An interview with Elena Schwolsky, author of Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba

In 1972, when she was a young, divorced, single mother, restless and idealistic, Elena Schwolsky made a decision that changed her life: leaving her eighteen-month-old son with his father, she joined hundreds of other young Americans on a work brigade in Cuba. They spent their days building cinderblock houses for workers and their nights partying and debating politics. The Cuban revolution was young, and so were they. At a moment of transition in Schwolsky’s life, Cuba represented hope and the power to change.

This is Elena’s interview.

You made an incredibly difficult decision as a young mother to leave your child with his father and move to Cuba to provide assistance. How did that decision shape who you are today?
Looking back on my decision with the wisdom of 70+ years, I can see that I didn’t fully appreciate how long 3 months was in the life of a young child or perhaps I would have made a different choice. In the wake of a painful divorce, I was very excited about the opportunity to put my beliefs about social justice into action by supporting the young Cuban revolution through joining this work brigade. Living and working with a diverse group of 140 other young Americans, being guided by Cuban workers who were building a new society, working with my hands to help build 8 new cinderblock houses for Cuban families –– it was an unforgettable and transformative experience. I returned fully committed to a life of activism to create social change in our country and have never retreated from or regretted that decision. When I came back my son was talking in sentences –– I missed the beginnings of that new development –– and I’m sure he has his own story to tell.

How was the Cuban culture and environment different when you returned later in life?  
Cuba is a place that can seem frozen in time — cars from the 40s and 50s dotting the roads, an environment unmarred by commercial billboards or decades of heavy tourism, no 24 hour news cycle blaring from TV screens. At the same time, the culture of the island is constantly changing and evolving — the newest addition being cell phones, wifi and social networks. A few things that remain constant, and that I appreciate greatly, are the warmth and generosity of the people and the commitment to collective well-being. Cuba faces serious challenges, many imposed by our own government’s economic embargo and travel ban, but the resilient and inventive spirit of the people persists.

Through your work as a nurse, you have been a caregiver to countless people. How did that affect how you cared for your husband?
I often thought of it as an invisible line we crossed — when AIDS came home. In the early years, because of stigma, when hospital staff knew I was a nurse they left me to care for my husband. That was hard. I just wanted to be his wife. And my professional knowledge of the disease sometimes led me to worry more — to watch for every little symptom. On the flip side, my personal experience made me more compassionate and empathetic with the families I cared for. I had walked, was walking, in their shoes.

Why was it important for you to tell not only your story but also the story of Cubans living with AIDS?
Actually the book began as a way to tell the Cuban stories, to illuminate Cuba’s experience with AIDS which is unique in the world because of the creation of AIDS sanatoriums to prevent a widespread epidemic. And because I believe that the stories of people living with AIDS in other parts of the world are important to our understanding of this global epidemic. As I wrote, I began to see that my lens as the narrator of the story was important and decided to include my own story. That turned out to be the biggest challenge of the writing process.

What advice do you have for those who have lost a loved one and are grieving and healing?
One thing I learned is that everyone grieves this kind of a loss in their own way and in their own time. Don’t let people rush you or tell you how you should be feeling. Grieving the loss of someone to AIDS is often complicated by stigma. Finding my voice to speak and write about it was important to my healing process, and finding a way to turn my grief into action. That’s why my return to Cuba was so significant for me.


Learn more about Elena’s book on Amazon.


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