Cuba Unit Study: Week 2

This week we will learn more about the history of Cuba, including digging deeper into the Spanish and African influence in Cuban culture. We will learn about the Cuban language and music that makes it unique among other island nations, and our lessons will include music and dance history as well as the history of baseball in Cuba. Finally, we will enjoy recipes and science lessons inspired by two fruitsplantains and mangos. This week, we encourage you to read the historical fiction chapter book Cuba in My Pocket as you work on the lessons. Start by downloading and printing your tracker here. Vamonos!

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Choose between one of these biographies: 

Optional chapter book:

Optional books:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

Note: We break down our supply list so you can choose what you need based on which lessons you plan to do with your child.

Tostones recipe:

Beach erosion STEM:

  • large container or sensory bin
  • sand
  • materials to build a retaining wall, such as: rocks, playdough, blocks, and/or crafting sticks

Gameschooling activity:

Dissect a flower activity:

Mango smoothie recipe:

Grow an avocado plant:

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Lesson 1:

In today’s activities, we will take a closer look at Cuba’s history including colonization.

Note to parents: This week will discuss some sad and difficult parts of history. We have published the article Why Historical Truth is Essential to help you navigate some of these difficult topics. 

Activity 1: Let’s continue learning about the history of Cuba. We’ll start our lesson with this Cuban history video. This episode will begin with the first Cuban people and then summarize colonization, the fight for independence, and bring us to the current government of Cuba.

Cuba was colonized by the Spanish with settlers arriving in the early 1500s. They built settlements and soon brought enslaved Africans to work in sugar plantations. The colonists enslaved or killed most of the indigenous people. They also brought deadly diseases like smallpox into the island. Life during colonial times was horrific for the enslaved. Many would run away into the mountains. Those who did not run away had short life spans because of the cruelty of the slave holders.

Wars fought by European nations (such as the Seven Years’ War from 1756–1763) brought the conflict to Cuba, and, for a short time, Cuba was governed by Britain. But later, it was again ruled by Spanish governance.  

The majority of those living in Cuba by the 1800s wanted to be free of foreign rule. One of Cuba’s famous freedom fighters was Jose Marti. Read his story in the book Marti’s Song for Freedom. After reading the story, read the “Afterword” to learn more about Marti’s life and the wars for independence fought in Cuba.

Activity 2: Cuba’s fight for independence began in 1868 with the 10 Years’ War led by Carlos de Cespedes. (Read a brief synopsis of his significance and the 10 Years’ War here.) The Cuban War of Independence was fought from 1895-1896 when Cubans once again revolted against Spain and fought for independence. The United States became involved in this war, siding with Cuba against Spain. Cuba broke free from Spain in 1902 but still struggled for independence because it next became a U.S. territory. For many years, the United States maintained control of Cuba. The U.S. was even written into the Cuban constitution as controllers of their finances. The U.S. also had a strong military presence in Cuba. For many decades, the U.S. interfered with the Cuban government and many Cubans continued to believe that foreign powers maintained too much control over their governance and economy. Once again, some Cubans fought for independence, and this time they called it a revolution.

Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Chuevara led the revolution against the Cuban government. Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement ousted Cuban president Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959 and ushered in a new government. Castro helped form a communist government that still exists today. But his story doesn’t start there. Read Who Was Fidel Castro? to learn the leader’s life story (you can also read it here on Or read the biography about Che Guevara, Who Was Che Guevara? After reading either of these two biographies, complete this biography template. 

Activity 3: Spain had a large influence on Cuba. Spanish settlers brought their food, their language, and their architecture to the island. Today, the castles and forts of Cuba still tell much of the history of Spain’s presence and influence. 

One such fort is the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro. Designed by Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli and built by slaves with rocks extracted from the moats in the last decades of the 16th century, the Morro Castle defended the town of San Cristobal de la Habana. However, due to economic problems and disagreements among Cuba’s governors and the designer, construction took 30 years and was not completed until the 17th century. This fortress was the main defensive construction in the Havana harbor until La Cabaña was completed in 1774. The fortress was also the site of several battles between Spain, Britain, and France. 

