U.S. sociologist and documentary film maker told Juventud Rebelde that Cuba
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- Arts and Culture
- culture an traditions
- North America
- United States
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- 03 / 06 / 2009
Catherine Murphy is a sociologist and documentary filmmaker with Cuban roots who has been visiting Cuba for more than 15 years, despite the multiple restrictions imposed by the United States government. She was one of the few people who chose to spend the difficult years of the special period on the island and she learned her Cuban Spanish here.
—What was your first reference to Cuba?
—Although I was born and raised in the United States and came from parents that were also born there, I have an aunt-grandmother who was born in Cuba. My great grandmother had my aunt-grandmother here and my grandmother there. They lived in Camagüey and later moved to Vedado. I was very close to my aunt-grandmother as a child and because she never stopped telling stories about her life and her childhood, I was always curious to come to this island.
«They were completely mystical images that I could not draw in my mind: the palm trees, the beach, the clear ocean in which you could walk out far and the water would only go up to your knees...totally different from what I knew.
«I thought she made it up because our reality was something else. In Northern California the landscape is a mix of oak trees, hills, the cold ocean, almost frozen, and the coast is much rockier. Because of this Cuba represented a magical place for me.
—When did you decide to come?
—She died when I was in high school and it was afterwards that I set out to see her land of birth firsthand. In 1992, I was finishing my degree in Humanities at the university and I had been working to save money.
«I went looking for information about Cuba at the library, at the bookstore, and at store that specialized in geographical books. I didn't find anything, not even a map or a tourist guidebook. There were books about Burundi and other far away places but Cuba did not exist. I asked myself why and I began to ask Latin American friends of mine. A friend who was a documentary filmmaker and who had studied with me at the university was the only person that I knew who had been here and would return. I came with her and when I was getting ready for the trip I felt like I was going to the moon»
—When did you first learn about Cuban culture?
—For three months I was doing research in collaboration with the Latin American Department of Social Sciences (FLACSO) at the University of Havana. It was 1992, a very difficult year for the country but I liked the experience a lot.
—Despite the difficulties, did you like the island?
—Living here had a profound affect on me and one of the research projects that I began here converted into my bachelors thesis in the United States. I returned several times to continue the project. That's how I was invited to enroll in the Masters of Social Development program at FLACSO. So I was graduated in California and returned a little afterward to start my studies here.
—Your family didn't pressure you to not do it?
—They were very understanding and supported me a lot morally. There was a special pride because I studied here in Cuba, despite the difficulties of the moment, which had a special role in our family history.
«Equally, I tell you, they understood that this was my project. To finance my living expenses, I worked in the department. The situation wasn't that I was here and they sent me money. I was here for five years and I always supported myself by working».
—How did you adjust to the daily routine of the special period?
—I lived in Santos Suárez and I traveled to the Colina almost every day on bicycle, on foot, or on bus 37. I brought my book, because public transportation was fairly limited at that time. I sat on the bench at the bus stop near my house and waited until a bus came. In the afternoon it was terrible to get on a bus, so returning home I preferred to walk.
«I experienced everything else like the Cubans did. The food shortage...I remember one time that I went three days eating nothing but malanga [a Cuban root vegetable, ed.] and I developed a hatred for it...It was years before I could even look at it again. I love it now."
—What did you study?
—I researched everything that had to do with urban agriculture, small organic farms, popular gardens. I saw how men and women, retired folks and old people, came out to plant, even on balconies. Cuba was facing the crisis with a high level of community participation and also creating an urban model for the decentralization of food production. My interest has always been focused on environmental projects and projects relating to social well-being.
«It was impressive to see the country moving forward despite the United States blockade, knowing that 90 miles away there were grocery stores filled with food to which they couldn't have access. This was a fascinating moment for a socio-environmental investigation.
—Did you start working on documentaries at this time?
—I did many written and audio-recorded interviews for my master's thesis, but I realized that the reality was so visual that it didn't reflect very well in what I was doing. I had the opportunity to work on a documentary by North American Jaime Kibben about Cuba's transformation in the food production sector. It's called The Greening of Cuba. I also worked on one by Sonia de Vries.
From there I fell in love with documentary film. There are many things which can be communicated through audiovisuals that are impossible to illustrate with a written document. I felt that I would respect the audiovisual more because it shows not only the words but also the expression, tone of voice, look.... ».
—Right now you are immersed in another documentary. This time it's on the Literacy Campaign....
—For me literacy is a really important subject because it's fundamental for social development. I was inspired by a great friend named Daysi Veitíam who I heard on various occasions say that the most important moment of her life was the campaign. As she was fairly sick I did an interview with her on the subject and I was extremely impacted. I wanted to do another for a short piece and each one was more incredible. It was then that I fell in love with the history because it's a history that shows the heroism of these people, above all these girls, who overcame the prejudices existent in their families at the time to complete the task.
«The documentary is going to be edited in the next few months but the collection of testimonies will continue»
—Are you still tied to the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC)?
—I have worked on various productions, including a film by Esteban Insausti. For me it has been marvelous because ICAIC is one of the most important cultural institutions in the Americas.
—Why did you decide to return after the hurricanes?
—Patch Adams, a great friend and collaborator, called me during that time and told me that he wanted to come. We, 15 North American clowns and 15 children from La Colmenita, went to the Marta Machado camp in Santa Cruz de Norte. We lived there in bunk houses and tents and we performed on the streets, in hospitals, in schools. Afterwards we spent a few days in a camp on the Isla de la Juventud.
—What has Cuba represented for you?
—Someone once told me that you belong to the place where you spent your university years. For me, the almost 17 years of contact with Cuba, especially the years of the crisis, have shaped the person who I am. I feel as if I have a family here, that I belong to this place. I am part of this and this is part of me. Cuba profoundly matters to me and in a very personal way. I do not idealize it. I know that there are many difficult things but it is a project in evolution. I love human beings, humanity, the Americas, planet earth; and, above everything, I infinitely love Cuba.