Gabriel Fontes '19 has built lasting connections in Cuba

Fontes spent his summer working with teens in Cuba as part of a collective that promotes Afro-Cuban history.

Gabriel Fontes with member of Club del EspendruPhoto/courtesy

From left: Roberto Zurbano, Magia Lopez, Alexey Rodriguez, Gabriel Fontes '19, and Tomás Fernandez Robaina.

While he was studying abroad in Cuba in 2017, Gabriel Fontes '19 met a group of thinkers and artists who belonged to a collective called El Club del Espendrú - translated to "The 'Fro Club" - that promotes Afro-Cuban history and identity in the Regla neighborhood of Havana through education and the arts.

"I liked their ethos and I wanted to find a way to help sustain their work," Fontes said.

He made that happen this past summer. Fontes secured a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to launch a summer program for the club. About 15 teenagers from Regla participated in the summer programs, which included lessons on Afro-Cuban history from accomplished scholars, music and visual arts programs led by Cuban hip-hop icons, and English lessons from Fontes, who plans to pursue a career as an English teacher.

The Davis Projects for Peace is an initiative for undergraduate students to design grassroots projects for the summer that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict. Because funding is limited to the summer, it was important to Fontes to use it to support people already doing work that was meaningful to him. The leaders of El Club Del Espendru include hip-hop artists Alexey Rodríguez and Magia López of the group Obsesión, University of Havana Professor Tomás Fernandez Robaina, writer and activist Roberto Zurbano, and Aracely Rodriguez Malagón, an activist and scholar of black feminism. Fontes worked with them to develop and implement the summer program.

"I wanted to facilitate the redistribution of wealth, and I wanted it to be more than a one-off thing," he said. "The whole purpose of this was to invest in people who are doing something that is sustainable."

Fontes, who double majored in English and African and African American Studies at Brandeis, became interested in Cuba during a class taught by associate professor Carina Ray on African history. He learned how Cuba supported the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola in 1975 that led to independence from Portugal. Angola’s independence struggle in turn toppled the fascist military dictatorship in Portugal. This struck a personal chord for him because he is Portuguese and his family suffered under fascism. It led him to study abroad in Cuba and visit the country twice while he was an undergraduate.

"Cuba, a country of little means, crippled by the US embargo, sent over 400,000 soldiers, doctors, teachers and other specialists to assist Angola in their freedom struggle,” he said. “That's almost 5 percent of the Cuban population. I was moved by this tremendous act of solidarity and wanted to learn more."

Fontes, who was a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow, received guidance on grant and fellowship opportunities from Elizabeth Rotolo, assistant director of Academic Fellowships and academic advisor for MLK fellows, and Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Elaine Wong.

"They were always pointing me toward opportunities," he said.

Since graduating from Brandeis in May, Fontes has continued to work with young people by becoming a coordinator at St. Stephen's Youth Programs in Boston through the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network fellowship, where he helps teenagers develop leadership skills through community organizing.

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