Along with a deep moat and two batteries, additional defense was originally provided by an ocean-side tower, replaced in 1844 by a lighthouse called the Faro del Morro. Now a symbol of Havana, it offers one of the finest views of the city, especially at sunset. Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro is one the symbols of Havana and one of the most visited places by both tourists and locals. It has been photographed and painted by many and has also appeared in several movies. Inside are several exhibitions, but the construction itself is worth a visit. (source) Read more about the fort and see pictures of it here.

Do you like building forts? Learn more about the history of forts and then get ideas on building your own with the help of the book A Kid’s Guide to Building Forts. Most of these fort building are for the outdoors so get outside if you can.

Lesson 2:

If you already did the Nigeria Unit, then you learned that many of the Nigerian people were enslaved and brought by force as laborers to the Caribbean (as well as other parts of North and South America.) About 1 million enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba, and with them came many customs that can still be seen in Cuban culture today. Our lesson today will examine some Cuban music, religion, and food that is intertwined with West African culture. (source)

Activity 1: Afro-Cuban music. By the 1840s, enslaved people constituted half of Cuba’s population, and they asserted their distinct cultural identities. The complex rhythms from their religious practices have become the heartbeat of Cuban popular music. Click this blog post and watch the embedded videos to see the progression in the music through the years. 

Here’s a summary: Much of Cuba’s music started with African-based religious music and then transitioned to rumba. Rumba consists of voice and percussion, including tumbadores, high-pitch conga drum, and palitos (sticks beaten against the body of one of the drums). The vocal parts involve a leader and chorus.

Next, Danzón evolved from European country dances, becoming Cuba’s own original dance music. It is played by orchestras (orquesta tipicas), which developed from military marching bands. The dances and orquestas were gradually influenced by African styles, becoming the habanera. Danzón orquestas also created an offshoot called charanga, which replaced brass instruments with violins, flute, double bass, and piano.

Finally came son cubanos. The sound of son is the predominant musical force in Cuba and a symbol of the island. Structurally, there are two parts: an opening verse followed by a montuno section in which the improvising singer is answered by a chorus. In the late 1920s, a trumpet was added and son cubanos began to swing. Son cubanos continued to evolve when musicians added congas and more trumpet and percussion. Then finally, horns were added. The styles then became known as guaracha, boleros, and mambo. All of the best-known contemporary Cuban bands and musicians have evolved from the son tradition. 

Mambo is one of Cuba’s signature sounds and can be heard in many other parts of the world now. Listen to this performance. It has also developed into a ballroom dance. Let’s learn a basic mambo step in this video. This dance lesson will require a partner, so grownup, let’s dance!!

Activity 2: The conga drum is a tall, narrow, single-headed drum from Cuba. Congas are staved like barrels. Read the book Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music. The book tells the story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke tradition and became a world famous female drummer. 

The conga drum has Afro-Cuban roots, specifically the Bantu-speaking Congo region. Around the time Cuban slavery ended in 1886, African drumming merged with Latin percussion and the conga drum was born. The conga’s Bantu predecessor was the makuta, a tall, barrel drum used in private religious ceremonies. The drum also has Nigerian roots in the bembé drum, a slightly smaller version of the conga that was traditionally used in festivals. The first conga drums were based on these traditional African drums and the famous conga style was introduced by the development of rumba music. During the 1930s, congas made a big impact on jazz music in the United States, leading to the origin of salsa music. In the 1950s, the drums were modernized to include lugs and screws that would allow the player to precisely change the pitch of the drum head. (source) Click here to learn more about this instrument and hear a sample. Watch the conga be played in this video.

