My Spring Break: Cuban Law and Society

Terron Ferguson writes about his spring break trip to Cuba with fellow students in the Cuba Legal Studies Group and faculty adviser Sylvia Law ’68, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry.

My trip to Cuba felt almost surreal. The blazing sun, anchored by beautiful blue skies; the palm trees standing upright; the smell of freshly rolled tobacco; mojitos; and the ocean that sits behind the Malecón. All of the cars were stuck in the 1950s. Chevys and Soviet-made stuff that I had never seen before. My whole life, I’d lived 90 miles from this enigmatic place: in Miami, a city nicknamed the “Capital of Latin America” because it’s the second-largest US city with a Spanish-speaking majority—and the largest city with a Cuban-American plurality.[1]

Student group
The Cuba Legal Studies Group, off to explore

My mother and grandmother are both from Key West, even closer to Cuba. I remember just beginning high school, and the Elián Gonzalez affair having framed a heated debate about immigration for my city and the country. I’ve always been curious about the isolated island, but growing up predominantly around black Miami folk, people don’t talk about Cuba(ns). And if people talked about Cuba, they talked about how “the Cubans” are “stealing the jobs” and “taking the neighborhoods” and “hogging the roads.” I think now that these attitudes toward Cuban people and their culture stemmed from lack of access to structured opportunities to learn about our similarities.

In 2000, after seeing Elián, a child caught in the crosshairs of foreign policy, I began talking to as many Cuban-Americans as possible. On the Metro-rail or on the bus or at Breakthrough Collaborative—a summer and after-school program I attended. Small-talk conversation grew into people explaining Cuban history, politics, culture, and society to me.

Students at table
Ready for Cuban cuisine

Now, I’m no expert on Cuba, but NYU’s Cuban Law and Society seminar was a godsend: a formal opportunity, culminating my law school experience, to survey and examine the legal and historical dynamics of race and citizenship. A chance to explore how these undercurrents inform our country’s international relations, my city’s demographics and politics, and—tangentially—my identity.

To my eye, the city of Miami (I also use my city as a proxy for the US) and Cuba, the nation, are very different, but struggling in many of the same ways. Seems to me, then, that we could stand to share our best practices with one another. Our group consisted of 10 students, and to call us internally diverse would be an understatement. We traveled to Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos. We met with influential legal officials, law professors, and attorneys who practice via the bufete colectivos. We visited the Bay of Pigs. The only other students we saw were from American business schools: Harvard, Columbia, NYU Stern. There was also a trip sponsored by the Smithsonian. We organized a “summit” in the park that our group used to meet up and discussed President Obama, the Castros, Jose Marti, and Kendrick Lamar with some local skaters and artists.

I bought a really cool hat, and my classmates started calling me Che Ferg. I’m no Communist, but the hat was awesome. On the way to Trinidad, we played an amazing game of Geography. Imagine 10 law students, riding in a tour bus, on the way to a small Cuban town. One person says either a city or a country. Then the next person has to name another city or country that begins with the last letter of the previously stated place. For example, if I say “Egypt,” your job is to use the “t” to name a city or country, like “Tallahassee” or “Tanzania.” It sounds simple, but it’s a hard game. When it’s your turn, all eyes are on you, and the pressure starts to crank.

Professor and students
Enough hats to go around

Sooner than later, the game’s going, and something very interesting happens. The group of soon-to-be lawyers figures out a way to make the game better by enacting rules and solutions to the problems that creep up along the way. We eventually ratify a system that involves a nine-person majority-rule vote, and our two professors are appointed to an appellate bench.

It wasn’t all mental exertion. I read a lot of magazines and went snorkeling on the beach. On the last night, just my luck, I got sick from the food. And I took some really, really cool photos in black and white.

[1] “Miami: the Capital of Latin America”. Time. December 2, 1993; “Language Use in the United States: 2011”. American Community Survey Reports. Retrieved 19 February 2015; U.S. Census, 2010 (Ethnicity) and Census American Community Survey 2008 (language).