By Barbara Gutierrez
The first time that Dainerys Machado Vento walked into the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter library and its Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC) to research Cuban literature of the 50s and 60s, she realized that everything she needed was at her fingertips.
“In Cuba many of those documents are either in very bad condition or do not exist at all,” she said. “When I first came to this library and saw how easily I could pick up any book, by a Cuban author or anyone, I cried. Being surrounded by the freedom of ideas, it was beautiful.”
Machado Vento, a doctoral student in the Modern Languages and Literature Department at the College of Arts and Sciences, is the first Cuban citizen in decades to come to UM on an F-1 student visa, a nonimmigrant visa issued to those who want to pursue studies in the U.S. Her enrollment is another sign of the changing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, which renewed diplomatic relations in July 2015.
The number of students studying at U.S. higher education institutions from Cuba has been steadily climbing. In 2015, the number was 94, a 36 percent increase from 2014, according to Open Doors data supplied by the Institute of International Education.
“It is my hope that we will welcome many more students like Ms. Machado Vento,” said UM President Julio Frenk, who met with her in his office shortly after her matriculation. “As the University of Miami fulfills its aspiration to be the Hemispheric University with a global impact, we will be strengthened by the enriching exchange of talented students and scholars from across the Americas.”
As a child growing up in the bustling Havana neighborhood of El Cerro, a block away from a well-known baseball stadium, Machado Vento was a bookworm, often staying in her room reading rather than joining other friends who were playing baseball or other games.
“People would kid me and say come out and play but I preferred to stay inside,” she said.
She loved writing and theater but decided to study journalism because it offered her the skills and creative freedom to follow her interests. In 2009, she graduated from the University of Havana with a journalism degree and started working at the magazine Bohemia that, like all Cuban publications, is run by the Cuban government’s Ideological Department. At Bohemia, her beat did not mirror her interests. She wrote about construction and tourism. But, she reflects, this allowed her to hone her skills in writing and journalism.
Her interests in theatre led her to work at La Union de Escritores de Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC) and to write for Tablas-Alarcos, an editorial house that published cultural magazines. At the University of Havana, her thesis was on the noted Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera, who had been ostracized by the Cuban government for his ideological rejection of government censorship, as well as his open homosexuality.
“I looked at the rehabilitation of his image in the Cuban press including the social and economic context going on at the time,” said Machado Vento. Her work and a chance meeting in Cuba with Lillian Manzor, associate professor of UM’s Department of Modern Languages, earned her an invitation to a theatre festival celebrating Piñera’s work held at UM’s Ring Theatre in 2012. It would be her first visit to the United States.
During the festival, Machado Vento presented her work on a panel before Miami friends and colleagues and attended all the plays that the festival offered that weekend.
“I fell in love with the University of Miami,” she said. “Friends wanted to take me to see the buildings downtown or to the supermarkets. I was floored by the UM Library.”
In 2014, she returned to the U.S. to take part in a conference by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and visited Miami briefly. In 2014, she took the bold step of applying for a Master’s Program at the Colegio San Luis in Mexico and was accepted as the first Cuban student to ever study at that institution. She would research the connection between literature and the press, two of her major interests.
While there, she met her husband, a Mexican writer named Xalbador García. In 2015, she applied to the doctoral program at UM and for the student visa.
“Everyone told me that it could not be done,” she said. “I said politics has put us in a strait jacket. I am going to choose freedom.”
Three days after she applied she received the visa. She now lives within walking distance to Calle Ocho, in Miami’s famed Little Havana neighborhood, and commutes to Coral Gables four times a week for classes.
For Professor Manzor, having Machado Vento at UM in the doctoral program is a great asset.
“Dainerys comes to us with a B.A. from Cuba and an M.A. from Mexico,” said Manzor. “This means that she comes with an outstanding background as a generalist. She also brings with her the perspective and experience from two different educational systems in Latin America. This is invaluable to our graduate program.”
Machado Vento plans to continue her investigation of Cuban writers, especially contributing women writers who wrote for Cuban magazines in the 1950s. She believes that there is great work to be done in bridging the literary traditions from inside and outside the island.
“We have lived split for so many years,” she said of Cubans on the island and in exile. “But in the end our culture continues to be the same; our art is the same and the literature is the same. Investigating the literature could help to bring unity.”
Machado Vento has learned one other valuable lesson on her journey.
“For many of us in Cuba it is hard to dream,” she said. “But now I can dream.”
Read this story in Spanish