Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Cuba

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These days, every vacation you take has to happen in your imagination. But we've been doing it for years. Every summer, my kids and I take an imaginary trip around the world, picking a new country to learn about every week. 

This week we traveled to Cuba! 


To start the week, we put on some Cuban music (I like this and this,) found Cuba on the wall map, and colored the flag.

Flag is upside-down in this picture, FYI.

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island. Sometimes, it's called El Cocodrilo because it's the shape of a crocodile from an arial view. (Rumor has it there's a popular song about it, but I couldn't find it so it can't be that popular.)

Using our big wall map, the kids filled out a page of their passports. If you're interested in downloading the passport pages I use for free, here's the link:

Download the Passport Pages

We read a little bit from Cuba from the Enchantment of the World book series, and then we watched this 30-minute documentary about Cuba on Amazon Instant Video.

For dinner we had picadillo and tostones. I felt really fancy going and buying capers and pimientos in their fancy jars in the fancy aisle I never go in at the grocery store.

We actually make tostones (fried green plantains) all the time — Phillip fell in love with them when he served a religious mission in Venezuela  but the kids love helping make them because it involves smashing the plantain slices.

Kind of like playing with food, but allowed.


Today I thought we'd talk about the religion and the language in Cuba.

Most of Cuba is Catholic. We're Christian but not Catholic, so I picked up a book called What You Will See Inside a Catholic Church and read it with the kids over lunch.

Cuba was officially atheist under communism, but a constitutional amendment in 1992 gave Cubans freedom of religion. The pope even visited in '98.

The other uniquely Cuban religion is called Santeria, literally "way of the saints." If you're like me, the only thing you know about Santeria is that the 90's ska punk band Sublime doesn't practice it. (If you're younger than 30 and have no idea what I'm talking about, that's fine. It's not important.)

Santeria came from the Africans brought to Cuba as slaves in the 1800s. It centered on the orichas, dieties that frankly reminded me a little of the Greek gods. 

It's big on rituals meant to appease, appeal to, or summon various orichas. Frankly, it involves all kinds of stuff that is totally unfamiliar to us like animal sacrifice, curses and cleansing, charms, and fortune telling. I tried hard to find some kid-friendly videos about Santeria, and finally found this one and this one.

Then we talked about Spanish. The kids looked through a picture dictionary of 150 First Spanish Phrases and we reviewed how to count to 10 and how to say 'please' and 'thank you.'

We talked about a tradition observed in Cuba called quinceañera, the celebration of a girl's 15th birthday in a lot of Spanish-speaking cultures that probably came from ancient Mesoamerica.

After talking about quinceañera traditions, I asked my girls to make quiñcinera invitations.

This is the invitation my 16-year-old made.

If I'd thought of it earlier, I would've asked them to look up words in a Spanish-English dictionary and write the invitations in Spanish.

The national dish of Cuba is ropa vieja. Translated into English, the name means 'old clothes.' (Apparently the dish is supposed to look like a heap of colorful rags.)

I guess I... sort of see it?

I wanted to get a boxed mix to make flan for dessert, but my regular grocery store doesn't carry it anymore. So I did the next best thing and bought a can of sweetened condensed milk with a picture of flan on the label to make it at home.

For a flan recipe that was literally called "Easy Flan Recipe," we certainly had a hard time making this one. My daughter melted a spoon and I burned my hand.

At least it turned out pretty.

I usually dislike flan
because the taste and texture remind me of sucking on a wet dishrag, but I do have to admit that homemade flan was slightly better.


Cuba has a fascinating history. First it was a Spanish colony from whom the U.S. bought a lot of sugar. When a U.S. Navy ship exploded near Cuba, the Spanish were blamed, and that was the start of the Spanish-American War.

As a result of the war, Spain gave Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the U.S. along with temporary control of Cuba. Cuba gained independence in 1902 but was still sort of controlled by the U.S.

When Fidel Castro came to power as a communist, the U.S. put a trade embargo on Cuba (that means no buying or selling between the two countries at all) that remains to this day. Cuba started getting aid and missiles from the then-USSR, (Cuban Missile Crisis, anyone?) and when the USSR fell apart Cuba was in dire straits. They're still recovering.

