While the rest of the world debated the fate of Elián González in late June, students at St. Paul's Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, wondered whether a less famous native Cuban would be allowed back on the island—their Spanish teacher, Rolando Castellanos.
Castellanos left Cuba in 1978. His parents had fled to the United States a decade earlier, but the Cuban government had insisted that the boy, then 16, stay behind to complete his requisite military service. Eventually, at 26, Castellanos joined his family in the Minnesota town of Sauk Rapids, where he started a new American life: He learned English, married, had two kids, and began a teaching career that led him to the high school Spanish department at St. Paul's, a private K-12 school. He never imagined he'd return.
Then, last year, President Clinton announced that the U.S. government would allow educational and cultural exchanges with the communist state. Castellanos made plans to lead a 12-day study trip with stops at the Plaza of the Revolution and Ernest Hemingway's home in Havana, as well as schools in the capital's suburbs and the city of Matanzas. The feds approved, sanctioning a trip to a country they allowed only 12 American high school groups to visit in 1999.
At St. Paul's, Castellanos is known for designing summer trips that challenge students' language skills and teach cultural awareness. In past years, he and his kids have toured Spain, trekked through the Amazon, and brought school supplies to a village school in the Andes. So 26 students, several teaching colleagues, and Castellanos' wife and teenage children were eager to join him on a visit to a country that has not shared diplomatic relations with the United States for 39 years. Castellanos says he envisioned this trip as a "friendship exchange" between young Cubans and young Americans. He didn't want the trip to focus on his bittersweet relationship with his birthplace; he even omitted his hometown from the itinerary.
Still, the journey turned personal even before the Americans reached Cuba. Preparing to catch a connecting flight in Cancun, Castellanos ushered his group—each member carrying an American passport and a tourist visa—through Mexican customs, but airport officials refused to allow the exiled teacher on the plane without a current Cuban passport and a re-entry permit. Tearfully pleading his case, the teacher produced a valid American passport, a photocopy of his expired Cuban passport, and authorization for the trip from various Cuban agencies. But in the end, the plane carrying his family, friends, and students took off for Havana without him. For 14 hours, he sat, heartbroken, in a Cancun hotel room, declining food, water, and sleep while Cuban officials reviewed the matter. Finally, they granted him the required permit, and, at 1:30 a.m., two days after his crew had arrived, he flew into Havana. A handful of his students and Cuban cousins greeted the emotionally spent Castellanos with the Spanish lyrics of Celia Cruz, a Cuban singer exiled in Miami: "Life is a carnival....It is better to live it singing....There is no reason to cry."
Once in his homeland, Castellanos was overwhelmed by changes he saw on the island. For example, the Roman Catholic teacher had never stepped inside the Cathedral Havana. "When I was a teenager, to go to church was to declare yourself anti-Communist," he recalls. "To declare yourself anti-Communist was to ruin your life." This summer, however, he saw a packed house at a Cathedral mass and heard the sounds of prayer spilling into the street. "I didn't want to cry in front of my students, but I sobbed," admits Castellanos. "I saw hope and joy in the people? faces despite all they had been deprived of for so long."
Students such as 18-year-old Bucky Billington relished the opportunity to see Cuba through their teacher's eyes. "Señor Castellanos saw the Cuba of 20 years ago reflected in the Cuba we saw today," he says. "The dual perspective let us see things we would have missed otherwise."
Though the trip was designed to bring Americans and Cubans together, Castellanos' students point to another bond that resulted—a bond with a much admired teacher whose two-day detainment deeply affected them. Says Billington: "It felt empty to be there—on his island— without him."
Vol. 12, Issue 1, Page 15Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Rolando's Return