An enthusiastic crowd showed up early Sunday morning at Conard High School to welcome Team Cuba to West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford teens, their parents, and others from the local baseball community flocked to the parking lot of Conard High School at 6:30 a.m. on a cool and drizzly Sunday morning awaiting the arrival of a busload of Cuban teens making the last leg of their 36-hour journey from Holguin.
Although some travel delays added an hour to a trip that included several bus rides and two plane flights, neither the weather nor anything else dampened the excitement for the arrival of Team Cuba – a group of boys that many of the West Hartford teens now call friends after their visit to Holguin in April.
Reynaldo Cruz Diaz, a Cuban journalist who is serving as one of the translators, had flown to Miami and then arrived in West Hartford the previous night, so he was waiting along with the Americans for the rest of the group.
Cruz Diaz has spent considerable time studying American history, and although this is his first trip out of the country, he didn’t find Miami all that shocking. Although they weren’t Cubans, he said many of the people he saw there spoke Spanish.
The boys on the baseball team, who haven’t spent as much time learning about the U.S., will probably be much more surprised, he said. “They will be in a whole new universe. Some hadn’t even left their hometown before going to the embassy. They will be overwhelmed,” Cruz Diaz said.
He said that the trees, the sizes of the houses, what the houses look like in West Hartford are all vastly different. “In Cuba most of the houses are pure concrete. These wouldn’t survive in hurricanes,” he said, pointing to the single-story frame homes across the street from Conard.
The food will also surprise the teens, Cruz Diaz said. “I think they will be impressed that things are not simple,” he said.
Sunday morning’s cool weather might also feel different for the boys, Cruz Diaz said, although it’s sometimes cool and drizzly in Cuba, he said.
Cruz Diaz and Team Cuba member Reynier Walfrido Morales will stay with two different host families while in the U.S. – the Mallinsons and the Nemerguts.
“I reached out to Reynaldo to get an idea of what they like to eat for breakfast,” U.S. team parent Eric Mallinson said. He said the response was yogurt, fruit, Nutella on toast, and cheeses. “But we’re also prepared to give them some American breakfast foods like pancakes,” Mallinson said.
Mallinson got to know Cruz Diaz during the April trip, and said they have been able to keep in touch via email as well as Facebook messenger. Communication with Cruz Diaz, who as one of the team’s translators is fluent in English, isn’t a problem, but communicating with Reynier might be a bit more difficult. Mallinson said he downloaded a translation app to assist him, and will also rely on his son Dylan, a rising sophomore at Conard who has been studying Spanish for years.
“We’re thrilled to be able to share our home,” said Darnel Nemergut. “The opportunity to host is incredible. We look forward to seeing everything unfold,” she said.
Nemergut said she speaks “un poquito” Spanish, but her son Vincent, a rising sophomore at Conard, has studied the language for years and will be able to translate.
Cruz Diaz has a cellphone and is able to communicate with his family (including his wife, infant child, and parents) in Holguin. He said he will text them on a regular basis and then his family will keep the parents of the Cuban boys updated on the trip.
Colleen Brennan, sister of Tim Brennan who is the local program lead for the USA-Cuba Goodwill Program and an assistant coach for the West Hartford team, is a Spanish teacher in Glastonbury and also plays a translator role for the teams. She said she has been emailing the boys’ parents, and is also helping facilitate communication between the Cuban teens and their families.
Tim Brennan is looking forward to this second phase of the goodwill exchange. “We were absolutely delighted to be reunited with our friends from Cuba,” he said.
Tim Brennan said Team Cuba looked great when they arrived, even though they were exhausted from travel. After exchanging many hugs, the boys had a chance to shower in the Conard locker room and were treated to a hearty breakfast courtesy of Whole Foods before boarding a coach bus for Fenway Park where they were part of the opening ceremonies before the Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay game – a 4-0 victory for the Sox.
The public will have a chance to participate in some of the activities with the Cuban team, beginning with a U.S. vs. Cuba game and grand opening ceremony at the University of Hartford’s Fiondella Field on Monday, July 11, at 3 p.m., followed by the goodwill tour’s opening ceremony at 6 p.m.
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