Speaking of conga, have you ever seen or danced the conga? The conga or conga line dance became very popular in the United States during the ’30s and ’40s and still finds its way into many wedding celebrations across the country today. (Here’s what it looks like and how to do it!) It originated as a street dance in Cuba in the early 20th century. Its full history goes back much further, with the roots of enslaved Africans who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean. The dance also became associated with the Santeria religion and Easter traditions of the islands. Today, you will still see the conga line during carnival celebrations, especially in the eastern part of Cuba. (source)

Activity 3: Cuban food is a mix of Spanish, African, and Caribbean flavors. The cuisine has been heavily influenced by the Spanish, who ruled the island for centuries. African immigrants also brought their flavors to the table, and the Cuban palate has been further enriched by the island’s proximity to the Caribbean. All of these influences have resulted in a cuisine that is distinctly Cuban.

Many interesting food ingredients such as the Guinea chicken, malanga, and plantain came to Cuba when enslaved Africans were brought into the colony. This led to the introduction of many African influenced Cuban dishes like the fufú, funche, and tostones. Cubans also adopted the practice of eating rice with other foods. Rice gradually became a staple and began to be used as a common accompaniment to many other Cuban dishes as a direct influence of the arrival of enslaved Africans to Cuba’s ports. Plantains, too, were the result of this same event, and today, these starchy bananas are cooked as a snack and served as a traditional side dish in many Cuban dishes.

Let’s celebrate the amazing combination of Afro-Cuban cuisine by preparing this tostones recipe

Lesson 3:

Activity 1: Spanish is the main language spoken in Cuba. Eleven million native speakers speak Cuban Spanish, sometimes referred to as Cubano. Despite its isolation, the Cuban language has been influenced by the vibrant diversity of the population. The Spanish spoken by Cubans is a variation of Castilian Spanish. Today, Cuban Spanish and Haitian Creole are the two most widely spoken languages of this vibrant island nation. While it is considered a close cousin, Cubano does differ in some respects from the Castilian Spanish spoken in Spain. Some vocabulary inherited from communism, Creole slang, and a nasal accent and rhythmic intonation make the Cuban language sound unique compared to other Latin American variants of Spanish. The eclectic Cubano vocabulary is an example of the various cultural and historical influences on the island. While many Cuban words come from the Canary Islands, you’ll also find terms from West African, French, and even Andalusian or Galician. Despite decades of strained tensions between the two countries, the Cuban language also has words from American English. (source)

Let’s learn Cuban expressions and idioms in this video. Even if you speak Spanish, you will likely learn a few things!

Activity 2: There are many famous places to visit in Cuba. One popular place is the boardwalk, El Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, built in the early 1900s. El Malecón is a 5-mile-long boulevard that stretches along the water, with Havana Bay on one side and the edges of Old Havana, Vedado, and Central Havana on the other. If you were to visit, you would see flocks of Cubans watching the sunset, crowds of young people laughing and drinking, fishermen waiting for a catch, or even a small dance party. And sometimes, you may not see anybody at all. On particularly stormy days, waves crash up against El Malecón and much of the sea spills onto the roads, making for a great photo op. (source) Visit the site here on Google Earth.

The main purpose of building the Malecon was to protect Havana from the sea. It was built with steel reinforced concrete to keep the ocean currents from taking over the land. Coastal erosion is a term for the removal of beaches or dunes by waves, tidal currents, wave currents, or drainage. Waves, caused by storms and wind, cause coastal erosion. Softer areas become eroded much faster than harder ones. (source

Let’s conduct a beach erosion STEM experiment. Start by watching this video. Set up a large bin with sand and push the sand to one side and pour water on the other side of the bin just like the video. (Your child might enjoy also building a city on the sandy side of your beach out of Legos or Duplos.) Once students pour enough water, they can make gentle waves using a pencil (or a water bottle if you are using a large bin) as you see in this video. They will likely see the water encroaching onto the beach. Ask your student: What would happen if water levels rise? How can people protect the land from eroding into the ocean? 

Next, try different building options to separate the ocean from the coast, such as building a rock wall with rocks and playdough or building a boardwalk out of blocks. Next, pour more water and create more waves and see if your retaining wall has held up. Does your building need reinforcements? Will your city be protected from rising sea levels? How would it fare during a storm? These are the many concerns of a city built by the sea. 

