Face of Defense: Airman Recalls His Early Life in Cuba
By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Wilson
U.S. Air Forces in Europe
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, Feb. 12, 2014 Poverty can be tragic, but sometimes there are greater injustices one must endure.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Lencys Esteban-Nunez plays saxophone during a rehearsal with The Ambassadors, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band jazz ensemble, Jan. 16, 2014, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Esteban-Nunez learned to play saxophone during his childhood in Cuba before moving to the United States and joining the Air Force. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A member of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band here knows that firsthand.
"Ever since I can remember, we were trying to get out of Cuba," Air Force Staff Sgt. Lencys Esteban-Nunez said. "It is one of the saddest things that happened there; it is not the poverty - there is poverty everywhere in the world. It is how you can get into somebody's head and sort of own their thoughts. That to me, even as a young man, was something I couldn't stand for."
Esteban-Nunez emigrated from Cuba to the United States with his mother when he was 15. Throughout his transition, one constant has –been part of his life: the saxophone.
The school system in Cuba, he explained, is similar to that of the Soviet or Chinese system, in that the government attempts to determine a career path for children in their early youth. After auditions, children who are accepted into a music program attend schools with an intense curriculum tailored to teach them their new craft.
"If you're a violin or a piano player, you have to start in third grade,” he said. “If in fourth grade you decided you want to play piano, it's too late -- no school is going to take you. For saxophone, it was fifth grade."
The staff sergeant said he fell in love with the saxophone at a very young age. The smooth curves of the instrument and the way every pearl-embossed button caught the light on a darkened stage attracted him immediately. The instrument's sound range from bright, wailing screams to the warm tones of a smoky jazz lounge spoke to him. He had to play this instrument, and play it better than anyone else.
But this decision didn't come witout sacrifice for the young student. Because public transit was so unreliable, Esteban-Nunez said, he often hitchhiked on everything from boats and horse-drawn carriages to bicycles and cars to get across town to school. But despite the obstacles, he added, he was successful with his studies.
"From ninth grade to 10th grade, that's when they draw the line and they say who is going to actually be a musician," he said. "That school year, for every saxophone player in Havana, there were four slots. Everybody else who plays saxophone wasn't going to continue with a saxophone education. I was one of the lucky four. I made it into the one slot in the National School of Arts."
Less than a year into his education there, Esteban-Nunez said, he and his mother emigrated.
"The simple part is that she got married and we moved, but it was quite complicated," he said. "There was a lot of paperwork that needed to be done, and there was a lot of money that needed to be paid to the state of Cuba."
Esteban-Nunez was close to the age for military service conscription. However, the Cuban government was known to draft men early if they were suspected of wanting to leave the country.
"They came to sign me up, [and] my grandma said I wasn't at home, even though I was," Esteban-Nunez recalled. "I was leaving the next week. I had everything in order and ready to go, and they came to put my name on the list. That was a close call. I almost didn't make it out."
Once he arrived in America, he started his new life in Denver. He brought more than enough credits with him from Cuba to graduate at an American high school, but he still didn't speak English. He completed school with his age group, concentrating on music and polishing his English for college.
"It was good that I did it, but it wasn't even close to where it needed to be," Esteban-Nunez said about his English. "When I got to college, I got my butt kicked. I had to do extra study hours in every class that was not music-related, because it was very, very hard." After studying jazz for a year at Loyola University in New Orleans, Esteban-Nunez decided to return to Denver and complete his bachelor's degree at the University of Denver.
Forced to think about how to make a living as a musician after graduation, Esteban-Nunez said, a military career was not his first thought.
"I couldn't picture the military and the arts," he said. "I just couldn't see them lining up. Also, my prejudices from where I came from -- the military where I lived and where I was growing up -- I never thought of them as artists or musicians or of them having a band."
But after doing a lot of research and talking to several Air Force Band musicians, Esteban-Nunez decided it was a good fit for him. He said he believes music plays an important role in opening the doors of communication, and that his Cuban background gives him special insight into how powerful music can be as a tool for the Air Force.
While performing with his band in Russia, Esteban-Nunez was able to see the difference music can make firsthand. Seeing similarities between the people of Cuba and Russia, he said, he could empathize.
"I know the only image they've had of the United States of America is whatever has been put on television by the government," he said. "Then here we come in the same uniform, get on stage, make them smile, make them clap, make them happy. Every perception they've had of what we stand for just hits a wall where the reality of what they are seeing is not the one they've been told."