Schooling, mobility and belonging

Published 11 November 2014 / By COMPAS Communications

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Back to SchoolFormal education and schooling have been central tenets in the quest for modernity across post-colonial societies in the twentieth century. Schools have been seen as vehicles for producing modern, national subjects. Yet education and schooling also foster aspirations of geographic mobility beyond national borders.

In Cuba this tension has proven challenging for the socialist government. 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. Educational policy and reform therefore were closely tied to nationalism and the transformation of Cuba into a socialist society. Yet, many of those who were educated within the socialist system, which included elite schools for the most academically able, have chosen to leave Cuba. Their emigration not only represents a loss of skilled personnel, but also constitutes a political embarrassment for the revolutionary government.

Mobility and education in Cuba

In my research on the transnational networks of graduates from Cuba’s most prestigious school, The Lenin School in Havana, I explore the nexus between schooling, mobility, and belonging. Several scales of inter-twining mobilities were important to my research subjects. These ranged from the move from local, neighbourhood school to the prestigious and nationally recognized Lenin School, and later to university studies, sometimes abroad, but also the move from parental home to boarding school, and later international migration. Echoing arguments from literature on internal, rural-urban migration, for many of my interlocutors, their initial move from childhood home to boarding school, which was geographically small-scale, carried more significance and was seen as involving a bigger change in their lives than their later transnational mobility.

Identifying with education

As is increasingly acknowledged by scholars, it is problematic to assume a priori that diasporic subjects identify first and foremost with their homeland, i.e. as national subjects. Often, relationships to significant others, including kin and friends, and / or localities such as parental home, street, neighbourhood, or city, constitute more significant sites of identification and belonging to migrants. In this case, diasporic alumni of the Lenin School identify strongly with their school. A woman now living in New Jersey stated emphatically: ‘the school made me who I am.’ While not all alumni feel so strongly about the school, for many it is a very significant part of their self-identification. Identification with the school manifests itself in a plethora of Internet sites dedicated to the school, most prominent of which is Offline, alumni maintain friendships forged at the school, often transnationally. Such affective networks of school-based friendships and family relations – the two are increasingly intertwined as alumni inter-marry, and recent graduates often constitute the second generation in their family to attend the school – constitute a transnational web of belonging, produced and reproduced on- and off-line through memories, narratives, and embodied performances of alumni identity.

A world network

People Connections - Social NetworkBecause the majority of Lenin alumni go on to study within the fields of science, engineering or architecture they are often well placed to help each other. And because their children also go to the school, the web of connections and the scope for support has widened and deepened over time to cover not just the world of work. As an example, Beatriz, a woman in her fifties living in Havana, was a pupil at the school in the 1970s; several of her close relatives also went after her. She married a schoolmate with whom she had two children who also went to the school. After divorcing, Beatriz married another alumnus. These relations of kin, friends and marriage make up a dense web against which Beatriz’s life unfolds. When she moved to a new neighbourhood, a fellow alumnus introduced her and her husband to other neighbours, and she also secured her current job thanks to her alumni network. When alumni leave Cuba, this same web of affective relationships and material support extends transnationally with alumni staying in touch like other transnational migrants do, and helping each other in the new country.

The migration experience as part of the whole

The degree of identification is evident in a statement by a Lenin graduate now living in Spain, who said: ‘La Lenin is my passport’. For her, being an alumna of La Lenin is a vital aspect of her self-identification, to the extent that she claims it as her homeland: ‘I say frankly that I am from La Lenin’. It resonates with similar assertions by other alumni, who, like her, live in diaspora. This suggests a paradox: The Cuban government founded La Lenin to produce political subjects who would serve and govern socialist Cuba. By definition, if the school was successful, its alumni would therefore stay. Instead, what has happened is that the school has become a site for non-national affiliation and identification. This raises wider questions about belonging and diaspora formation in a context of globalisation and transnational migration of elites and the highly skilled. It underlines the importance of taking into account the pre-migration experiences of migrants, and it points to the need to embed international migration within people’s lives more broadly and not presume a priori that migration is more important than other life-stage events.

This blog post is an excerpt from a longer article: ‘La Lenin is my passport’: schooling, mobility and belonging in socialist Cuba and its diaspora” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power.  Free access: