June Chatterjee '60

 

cuba up close

%221%left%For the third year in a row, June (Chacran) Chatterjee '60 has led an eight-day tour to that mysterious little country off the coast of Florida. It's called the Cuba Reality Tour, presented by Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif., where Chatterjee is a professor of Spanish and chair of the language department. Participants travel to Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad to see Cuba firsthand and to come to their own conclusions about the situation there.

"I try not to impose whatever I feel on everybody else," said Chatterjee, who leads the group under an educational license approved by the U.S. government, "because I think that's the whole point--to form your own ideas. That's the way I teach, too, I try to let people get the information, the education, and then they have to come to their own conclusions."

So what conclusions do most participants come to? There's no consensus. "There are good things and bad things that exist in every country, so it's not really black and white," Chatterjee said. "There's a lot of gray in there."

%220%right%Most Cuban people cannot move from a rural area to an overpopulated city, for example. A teacher cannot teach in whatever school he or she might choose. On the other hand, everyone in Cuba has health care and all the children go to school. Cuba boasts a 97 percent literacy rate. Everyone has monthly rations and earns a similar wage. "We don't have to think about buying [extra] things. Well, they do, and they can't. But wherever people live they have a job and a place to live."

Unlike most Cubans Chatterjee can--and has--traveled widely. She graduated from Newton High School in Massachusetts and first visited Colby by train. She majored in Spanish and spent her junior year at the University of Madrid, an experience that introduced her to Spain, but also to Cuban culture, through a newfound Cuban friend. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude from Colby, Chatterjee received a Fulbright fellowship to study literature in Brazil. She went on to do graduate study at UC-Berkeley, where she met her husband. They moved to India after she earned her master's degree.

A recession in India brought them back to Berkeley, and Chatterjee began teaching at Contra Costa College. She has taught Spanish literature and English and started the school's English as a Second Language program. "I love what I do," she said. "I love introducing Spanish-speaking countries to the students, getting them to not be afraid of learning a language, to get excited about traveling."

Chatterjee became very excited a few years ago when she was asked to lead a tour of Cuba. She jumped at the chance and soon saw firsthand what she had heard so much about: a country that is politically isolated, that has no fast-food chains or other American corporate presence.

But American influence is not completely absent.

"We have a lot of misconceptions," Chatterjee said. "For us to think that we're not doing business with Cuba, that's not true at all." Of the foodstuffs Cuba will purchase globally this year, approximately 30 percent will be from the United States. Cuba has already purchased more than six hundred million dollars worth of goods from the United States since 2001, according to Chatterjee. "What they have curtailed is the exchange of the musicians that come to this country, which is really too bad.... I think music and culture are the things that nobody should interfere with," she said.
--Anne Marie Sears '03