Activity 3: When Fidel Castro’s communist government came to power in 1959, Cuba was declared an atheist state. In 1969, Castro abolished Christmas as an official (paid) holiday, the reason being that it had a negative impact on the country’s production of sugar. Cuba’s 30-year ban on Christmas came to an end in 1997, after Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the country. The period when Christmas was banned is locally referred to as Las Navidades Silenciadas (The Silent Christmases). Today, Cuba considers itself a “secular state” but allows for some religions to exist legally. 

One example of a religion practiced in Cuba is Santeria. Santeria is religion that developed among Cubans with West African heritage. Santeria features a mix of religious elements of the Yoruba people (an African tribe) with Roman Catholicism (which was introduced to Cuba by the Spanish conquistadors). Santeria rituals and ceremonies are held in temples known as casas de santos (houses of saints) and are led by priests and priestesses. (source)

Today, there is some religious freedom, but not as much as most would like. Religious liberties have increased in recent years, especially among the mainline churches. (source)

Most other freedoms are not guaranteed in Cuba. Civil rights such as freedom to protest, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, a free press, and due process do not exist for Cuba’s citizens. Because of this, there are many injustices experienced by the people.

Let’s take this opportunity to better understand our local governments laws. If you are a U.S. citizen, you are protected by the First Amendment. Watch this video (+) or this video to learn the basics of what this means. Canadians, you are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Watch this video to learn about the Charter.

(+) Review this lesson plan before starting it. This lesson plan encourages students to examine their own assumptions about what freedom of speech really means, as well as to deepen their understanding of the current accepted interpretation of speech rights under the First Amendment. The lesson should reinforce the robustness of the First Amendment protections of speech. This is a higher level activity, so for this age range we suggest focusing on Warm Up and this printout and forming conversations around freedoms being guaranteed within certain limits. If your child wants to continue examining and understanding the First Amendment, we suggest Activity 2.

Canadians might enjoy these books to expand on this topic.

Lesson 4:

Time for some Cuban sports and other amusements!

Activity 1: The most popular sport in Cuba is baseball! In the late 1800s, Cubans became the “apostles of baseball,” spreading the game across the Caribbean. The first Cubans to learn the game were children of the Cuban elite sent to study in the United States during the 1860s. They returned home with baseball equipment, knowledge of how to play the game, and enthusiasm for sharing what they acquired. This generation spread baseball across the island, teaching others how to play and forming baseball clubs that became the foundation for baseball’s central place in Cuban national identity and culture. (source)

In a few years, the sport was widespread all over the country. The Spanish colonizers inadvertently fueled baseball’s popularity by banning it in 1869 after the first Independence War started. The Hispanic rulers were concerned that Cubans preferred baseball over bullfights, which felt to them like an affront to their culture. As a result, it became not only a clandestine pastime but also a symbol of rebellion to the Cuban people. It is said that some freedom fighters even used baseball games to deliver messages or to plot against the Spanish government. (source)

In 1960, after outlawing professional sports in the country, the revolutionary government inaugurated the Cuban Baseball Series, made up of amateur leagues instead of professional ones. This competition turned into the most important and popular in the country, though it changed in structure and organization from time to time. (source)

At times players who wanted to play professionally have defected to countries like Mexico and the United States. There are others who became famous baseball players. One of the most famous of these players was José Canseco Capas Jr, who played in the U.S. in Major League Baseball. Jose was born in Havana but left at the age of 1, in 1965, when his family was permitted to leave the island. Jose got his first opportunity to play at the minor league level in 1982 with the Oakland Athletics, playing for them for 3 years before then going pro with the same club. After seven years with the Oakland Athletics, Jose then moved to the Texas Rangers, where he spent another 3 years before then heading to the Boston Red Sox and then back to Oakland before retiring.

Are you familiar with the rules of the game of baseball? Watch this video to learn the basic rules of the game. Now that you have learned the rules (or reviewed them if you already knew them), let’s write them down. This type of writing is called instructional writing. Learn about instructional writing in this video. Once you write your first draft, find someone in your family to read it. If they are confused by your rules or have questions about the game, you might have to make edits to your written work. Complete your final draft.

Optional reading: If baseball is your favorite game, you might enjoy reading the book Baseball Around the World: How the World Plays the Game. 

