They want to highlight being “Cuban” as a paragon of positive attributes which only leads to creating a false image, a mistaken picture, in Cuban children’s heads. Both the heroic Marti and the dictator Batista were Cuban. Both of them are an inevitable part of who we are.
According to my son’s way of thinking (which was also my own), everything evil comes from outside Cuba. First, there were the Spanish conquistadores and then the US slave-owners. And lots of them really did have terrible intentions. However, it doesn’t emphasize just how many “Cubans” there were in 1868 who didn’t want a change of government in Cuba, how many “Cuban” volunteers supported the Spanish during the 1895 war against the Liberation Army (who were over 100,000, according to historian Rolando Rodriguez), how many “Cubans” voted in favor of the Platt Amendment becoming an appendix in our first postcolonial constitution.
Yup, Jesus Menendez, Aracelio Iglesias and Sabino Pupo were very “Cuban”, just as their killers were. All of their blood runs in our veins. Pride and disgrace go hand-in-hand.
If I want one thing to be instilled in my young boy, it’s the contrasts that exist within every natural and human thing. That there aren’t 100% good people or 100% bad people. Explaining to him that you always have to analyze the situations in which a person acts or acted.
Rather than talking about goodies or baddies, about patriots and traitors, I would like my son to think about people who made the right choice and people who made mistakes. Judging from a distance, that’s how you look at History, with a magnifying glass, it’s a very risky exercise.
Many times, the process of historic narration has dismissed some figures which it should have praised and it has put others on a pedestal which they never deserved.
One of my goals as a father who insists on educating kids for tomorrow is that my son can weight up how great and muddy our history has been (which many people want to show and which almost noone wants to remember). To know what our past entails, so that every one of his actions in the future, weigh down upon his shoulders and on his conscience.