Libertyville High School orchestra headed to Cuba
Seizing an opportunity that's impossible for most Americans, members of Libertyville High School's orchestra will perform in Cuba during spring break.
It's the orchestra's first trip to the island nation, which is off-limits to Americans under most circumstances because of an economic embargo in place since the Kennedy administration.
"I'm incredibly excited and intrigued by the idea of a country we aren't allowed to enter," violinist Alex Kratcoski, a 16-year-old sophomore, said in an email.
Twenty-eight teens, 14 parent chaperones and orchestra director Jeremy Marino will make the trip. They're set to arrive this afternoon and will be in Cuba until Sunday, March 31.
American travel to Cuba has been restricted since 1960, after the rise of the communist regime there. American companies generally are prevented from doing business with Cuba, too.
The Libertyville High students were able to make the trip because school trips and cultural exchanges are considered exemptions, Marino explained.
Marino has wanted to take his students to Cuba for a decade, but he said it wasn't a political reality until recently. He was inspired to set up the trip after reading about a group of violin makers who went to Cuba in 2000 and brought string instruments to donate.
"I felt that this kind of musical humanitarian trip would be just the type of experience I would want my kids to have," Marino said in an email. "(It offers) exposure to a different culture, interesting historical ties to our country (and) wonderful opportunities for musical exchanges with young people from Cuba."
Planning began in December 2011. Once the school board approved the trip and an itinerary was set, a travel agent sought approval from the U.S. Treasury Department for the students to go as an educational exchange group, Marino said. Visas from the Cuban government eventually followed.
The orchestra and their escorts will jet from Chicago to Tampa, Fla., for a layover. From there, they'll fly to Havana on a carrier that is allowed to travel to Cuba, Marino said.
The group will visit cities including Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and Santa Clara.
Performances with Cuban students are on the schedule. Like the violinists who inspired the trip, the students plan to donate musical instruments, sheet music and equipment.
The orchestra will perform a wide variety of music, including selections from "West Side Story," a musical partially about Puerto Rican immigrants in America.
"I think it's really cool that we get to share our type of music with them," said cellist Michelle Sweeney, a 17-year-old junior.
The teens have been rehearsing classical pieces and traditional Cuban music for the trip, too.
But the journey isn't all about music.
A friendly baseball game with Cuban youths in Havana is planned, for example. The orchestra members will bring baseball and softball equipment to donate.
"I'm actually really excited about that, because baseball is a big thing in Cuba," Sweeney said.
A bike ride through Havana, swimming at the historic Bay of Pigs -- site of the failed 1961 invasion -- and a trip to Topes de Collantes nature park are in the works, too.
The students also will visit the mausoleum for Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a chief figure of the Cuban revolution who was killed during a 1967 uprising in Bolivia.
Some parents were against the trip when Marino first proposed it because of the nation's political stance, violinist Megan Harder said.
Harder said her own folks didn't take much convincing.
"They're pretty open-minded," the 17-year-old junior said.
Marino isn't concerned about possible criticism stemming from the visits to those sites.
"They are historical sites, not ideological sites," he said.
"I have tried my best over the past two months to educate the kids about the various facets of Cuba and its history," Marino continued. "Most importantly, I have tried to explain that whatever conflicts exist between our governments, the people are very similar to us in that they are mainly just trying to get by in life."
Libertyville High's orchestra program is no stranger to international travel. It toured Peru in 2011, Greece in 2009, Brazil in 2007, Italy in 2005, central Europe in 2003 and China in 2001.
The students know the Cuban trip is special.
"This probably won't ever happen again," Sweeney said.