For AU senior Phoebe Mangas, what began as a study abroad experience for her Spanish major last summer quickly became an immersion into another belief system and language that challenged her perspective on faith and culture.
Mangas was originally interested in studying in Spain before feeling a powerful calling to travel somewhere she had never been.
“I was planning on Spain because I had previously traveled there,” said Mangas, “but something in me over the summer said, ‘maybe look at something you’ve never done before.’ So I began looking for a blend of cultures that I had never encountered before.”
This push to explore the unknown inspired her to apply for the Cuban Studies program through CIEE College Study Abroad.
Mangas, who is passionate about Hispanic culture, was especially intrigued by the African influence present in Cuba. In the hopes of fully immersing herself in this new culture, Mangas enrolled in two courses focusing on the past, present and future of Cuba and Afro-Cuban racial dynamics.
As the first AU student to ever study abroad in Havana, Cuba, Mangas quickly found herself among a diverse group of fellow travelers and students. Although traveling without a group of AU students seemed daunting at first, Mangas found herself learning from the diverse backgrounds of the people she had been placed with.
“There were other American students, but it was definitely a very diverse group, religiously, ethnically [and] culturally,” said Mangas. The group also varied in their Spanish fluency; while some, like Mangas, were confident in their Spanish fluency, others had only a few years of Spanish-speaking experience. Though also experienced in speaking Spanish, Mangas noticed her accent shifting as she further immersed herself in the Cuban culture.
The greatest lessons Mangas gained from her experience were not taught in the classroom. Instead, they came from interactions with Cuba’s people and from delving into their laid-back lifestyles.
“It was a culture that very much allowed me to let go and be myself,” said Mangas. “It’s a very work-to-live culture, not live-to-work. People will take time out of their day if they’re on their way to work or to a meeting if they run into someone they know, and spend one hour on the street talking. Every night was a dance, every night was a party.”
Salsa dancing lessons were also a regular part of Mangas’ summer experience. At least four nights a week, she would venture to parties and dances to improve her dancing technique.
“If you weren’t dancing, you were considered crazy,” Mangas said.
Despite its persistently bright and energetic atmosphere, Cuba’s culture also presented a set of unexpected challenges for Mangas. At times, she felt particularly discouraged by the lack of a spiritual community to rely upon, as most of the students she learned alongside were of different religious backgrounds.
“It was also a good thing, because it kind of popped that ‘AU bubble’ that I think a lot of us tend to stay in for a long time,” said Mangas. “But religiously, it was very dark.”
Mangas was mainly exposed to Santeria, a blend of Afro-Caribbean religion and Catholicism that is prominent in Cuban culture.
“It’s a lot of idolatry, and it’s very practical,” said Mangas. “I think we say a lot, ‘Jesus isn’t for getting A’s on my tests.’ They consider the gods to be for getting A’s on their tests and for healing specific things. It’s not so much a hope-centered religion.”
The impact of such a starkly different religious community carried with her as she returned home at the end of the summer. Although she found herself being critical of the religion around her in Cuba, she also realized that the faith community in midwestern Indiana is far from perfect.
“Coming back to my culture, I could see that there’s definitely sin here, and there are still definitely things that are wrong,” said Mangas. “We just categorize them differently. We say, ‘oh, greed’s not so bad, oh, lust isn’t so bad.’ That just made me call out my own faith and look inwardly and say, what am I doing in my life that I’m categorizing as ‘not as bad as?’”
Mangas’ adventure in Cuba marked her 34th trip out of the country. Despite the challenges that immersing oneself in a different culture can present, she has only become more inspired to travel. In addition to a Tri-S trip to New Zealand planned for after graduation, Mangas hopes to visit more Hispanic cultures.
“Cuba held something specific for me that I haven’t found anywhere else,” said Mangas. “I’ve been to various parts of Mexico and to Spain. I love them all, but Cuba really grabbed me in a way that nowhere else has.”