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Documentary on Harvard-Cuba Teacher Exchange Premieres

A documentary detailing Harvard's role in unprecedented cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States, titled “Los Cubanos de Harvard”—or “The Harvard Cubans”—made its premiere at the Tsai Auditorium Monday evening.

Presented by the film’s director Danny González Lucena and historian Marial Iglesias Utset, the film focused on a summer visit to Harvard that roughly 1,300 visits undertook in 1900.

Organized by Cuba’s then-Superintendent of Schools Alexis E. Frye, who had studied at Harvard, the “Cuban Expedition” aimed to expose the Cuban teachers to American pedagogy at Harvard’s summer school. The event was considered the most significant cultural exchange between the two nations at the time, according to the filmmakers.

Librarian William Coolidge Lane documented the Cuban Expedition at the time, overseeing the creation of a time capsule containing diary entries from the Cuban teachers and their American hosts. Utset said she rediscovered the capsule, at that point largely forgotten, in the 1990s.

“I wanted to use another way to tell my country’s story, something outside of the normal framework,” Utset said of the documentary.

Utset said she was surprised by the extent that the Expedition affected the formation of the Cuban public school system. The teachers who went on the Expedition accounted for over half of all the teachers in Cuba at the time, and following their return, Utset said the Cuban public school system experienced significant advancements.

The teachers’ stay in Cambridge attracted intense media attention, particularly fixating on the race and gender of the Cuban teachers, according to the documentary. At the time, Utset said, Harvard had only a handful of non-white students, and all students at the College were men.

The documentary also explored the relationships that developed between the Cubans and the Americans, concluding with a love story between the American-born Frye and one of the teachers.

Lucena said he wanted to prove that Cuba and the United States have been friendlier in the past.

“This is the way I found to humanize the topic,” Lucena said. “Human relations matter, especially to two countries in conflict.”

The event was billed as part of Harvard’s first Worldwide Week, which aims to “bring together faculty and students and staff across school and disciplinary boundaries to make connections and start conversations about global issues,” according to Todd Washburn, Senior Assistant Provost for International Affairs.

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