This picture is of former Assistant Principal Jay Gilbo of W.T. Sampson High School and Elementary School with a group of third graders going back to class after lunch. The current popular opinion and perspective surrounding Guantánamo Bay is of Camp X-Ray and the “enemy combatants” detained at the base. However, there is another side to life on the naval base, as seen in the photo. During various times in its history, American military personnel have been allowed to bring their families to live on the base. Historically, their lifestyle both supported and suffered from the ideology surrounding American expansion.
When the Guantánamo Bay naval base was established in 1903, only male sailors were allowed to reside there partly due to the base’s underdeveloped facilities. But by the mid 1920s naval wives and children were allowed to live there. The base, originally seen as tangible evidence of supposedly hegemonic masculine American imperial power over an alleged effeminate and less powerful Cuba, turned out to be a difficult place for women to live. With a small number of crudely built homes and stores, and a small community with a male to female ratio of 20 to 1 when the fleet was present, the base overwhelmingly catered to men.
The exposé “Guantánamo Blues,” written by an anonymous naval officer’s wife in 1930, complained about life on the island. The article detailed isolation and hierarchy within the women’s community at Guantánamo, parties in which more than normal amounts of alcohol were consumed, and reports that soldiers were visiting the nearby Cuban town of Caimanera and participating in prostitution. While the information in the article is not verifiable, similar reports of military wives’ feelings of isolation and soldiers’ illicit activities recurred throughout the base’s history.
The W.T. Sampson Schools opened in 1931 to provide a school for the children of military families on base and is the oldest operating Department of Defense School. Currently, the school is divided into an elementary school with 110 students and a high school with 100 students. Historically there were different and conflicting viewpoints about life on the base by military families. While many saw their life as idyllic and utopian in nature, others felt as if life on the base isolated them from the world. The families that did enjoy the Guantánamo lifestyle emphasized the tangible benefits of base life, such as no gangs, little bullying, and attention to students at school. Not to mention the beautiful Cuban weather and environment.
Yet, it is worrisome to many that this lifestyle may leave Guantánamo Bay children and families unprepared for the pressures of living life in the outside world. This has been a historical concern for any American military base family living abroad, and is compounded by the isolated culture of Guantánamo Bay. The geographic location and highly sensitive and classified operations of the base mean that children and families are, to a certain extent, living an artificially constructed and rigidly controlled life. The classified status of the base means work will not likely be discussed at home, and historically, the only outsiders seen would be day laborers from Cuba or Jamaican workers.
In a space that has been historically male gendered, racialized as white, and symbolic of American power over the uncivilized, U.S. military members and their families’ lifestyles bolstered this ideology. Today, though life on the base has improved and modernized in many ways, it does have very tangible and intangible consequences that makes it less than idyllic. Above all, there is the reality that the lives of these families are in an opposing position with the harsh reality of naval work and the lives of the prisoners held at Guantánamo. The families simultaneously benefit and suffer from the security needed to keep the station operating.
Posted by Tiffany M. Lowe – M.A. Candidate at Rutgers University
Rutgers University 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.