My first memories of Guantánamo are from the Haitian refugee crisis in the 1990s. As a kid I imagined how those people must have felt searching for a better life in the United States only to be held at this military base, uncertain of when they would be released. At that time I was still too young to truly understand what was going on there. I hadn’t even realized children were also detained at the base. After 9/11 I once again found myself having strong feelings for those who were being held at Guantánamo. For all we knew some detainees could have been wrongly accused and this legal loophole could leave innocent people suffering indefinitely. Because of these news stories I always thought of Guantánamo as an evil place. I never considered the uses of Guantánamo prior to the 1990s or that there might be other opinions or direct experiences of the base and what it meant to these people.
I was most surprised to learn of some of the views military family members had of the base. Anita Lewis Isom’s story of being a child living at Guantánamo was something completely unexpected for me. For the first time in my life I began to think of all the families of military personnel stationed at Guantánamo and what the site meant to them. I began to think of the soldiers stationed there and wonder what their experiences were. The Cuban workers at the base were also a demographic I had never before considered. I began to wonder what effect Guantánamo has had on Cubans as a whole and not just those once or still employed at the base.
Considering all of these different viewpoints made me begin to relate to all of these people on a personal level. A lot of the art work from Guantánamo depicts the artists’ experience on the base or their experience getting to the base. The second most prevalent topic is scenes from the artists’ home or homeland. The artist who created “Soldier’s Cat” chose not to depict an image of his home or family but rather his cat. “Soldier’s Cat” makes me think of the things I would miss most if I were stationed far from home just as the artist was. Obviously we’d all miss our friends and family, but we often don’t consider the everyday comforts of home that we would all long for. This image reminds me of the small things that make my home my home. This also makes me wonder what things could have made Guantánamo a home for the people who lived there. The image reminds me that there were Cuban workers that had to choose between their home country and their job at the base which provided them a means to feed and care for their families and also a way to afford some small comforts in their own lives.
I believe having insight to what Guantánamo has been used for and what it has meant to all people throughout its history is a positive step towards understanding what should and can be done with the site.
Posted by Mandy Charles – Masters Certificate Candidate at IUPUI
Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis 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.