Pope Francis’ recent trip to Cuba was important because he symbolically allows for leaders to start talking and their people to accept that when it might not otherwise be well received, says Alma College’s Deb Dougherty, who has visited the country and translated Cuban literature.
“The Pope in many ways is able to bring people together, not just for religious beliefs but also in compassion,” says Dougherty, chair of the modern languages department and professor of Spanish. “This particular pope is able to frame compassion in a way that goes beyond a particular religious tradition.”
Dougherty says that while she was in Cuba during a literature conference in 2003, she noticed that there was an American presence, though it was very unofficial.
“When we arrived, everyone was wearing American clothing and had American goods,” she says. “They still suffered all the human rights issues, but in terms of consumerism, it was still flowing.”
Dougherty was invited to dinner with an American official at his house during her trip. Though at the time America did not have an embassy in Cuba or an ambassador, the Cuban people recognized his home and him as an unofficial ambassador.
Earlier this year, President Obama lifted travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba.
Dougherty describes her involvement with Cuba as “really serendipitous.”
“My research and experience are primarily in Spain,” she says. “It was a matter of meeting the right person at the right time, and our skill sets matched.”
Dougherty met Josefina Leyva, a Cuban exile from the beginning of the Castro regime who was able to get off the island, at a literature conference through a former colleague. Leyva wanted her work to reach an English speaking audience and asked Dougherty to translate her works.
“I had never done literature translation before, but found it very interesting,” says Dougherty. “It’s like a coloring book: you have the outline and you have to make it work. I learned a lot.”
Dougherty would send Leyva the translations, and Leyva would look them over and discuss any alterations that were needed.
“I felt that I had to be very delicate in how I treated their stories,” says Dougherty about translating Operation Pedro Pan: The Exodus of Cuba’s Children.
Early in the Castro regime a priest was instrumental in getting hundreds of children out of Cuba. Parents sent them away with the faith that someone in Florida would be there to take them in, and once things settled down their kids could come back. Unfortunately, the Castro regime did not fall fast.
“Many kids lived in foster care in the U.S. until family could join,” says Dougherty. “Many families were never able to. The story is a vignette of many experiences and about the unifying experience of being a part of this group and growing up to live in the U.S. now.”
After her work translating the books, Dougherty was able to attend a conference in 2003 in Cuba for a week to present scholarly articles about the process of translating the works.
“There was never a sense that Cuban people hated Americans,” says Dougherty. “People were very welcoming. I think in large part people are able to understand and welcome each other on an individual level, but unfortunately our political systems draw lines that don’t need to be there.”