I gave a brief summary to the younger kids and then gave the following books to my older kids:
Because the U.S. trade embargo means no new American cars, and new car prices in Cuba are legitimately insane, the streets of Cuba are filled with sweet rides from the 1950s that are often used as taxis. Locals call the classic car taxis of Cuba "almendrones:"

Cuba has a double currency system: Cuban pesos (CUP) and convertible Cuban pesos (CUC.) $1USD always equals 1 CUC. But Cuban pesos are worth much less, and $1USD equals about 25 Cuban pesos.

I read an article that said some taxi drivers try to give tourists their change in Cuban pesos instead of convertible pesos. We talked about exchange rates and why that would work to the driver's advantage. We looked at pictures of the two kinds of money: would the kids be able to tell the difference?

I had the older kids do some math with different amounts to figure out how much a driver might make with this trick, and what percentage of the average Cuban's monthly salary it would be. (The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month, so a few cents for for us would be significant in Cuba!)

(I should note here that I'm not good at doing math and even worse at explaining it to someone else. While this post makes it sound like I know what I'm doing, in truth I had to have the 16-year-old check everyone's math and basically explain it to me when I got confused.)

Then I practiced currency conversions with my 8-year-old. When she was pretty good at figuring out how many pesos she could trade for $1, $5, or $13 dollars, I decided to have her make up her own currency and try it with a different conversion rate.

"Money can be in dollars, pesos, rupees, Euros..." I explained. "Let's make up our own. What imaginary monetary unit do you want to have?" 

Immediately, she answered "poopies."

Yes, she was being silly, but she was still sitting there so I went with it. We did some imaginary money conversions with "poopies," and then with her next currency, "farties." 8-year-olds. Sigh.

We had arroz con pollo for dinner tonight, and I started to get the sense that all Cuban meals were basically meat, rice, and some onion and peppers. Is that about right, or did I just happen to pick recipes that were all alike?


Son is a genre of music that originated in Cuba. Not only did the kids like seeing people dancing to son in this video, they liked seeing the fun and laid-back atmosphere.

Son is the predecessor of other musical styles like rumba (shown in this video) and salsa. My kids loved this clip of little kid salsa dancers:

With the help of the instructional videos here and here, we learned some basic salsa dance steps and practiced them with each other.

Some of us were more willing participants than others, and I won't name any names to protect their identities, but at least two of the kids realized that dancing is kind of fun. So I count it as a success.

I should have quit while I was ahead, because the next thing we did was a drawn-out disaster.

We tried to make some Cuban donuts called buñuelos. Sounds fun, right? Well, it took kind of a long time to make them. First I had to find some unfamiliar ingredients, then we had to boil and grind them up, and we hadn't even started making the dough yet!

Rolling them into Figure 8 shapes before frying.

The donuts themselves aren't sweet at all, the sweetness comes from a glaze you pour all over the top. I apparently overcooked the glaze, because as it cooled it got way too dark and hardened into an impenetrable cement-like coating. To top it off, it made the finished buñuelos pretty disgusting-looking.

My husband was the brave soul who bit into one of these first. I was worried his whole top row of teeth were going to pop out like dentures.

We added some more water to the glaze and it became... edible. But overall, still not a good experience. My children rated them "meh" and the house smelled funny afterward.

Sorry buñuelos, you are not our favorite.

The work-to-taste ratio was definitely not in the buñuelos' favor.

Friday and Saturday

We had family plans this weekend so there were no formal Cuba activities scheduled for Friday and Saturday, but we did bring along plenty of books set in Cuba for the kids to read. 

My kids will read anything if it's strategically placed within their reach, so it worked out pretty well.

Adult reads for the teenagers:
YA for my middle schooler:
Short chapter books for my elementary school kids:

We also brought along a biography of Ernest Hemingway and a copy of his short novel The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway loved Cuba and lived there for 20 years, and The Old Man and the Sea is based on an experience he had there catching a giant marlin. At some point, we'll have to watch this Oscar-winning animated version.

Overall, the kids enjoyed Cuba and had a really good time there. We learned so many cool things, from the history to the music to the currency. (We also learned that I should probably pursue a career other than math teacher or pastry chef, but that's beside the point.)

Click to Share:
Unremarkable Files
Cuba crafts, book lists, and recipes for kids of all ages! Make learning about Cuba in your homeschool even more fun with these free ideas and resources. #Cuba #homeschool

Building the perfect Cuba lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Cuba activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #Cuba #lessonplan
Learning about Cuba is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #Cuba #educational


Anonymous said...

The second I read "Santeria" that song popped into my head! I'm glad I finally know what they're singing about.

Anonymous said...