Illini Everywhere: Cuban Illini, Since 1908

Since at least 1908, Cuban students have been attending the University of Illinois. Early Cuban Illini have included actors, agriculturalists, civil engineers, economists, linguists, mechanical engineers, physicists, political scientists, serenaders, Spanish instructors, and transfer students too.

Read on to learn about early Cuban Illini!

Early Illinois Connections with Cuba

Before the first Cuban students came to town, Cuba was a regular topic of conversation on campus, as documented in campus life records. Student teams competed in intercollegiate debates which sometimes featured Cuban politics and at least one University President even wrote a book about the significance of Cuba’s independence.

The 1897 Student Debate Team

Before the Spanish-American War, the Cuban War of Independence was a topic of debate by many University students in annual competitive debates. On March 5, 1897, at an annual competitive campus debate, University students debated the outcome. Of particular interest to the students was Cuba’s future economic relationship with the United States. While some students proposed that Cuba join the United States, other students advocated for complete Cuban independence.

Administrators Writing About Cuba

In 1899, University President Andrew Sloan Draper wrote a book about Cuban independence, titled The Rescue of Cuba. (At least one Daily Illini article cited positive critical reviews.) As Mr. Draper explained in the preface to the second edition, he wrote:

to illustrate to American youth the spirit which led the American people to drive Spain from Cuba; as well as to give the war with Spain what the writer conceived to be its proper setting in the long and thrilling story of the progress of democracy in the world.

The 1902 Student Debate Team

In 1902, another competitive student debate took place, this time as part of an intercollegiate competition at the University of Indiana at Bloomington and Illinois students debated if the U.S. should annex Cuba. While the 1902 debate team advocated for Cuba’s inclusion into the United States, later University students would casually argue that the idea was unthinkable.

Alumni Working in Cuba

Following Cuban independence on May 20, 1902, multiple Illinois graduates found career opportunities in Cuba. From financiers to civil engineers, some early Illinois students followed career opportunities and traveled to recently independent Cuba.

Roland Ray Conklin (1880; M.L. 1891), of Urbana, Illinois, had a long career as a financier, across the United States and Cuba. He was also a published poet too. After graduation, Mr. Conklin co-founded the Jarvis-Conklin Mortgage and Trust Company in Kansas City, Missouri, before relocating to New York City. While in New York, following the 1893 economic depression, under Mr. Conklin the newly reorganized North American Trust Company was born. From there, the NATC succeeded in becoming the fiscal agent of the United States in Cuba. While in Cuba, Mr. Conklin was an administrator at several other organizations, including the National Bank of Cuba and the Central Cuba Sugar Company. [1] Indeed, Mr. Conklin may have been a significant foreign businessman in Cuba, considering later The Alumni quarterly magazine accounts of his life in New York: [2]

Roland R. Conklin’s address is No. 1 Wall Street, New York city. He seems to be enjoying his life in every way. [sic] He has been phenomenally successful financially, being the owner of two railroads, various telephone lines, and a 30,000-acre sugar plantation and sugar mill in in Cuba, besides his large interests in New York City. [sic] He has determined not to let another Home Coming take place without his attending.

Mr. Conklin was not the only Illini to find work in Cuba, and others would do the same for decades. The first student to work in Cuba might have been Mr. Charles Churchill Barnes (Chemistry, 1882), who worked as a sugar maker in Cuba in 1883. [3] Twenty years later, Mr. J. M. Farrin (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1902) was an engineer for bridges and buildings of the Cuba Railroad Company in Camaguey, Cuba, from 1903 until at least 1918. [4] And just three years later, Mr. John H. Frost (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1906) was an assistant engineer for the Cuba Railroad Company too, at San Luis, Cuba, from 1906 until 1907. [5] From 1907 until 1909, Mr. John Earl Shoemaker (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1903) completed water works construction in Camaguey too. [6] Mr. Albert Alexander Van Petten (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1907) worked in Puerto Rico from 1906 until 1915, when he became Chief Engineer at the Punta Alegre Sugar Company. [7] Mr. Van Petten spent the remainder of his career in Cuba as a sugar company executive.

Early Cuban Illini

Within ten years of independence, Cuban students were already coming to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many of the first Cuban Illini were from Santiago, and they studied either agriculture or civil engineering. The first Cuban student might have been Mr. Juan Portuondo y Miyares (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1912) who graduated two years ahead of his brother Mr. Antonio Portuondo y Miyares (B.S. Agriculture, 1914). Both men were active in the multicultural student organization Spanish Club, which included University students from other Spanish-speaking countries, like Mexico and Panama. Spanish Club events were often in Spanish; however, special events were available in English to cater to other language groups on campus. One such event was Mr. Juan Portuondo y Miyares’ eye-witness retelling of the Battle of Santiago. His talk even included a musical performance too.

Another Cuban Illini and civil engineer was Mr. Euripides Fajardo y Maymir (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1913) who wrote a thesis about water tower tank construction and design in nearby Danville, Illinois, and he was an active member of Spanish Club too. After graduation, Mr. Fajardo y Maymir returned to a successful carer in Cuba where he held administrative positions including Chief Engineer of Public Works for the Province of Oriente in 1917. [8]

Two years later, two more students came to campus. First, there was Mr. Julio Melchor Castro, who studied agriculture from 1913 until 1916, and by the end of the decade there was Mr. Antonio Rodriguez (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1918) who was an active member of Spanish Club, known for his acting skills and comedic delivery.