Activity 2: Cuba and dominoes go hand in hand, an it’s a favorite pastime of many Cubans. So what makes Cuban dominoes special? Dominoes was created in the early 13th century in China’s Song dynasty, later brought to the Americas by the Europeans, and is now considered a classic and universal game in Cuba, played by all generations, genders, and classes. Cuban dominoes rules distinguish it from other countries mainly because of the extensive slang used by players during gameplay. Cuban dominoes are a daily social event that combines competition with camaraderie. While walking through the streets, it’s common to hear the click-clack of dominoes and boisterous arguing or laughing. (source)

Learn the rules of the game by reading this blog post . Next, enjoy a game of dominos!

Let’s do a math detour inspired by dominos. Watch this video lesson to learn how to compare fractions. (This video will get more advanced as it goes on by also teaching how to convert fractions into decimals. Feel free to pause the video before this part of the lesson since we won’t be practicing this skill today.) Practice comparing fractions with this dominos-inspired math printable

Activity 3: Cubilete is an old and very traditional game in Cuba that is second in popularity only to Cuban dominoes. Everyone plays it, from young school children to old grandmothers. Similar cubilete games are played in other Latin American countries, but the rules vary all over the map, with many cultures playing a version that is very much like the card game poker. The Cuban game however is unique. Click here to learn how to play. Next, play the game!

Playing cards or dice is so much fun, but did you know that math plays an important role in the game? Probability is an important math principle you should probably know about if you enjoy playing games. Watch this video to learn about probability. Now that you know the probability of getting aces, does it make the game more fun?

Lesson 5:

For our food lesson this week, we’ll learn some fruit science!

Activity 1: What is the difference between fruits and vegetables? Even though we might think of fruit as a sweet food and vegetables as savory or sometimes bitter food, you probably already know that the difference between the two have more to do with how they grow. Let’s watch this video to learn how to distinguish the two food groups. Review the pictures and information in the book Trees, Leave, Flowers and Seeds pages 142-149 to see the large variety of fruit that exists.

But just how does a fruit develop? It starts with a seed. Read the book What’s Inside a Flower or Trees, Leave, Flowers and Seeds pages 64-65 to learn more. (If you have been with us for a while, you have probably read What’s Inside a Flower before. Today’s lesson should add to your child’s previous knowledge of plant reproduction. Focus on the pages about flower reproduction and female and male flower parts and how fruit develops from flowers.) Or read this article detailing the life cycle of a plant. It will provide more information about how a seed develops into a plant, then a flower, and finally a fruit.

Next, dissect a flower. Now that you have learned so much about the inside of a flower, dissect a lily to identify all its parts including the pistil (including the stigma, style, ovule, and ovary) and the stamen (including the anther and filament). Use Rachel Isnotofsky’s free downloads to easily identify all the parts. Dissect the flower on plain paper or a cutting board to be sure to catch any small parts and label what you find.

Activity 2: Cuba is a tropical island and it is filled with fruit bearing trees. The primary fruit produced in Cuba is the banana, but you will also find mango, papaya (called frutabomba), coconut, pineapple, avocado, limes, lemons, and mamey. (source) Cubans love mamey, so it’s not surprising to discover that the national fruit of Cuba is mamey. Visit this website to see all the fruits listed above. Even though you are probably familiar with them, you will notice that the Cuban versions may look a little different than what you have in your area.

Next, read the book A Song of Frutas. This story not only introduces us to many fruits but also the culture of food on the island. One of our favorite ways to enjoy tropical fruit is in a smoothie. Prepare and enjoy this traditional mango smoothie recipe!

Activity 3: Avocados are another example of a fruit that is very popular in Cuba. There are dozens of varieties, and they are enjoyed in everything from salads to shakes. Read more about avocados in the Kindle book A Kid’s Book About…Avocados!. Next, let’s grow an avocado! This fun STEM experiment will take some time but it will be exciting to watch an avocado pit grow into a full plant. Who knows? Maybe you’ll grow an avocado tree in your house!

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.