Diasporic school associations

Mette Louise Berg

Research in capitalist societies has shown that schooling reproduces class privilege despite meritocratic ideals. Educational background has been widely identified as key to ensuring entry into powerful networks, such as old boys’ networks forged at elite public schools in Britain; the current UK government is a good example of this. I am currently doing research on the role of transnational school-based networks in the production and reproduction of privilege in socialist Cuba and especially within its diaspora. School associations are a recurrent feature of many diaspora groups, yet there is little research on them, including why people join them, what they do, and whether they have any potential for homeland engagement similar to that of hometown associations.

Fragmented diaspora
Diaspora groups are often perceived as homogeneous. Diasporic people share a common origin and past, and therefore they are assumed to share common goals and aims in the present and future too. Yet many diasporas are highly fragmented, and politically and socially divided. This is certainly the case for the Cuban diaspora. For decades, Miami-based Cubans have successfully represented themselves globally as a monolithic bloc, and have been able to influence US policy vis-à-vis Cuba. Yet their success glosses over the considerable diversity of the Cuban diaspora, not only in Miami but in the US more widely, and globally.

Creating the New Man
Free education for all was a key principle of the 1959 Cuban revolution, and was seen as a necessity by the revolutionary leaders if Cuba was to become a modern, independent, socialist state. Since then, educational policy and reform in Cuba have been closely tied to nationalism and the transformation of Cuba into a socialist society. The educational system has been oriented toward producing socialist subjects in a social space free from pre-revolutionary ideas.

From the early days of the revolution, the revolutionary government aimed to create a new political subject, the Hombre Nuevo, or New Man, who was to be a socialist and a patriot. Education was seen as centrally important to bring about the New Man. Illustrative of the modernist zeal of the revolution and the desire to break with the tradition of religious education, the boarding schools prioritised the sciences and technical skills. Many schools were located in the countryside, where pupils would spend half the day studying, the other half doing agricultural work, emphasising austerity, discipline and obedience.

La Lenin: shared memories
I have argued elsewhere that through education, including studies in European socialist countries, a new political subject did indeed emerge in Cuba, but many of these new subjects now live in diaspora. In my current research I am tracking the transnational school networks of alumni of the academically selective Lenin School, known as La Lenin, founded in Havana in 1972. These networks comprise individuals scattered across Europe, the US, Canada and elsewhere, held together by a shared experience of schooling and continued identification with their old school. Many of the Cubans I have interviewed for the project emphasise the importance of their schooling experiences in shaping them as persons: ‘the school has made me who I am’ one woman who currently lives in New Jersey, said to me, echoing similar sentiments by many others.

While many diasporic alumni of the Lenin School do not agree with either the Cuban government or with Cuban exile politics, they do feel strongly attached to their old school and to its alumni. For many of them, their experiences at the school and the social mobility it enabled is more important than their subsequent geographic mobility facilitated by their schooling. This then, is a sub-set of a growing and diversifying ‘new Cuban diaspora’, held together not through long-distance nationalism or antagonism to the Cuban regime, but rather through sociality and shared memories of their schooling.

Experience-based diaspora
Their sentiments of belonging and feelings of attachment, the virtual networks and real life alumni meetings are expressions of a non-nationalist diasporic formation, based on shared experiences at a formative age, not on politics. In the Cuban case this is novel. More broadly other politically fragmented diasporas may have similar school-based associations that bring people together and which may have the potential to facilitate constructive engagement with their homeland.