“We need to fight for a better world,” said Jorge Olivera Castillo, a Cuban poet, journalist, musician, and guest speaker to start the first-ever Avonworth Week of LIGHT. Castillo shared his captivating story to an audience full of 10th, 11th, and 12th graders on Monday morning, telling the auditorium about his struggles in Cuban jail as a political prisoner, during which he served an astounding 2 years and 9 months of his 18-year sentence in solitary confinement. His only crime, he said, was speaking out against the Cuban government in an article he published.
Castillo has published six books of poetry and two short story collections, all of which have been banned in Cuba. His published works have already been translated into many other languages, and he has just recently finished another book of poetry and his third short story collection, both of which are based on his experiences as a soldier in the African Jungle during the Angolan Civil War.
The assembly was the first event of Avonworth’s first-ever Week of Light, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and their partners at the LIGHT Education Initiative. At Avonworth, 10th-grade social studies teacher Mrs. Long was the primary organizer of the week’s activities.
Castillo explained how after a decade of working in Cuban television, he became so frustrated with corruption in the government that he wrote a critical article. Soon after, he was arrested, moved swiftly through some version of a trial, and sent to the Cuban side of the Guantanamo Bay jail. Once in jail, he was moved into solitary confinement, which he described as filled with cockroaches, rotten food, and dirty water.
After Monday’s assembly, junior Jacob Kerr said, “It was pretty inspiring that he fought for what he believed in.”
Senior Peyton Bauer also found Castillo’s story powerful. “It’s amazing to hear about experiences from different places in the world and how they can impact how we live our lives.” Bauer found himself pondering a number of questions, including curiosity about the politics connected to Light week and wondering more about the exact details of President Obama’s impact in helping Castillo take advantage of the Harvard PEN position and leave Guantanamo prison. Overall, Bauer was glad to hear Castillo’s overall message of hope in response to Mrs. Long’s questions about what AHS students could learn from Castillo’s imprisonment.
Freshman Veronica Garcia and her brother, junior Lucas Garcia, used the question and answer session to a great degree, taking advantage of their own fluency in Spanish. Veronica first asked, “Muchos americanos tienen opiniones de Cuba que son falsas porque las noticias solo muestran lo malo. ¿Hay misconcepciones acerca de Cuba que tienen los americanos?” — “A lot of Americans have misconceptions of Cuba because the news here is biased. Are there any misconceptions that Americans have about Cuba?”
Lucas then asked, “Cuando nosotros visitamos Cuba, note que no veía mucha violencia o policía presente. Se podría decir que el crimen es más político que violento?” — “When we visited Cuba, I noticed that there weren’t many police or violence present. Would you be able to say the crime is more political than it is violent?”
Castillo resides here in Pittsburgh and is given assistance as well as protection by a local chapter of the City of Asylum program. This program began in Europe back in the 1990s after a growing incidence of attacks on writers forced many into hiding or exile, with little means of providing for themselves or sustaining such a taxing lifestyle. Initially, it was only European cities that had agreed to house some of these writers for one or two years, but it eventually spread to three locations in the U.S., two of which — Las Vegas and Ithaca — are sponsored by universities. Pittsburgh is the third location in the U.S., and the only one that isn’t sponsored by a university. Instead, it operates as a grassroots institution, supported by individuals and foundations. Their commitment, as described on their website here, is to “help the writer build a new home and a new life as part of a community.”