Student Editorials About 1930s Cuba

After World War I, increased public discussion of Cuban politics during and after Cuban President Gerrardo Machado are documented in the Daily Illini through articles and editorials. In late January, 1931, one unsigned editorial criticized the Cuban government. In late September 1933, another unsigned editorial criticized the role of the U.S. in the Cuban economy. By 1934, National Student League member Walter Relis visited campus during a tour to explain some native Cuban perspectives of U.S. involvement in the Cuban economy and political system. Another advertised campus talk about Cuban perspectives of the United States came in 1941, given by local graduate student J. B. Carruthers.

Early Cuban Women on Campus

The 1930s may have been when the first Cuban Illini women studied at the University, and Ms. Frances LaMora Kaar (B.A. Spanish, 1934) might have been the first Cuban woman to study at Illinois. Like other Cuban students, Ms. Kaar was active in Spanish Club and a frequent Spanish Club event actress too. In 1933, she performed in “La Vida Oscura“, written by Romance Languages Professor J. A. Balseiro. She gave at least one campus talk about Cuba, in 1933. Her role in the 1934 Spanish Club comedy performance “Puebla de las Mujeres” was positively review in the Daily Illini. Later performances included “Cada Una y Su Vida” in 1934, “La Casa de la Dicha“, “De Pequenas Cosas” in 1935, “La Siete de Marta“, and “Zaragueta” in 1937. After graduation, she relocated to California, where she continued her career in Spanish Language education.

Student Editorials about 1960s Cuba

The Daily Illini of the 1960s is rich in articles and student editorials about the Cuban government. In 1959, the Daily Illini printed a series of articles about Cuba, written by Commerce student Mr. Lewis “Lew” Collens. Mr. Collens, a member of the National Student Association, participated in a five-day-long Cuban trip at the invitation of the new Castro government for American students to learn about Cuban students and life in Cuba, reported the Daily Illini. Mr. Collens’ wrote multiple essays about the new Cuban government, including a graphic description of interrogation methods under the Batista government and an explanation of the central economic role of the new agrarian reforms. After the series ended, an editorial argued that critical analysis of Cuba must include a “realistic” not “idealistic” study of Fidel Castro too. In response, a Cuban student wrote an editorial criticizing the sweeping economic generalizations of the previous editorial.

In 1961, the DI ran a new article series written by unidentified Cuban students which criticized the new government. The students chose to not to disclose their names because while they wanted to discuss Cuba on campus while not alienating their family in Cuba, the Daily Illini reported. One article criticized the lack of elections and another article criticized the freedom of the press.

Faculty Research into Cuban Cultures

Faculty were interested in Cuba and Cubans too, of course. From 1969 until 1970, Anthropology Professor Dr. Oscar Lewis and his wife and research associate Ruth Lewis ethnographically studied community life in Cuba. The research and papers (Record Series 15/2/20) can be be accessed at the University Archives, as well as their many other projects too.

Cuban Student Organizations

During the early 1960s, Cuban students formed the student group “Association of Cuban Students” (sometimes known as “Cuban Student Club”) as a cultural resource for Cuban students and students interested in Cuban cultures. [9] Although not many records have been donated yet, we do know that the group existed from 1961 until at least 1965, according to the  Student and Faculty Organization Constitutions and Registration Cards (Record Series 41/2/41). However, with the exception of a few more enrolled students during the 1970s and 1980s, Cuban student enrollment may have ended concurrently with the student group in late 1960s.

For more than fifty years, many Cuban students came to the University of Illinois to study engineering, science, and Spanish. What these early Cuban Illini brought to campus was good will through the cultural exchange in Spanish Club and the Association of Cuban Students leadership, education and entertainment through many student events, and even some of their concerns found in their writings published in student publications.

Are you a Cuban Illini? Do you know someone who is? We’d like to hear from you! Please send us a message or leave a comment below. We want to include you and your story, as we celebrate the first 150 years of the University of Illinois.

Happy First 150 everyone!

[1] “Roland Ray Conklin”, The Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of the University of Illinois, Edited by Franklin W. Scott, page 23.

[2] The Alumni Quarterly of the University of Illinois, Volume VI, Number 1, January 1912, page 65. For a pre-Cuba, early career biography with reminisces of campus life and a portrait photograph, please see: “Sagamores of the Illini: IV – Roland Ray Conklin, ’80”, Volume VII, Number 4, October 1914. For Mr. Conklin’s stated interest and role in financing Lorado Taft’s Alma Mater, please see: “Mother of us all”, The Alumni Quarterly and Fortnightly Notes, Volume II, Number 7, December 15, 1916, page 132; or for a more general history, see “Presentation of a New Group Celebrate Class of ’72“, The Summer Illini, June 28, 1922, page 1.

[3] “Charles Churchill Barnes”, The Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of the University of Illinois, Edited by Franklin W. Scott, page 29.

[4] “James Moore Farrin”, page 161.

[5] “John Henry Frost”, page 250.

[6] “John Earl Shoemaker”, page 189.

[7] “Albert Alexander Van Petten”, page 296.

[8] “Euripides Fajardo Y Maymir”, page 490.

[9] Be sure to consult at least pages 64 to 66 of Mario T. Garcia’s Luis Leal: An Auto/biography for an interview about Latin American studies at the University of Illinois, the great Spanish Language library collection at the University, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and Cuban students studying at Illinois during the revolution.

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