Volume 52, No. 30
María Mercedes Carrión's Summer Vacation
By Eric Rangus
María Mercedes Carrión sat quietly as the conversation floated around her.
Beside the Emory Spanish professor sat Carlos Alonso, chair of her department. The two of them were in Havana discussing possible cultural exchanges between the University and Cuba.
Actually, Alonso was the only one doing the talking since the Cuban bureaucrat on the other side of the table refused to acknowledge Carrión. This was Carrión's first trip to Cuba, and she was getting a crash course on its macho culture.
Joining Carrión and Alonso was Reina María Rodríguez, a Cuban poet and writer Carrión and Alonso had met when Rodríguez traveled to Emory the previous spring to participate in a conference of Pan-Caribbean Hispanic Culture.
It was now November, and the two had re-established their acquaintance, this time in Rodríguez's home country.
At this meeting Rodríguez, like Carrión, was as invisible as the air.
The discussion went on for quite a while, and once it appeared business was done the bureaucrat finally turned toward Carrión. After leering at her, he spoke in his most chauvinistic--and culturally acceptable in his country--tone: "So what do you do?"
The Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Spanish department and the woman who would be teaching the study abroad class stood up and finally got to speak.
"It's really not relevant to this conversation, so I think we can go now," she said sharply.
And with that, the trio departed. But they would be back.
Two other professors and four graduate students joined Carrión and Alonso on their second trip to Cuba in January. When they returned, the structure for Emory's first summer study abroad program in Cuba was set.
The five-week program will consist of two courses: one, an introduction to Cuban culture and the other a study of Cuban architecture and of La Habana Elegante ("Elegant Havana"), a 19th century newspaper that has been reborn online through the efforts of a Cuban writer living in Washington.
"More than in terms of literary canons and literary histories, the importance of Cuba is its radical difference from the United States in its culture, economics and politics," Carrión said.
Carrión set the classes up for maybe a half-dozen students. She got 20 applications, and a total of 12 students will journey to Cuba. To handle some of the extra load, she asked assistant professor of Spanish Carl Good to join her. Last fall, Good directed Emory's study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain, and can show Carrión the ropes since this is her first study abroad experience.
Although student visas to Cuba normally run just 21 days, Carrión was able to get an extension to 30 days. Still, that wasn't exactly what she wanted, and the class time in Cuba had to be cut to four weeks. Things should work out, though, as she plans to spend 10 days in Miami with several Cuban-American writers, journalists and artists in exile.
Once the class makes it to Cuba, Rodríguez will be a featured part of the experience. She is the leader of a group of avant garde writers, artists and dancers called La Azotea ("The Rooftop.") The group literally meets in a space created by Rodríguez on the roof of her apartment building in Havana.
"It's a hugely active intellectual space," Carrión said. "We immediately thought we would like students to attend some of the developments at The Rooftop."
And the students need to be ready for a marathon. Carrión said Rooftop artists thirst for intellectual conversation, sometimes staying up as late as 5 a.m.
An expert on the literature of 16th and 17th century Spain, Carrión has written on Caribbean culture and literature and is therefore an excellent person to lead Emory's first expedition to Cuba. She has a strong background in art and the classics and will incorporate visits to various museums and libraries into the class.
But will a dozen American students and a couple instructors be safe? This takes on added emphasis with the Elian Gonzalez controversy still raging in Miami. Carrión admitted that the atmosphere is unpredictable, adding that she saw several demonstrations while there in January calling for the boy's return.
Despite some initial fear about Cuba's social structures, Carrión said she never felt safer in her life than while walking around Havana. Still, there are definite precautions that must be taken. For instance, she asked if she could bring her laptop computer. She could, she was told, but it would disappear in a day.
"Think of it as kind of an osmosis process," she said. "You go there, you're a very wet sponge. There's a dry sponge next to you; your water is going to be sucked out. That's what will happen to your money; that's what will happen to whatever you bring."
American travelers to Cuba are limited to 44 pounds of carry-on luggage and a limited amount of cash. They also cannot use U.S.-based credit cards while on the island, which will require a complete adjustment in living habits.
Carrión has quite a bit of experience as an outsider. When she was 5, her family moved from Puerto Rico to Spain. While there, her childhood was not always pristine.
Attending Catholic grammar school, the left-handed Carrión was made to write right-handed since left-handedness was seen as a sign of the devil (by the church) and of Communism (by the still-Fascist government of Francisco Franco). Her left hand was tied behind her back.
Still, she excelled--but not without incident. When Carrión was in seventh grade she won a prize for best science project. At the ceremony to receive her award, her deskmate stood in front of the school and said she was "undeserving." She proceeded to list off her reasons: "She is unnatural (read: left-handed)," she said. "She doesn't have a father. She's the only girl with iron on her teeth (read: braces)."
Carrión's response was swift and to the point.
"I took out my left hand and punched her in nose. She was knocked, and I was expelled from school for a week," she said, laughing in recollection.
It's a funny story now, but Carrión admits that when she speaks to Spanish nationals, she lets a Castillian accent slip into her speech to cover up her Puerto Rican roots. It's a way, almost unconsciously, to deflect the bad feelings common toward immigrants in Spain. "I was always reminded I was a foreigner," Carrión said.
Carrión lived in Spain until she was 17. She had already started college and was studying classics when the family decided to move back to Puerto Rico. Despite the struggles of her adolescence, she was the only member who wanted to remain.
"It was a marking time for me," Carrión said. "But I'd do it all over again. It was an amazing upbringing."
Upon returning to the land of her birth, she switched her major to art history (classics was not available in Puerto Rico). She soon came to the mainland and entered Yale, where she received her Ph.D. Carrión joined Emory's faculty six years ago, is an associate professor and became director of Spanish undergraduate studies two years ago.
With this class, Carrión hopes to give students a truly international experience. "[Students] should be aware of the fact that this is something that will ask them to suspend all belief in what is, in material terms and also in spiritual terms," Carrión said. "I'm much more interested in their coming to terms with that than anything in the class."