Merna Gill: Getting to know Cuba’s people
In Cuba, Elvis started an after-school program to teach middle school students English, because it is a requirement to get into college. Merna Gill, pictured second from left, maintains a friendship with Elvis, and when in Cuba, she visits his classroom. During a recent trip she brought along school supplies for the students. Contributed photo
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Merna Hunsley Gill joined a People to People health-related group on a trip to Cuba in 2014.
“I was the only teacher,” she said, “and I always think of ways I can help my students. What can I learn from this that someone else might need to know?”
The Hannibal native, a 1973 graduate of Hannibal High School, was living in Charlotte, N.C., at the time.
Growing up in the 1960s, about all she knew of Cuba was that it was a forbidden island, a communist country that we were not allowed to go to.
“We know from ‘I Love Lucy’ that Desi was Cuban, and there was great music, colorful clothing, and an allure. I wanted to go and see what Cuba was all about. I needed a new perspective.”
She joined the group of about two dozen individuals.
“That week we all got to know each other very well and we all fell in love with our guide, Cal. An English teacher, a young man in his 40s, who was open to new ideas and not afraid to answer our barrage of questions.”
“Cal and I bonded over our love for teaching,” Merna “and, after returning to the United States, we kept in contact.”
People to People Ambassador Program was established following World War II, by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration with the idea being that “the best way to peace is for ordinary people to be able to travel around the world and learn about the culture and life of others.”
After that first trip, she enquired whether she could lead a group to Cuba.
The organization provided her with a group of mixed professionals. Merna set the itinerary, and asked Cal to lead the group.
In December 2014, President Obama announced plans to rebuild relations with Cuba. “I was feeling so hopeful and wanted to meet Cubans on my next trip that I could really help make a difference in their life.”
She emailed Cal. He replied with a cheery message “All of Cuba felt hope.”
On her second trip, she stayed at a boutique hotel run by young people and met many young professionals on her travels that week. She emailed them when she got back to the States and started a friendship which still last today. As a teacher, it was natural for her ask them “what do you want to do with your future”? They didn’t know because in Cuba you go through the educational system and are told what field you’re going to go in. Either work for the government or start a business. They didn’t feel they had choices.
To this day, she still encourages and mentors some of these same young people.
Cuba had tourism set up 2008, Merna said. “Fidel Castro hated tourists,” but his brother, Raul, talked him into tourism because the country needed help. “They didn’t have gas to put in cars, they were in very bad shape.”
Many people in the U.S. thought that tourism was still shut off, but “it was only shut off to U.S. citizens. We think we’re the only people on earth but people from Canada were spending six months there, and tourists were visiting Cuba from every country.”
When Obama opened up relations, in 2016, 600,000 U.S. citizens descended on the island for a visit. Cubans weren’t prepared for us but they were happy to be making money and many of them set up businesses.
“There was a lot of hope and a lot of money flowing into the island.”
Most U.S. citizens do not know how to visit Cuba because it is complicated. Merna helps answer the questions and connects them to her guides on the island. Helping her Cuban friends to make money so they can support their family, but more importantly to help them feel connected and feel that their life matters.
Eventually one of the young professionals asked her to help him set up a travel group which evolved into “Tour Local Cuba” (https://www.tourlocalcuba.com/)
From Tulsa, OK, where she now lives, Merna answers questions for people in the United States wanting to travel to Cuba. She is preparing groups now for travel this winter.
If there is an interest, she would like to host a Hemingway/artist music and possible Mark Twain venue for January 2025.
“I have a shoutout to Mark Twain who was an anti- imperialist, who didn’t believe the U.S. should own Cuba. Mark Twain visited the island once in 1902 by yacht. He went to Santiago de Cuba, with a former US Representative.
“People often ask me, ‘why Cuba?’” They say it is a communist country. But, I don’t go as a tourist, I go as a teacher, as a mentor, for the people, not the government. By helping others become empowered, this empowers us and when we reach out to help others, we in turn will get a blessing too.”
“Over my lifetime of traveling, I have discovered that it fun to see new sights, but more fulfilling to build relationships along the way.” she said.