I was unaware of the history of Guantánamo Bay before starting this project; I had only heard of its modern status as a detainment camp. I was surprised to learn about its past history as a military base and of the families that lived on the base for many years. It was a community and those who lived within the fences believed it was a “cherished childhood” for the children. Horseback riding, swimming, and various sports and recreational activities were favorite pastimes for many. Children and teenagers alike had opportunities to travel and the freedom to do so. I was amazed to learn that parents believed that GTMO was a perfect place to raise children. I learned much about the culture of Guantánamo Bay from Memories of Guantánamo Bay, 1960-1962, a personal account from Janet Miller. Miller explains the wonderful childhood that her two children had even with the ongoing problems with the Cuban government and her own troubled relationship with her husband. Her children were able to develop close relationships with the Cubans and explore the base with freedom. Their maid, Andréa, became a close member of the family whom Miller went out of her way to try to help. Even though it was considerably different from life in the United States, from climate to surroundings, the families still tried to have what felt to them like a normal life; kids had the same comforts of movies, sports, and school that they had in America.
At the same time, though, GTMO was a place where many Cubans worked. There was cultural mixing between the people; those who lived on the base and those who worked on the base from the outside. Americans formed relationships with the Cubans and in some cases a familial bond was formed (as the case of Janet Miller and her maid Andréa). Language barriers were broken and sense of community was formed. I was shocked to realize what the Cubans had to go through during the 1950s-1960s with the rebellion and military crisis and the effect it had on the base. Cubans had to be in constant fear of losing their jobs or of their families being in danger. Through an oral history interview with Ana Maria Ward, a former resident of Guantánamo Bay, I learned that many people on the base had little knowledge of the revolution and violence that was going on outside the fences. Ms. Ward describes being able to smell the fires of the revolution but not knowing what exactly was happening. While Cubans were struggling in their own country; most of the Americans on the base were leading normal lives.
I chose the picture of men playing baseball at GTMO because it represented the many activities that one could do on the base. People still played “America’s greatest pastime” in this foreign place. To me, it was like GTMO wasn’t so different from the United States; people still gathered within a community and took part in various activities such as sports.
I really believe we can learn from looking at the past of Guantánamo Bay. When Guantánamo Bay is in the news now, it is always something to do with the detention camp. But this place surrounded by controversy was once a thriving neighborhood full of families–one where American children were able to explore exotic-seeming places, swim in the ocean, and learn about a culture different from their own.
Posted by Hayley M. Whitehead – student at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.