One of the simplest pleasures for the foreign traveler is to see smiling children in school uniforms so colorful that they reminded novelist James Michener of “a meadow of flowers. Well nourished, well shod and clothed, they were the permanent face of the land.” And well behaved, too!
Children are treated with as much indulgence by the state as by family members. The government has made magnificent strides to improve the lot of poor children—though, to be sure, many are still so poor they go without shoes. And it teaches youngsters magnificent values. Children are sworn in at the age of six to become Pioneros—Communist Pioneers—where they learn the virtues of public service doing duty, such as collecting litter.
After high school has ended, all Cuban males must perform two years of military service while most girls serve two years as trabajadores sociales doing social work.
Youth are served by their own newspapers, such as Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth).
More than 65 percent of the Cuban population was born after the Revolution. Where their parents use “we,” Cuba’s youth use “I”—I want to do so and so. The majority are bored by the constant calls for greater sacrifice. They want to enjoy life like kids the world over, and in much the same way.
A worrisome number of students are dropping out of class or playing truant. Many youths realize they can get further on their own and are going into business for themselves as cuenta propistas (freelancers), making a buck driving taxis, while their sisters turn to dating foreign tourists. In recent studies to ascertain high school students’ goals, almost every student stated a desire to work as a cuenta propista or with tourists.
The government worries that the increased association with foreign tourists helps foster nonconformism, such as the growing number of rap fans, Rastafarians, and long-haired youths—roqueros and frikis—who sport ripped jeans and would look at home at a Metallica concert.
Cuban youth are expressing their individuality—they want to be themselves, which today means showing a marked preference for anything North American, especially in clothing. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a guayabera, the traditional tropical shirt favored by older men (and considered a sure sign of someone who works for the government). Young women dress in the latest fashion—tight jeans, halter tops, mini-skirts, short shorts. Young men follow suit, though more conservatively, as well as their budgets allow. A cell phone is de rigueur for those with the means to afford one.