Cuba Pictorial Essay, February – March, 2005
As part of the Cultural Connections piece of my Masters study, I visited my Mother’s homeland, Cuba, in late Winter, 2005. As I understood it, the Cultural Connections program helps one better understand one’s own heritage to understand other cultures better. The oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece did say Know Thyself and this logic resonated with me intellectually.
Without a great knowledge of Spanish, with the exception of a few choice vulgarites and the phrase: No pongan el cuño por favor, I made the trip to La Habana on February 21st. I had begun some email correspondence with Lidgia Isse, my cousin and she met me at Jose Marti International Airport not too long after my AeroCaribe flight arrived.
I have written about this in my daily journal, so for the daily blow-by-blow, that would be the better source. The pictures I took are listed here in the order in which they were scanned onto disc by the photo store.
Three Artists. This is, from left to right, a shot of Yaniel Rodriguez, his father and his brother Yelian. Lidgia and I were passing by the gallery representing Yelian’s work when I saw that they were having the opening. This shot is taken on a later date, when a group of Canadian tourists were visiting the gallery. Yaniel is a silversmith who makes some remarkable jewelry. Yelian’s work, displayed on the wall behind them, is best represented by the Mascaras Ancestrales series. The paintings, in simple black and white, and the ceramic masks, were the most powerful pieces of Yelian’s that he had on display. The inspiration for the series comes from Santeria, a syncretic religion which began in Cuba and Brazil from a combination of Yoruba and Catholicism.
Veronica y Paolo. This picture is of Veronica Perez Vega and me in front of La Hotel Inglaterra, where I would check email for $3.00 an hour. I met Veronica at the writing workshop held in Alamar. She writes essays and read one about the effect of violent video games on the development of children. Her father has lived in New York for many years and she has applied to leave Cuba and join him there. She does yoga, is into New Age music like Kitaro and accompanied me on an afternoon tour of La Habana Vieja near the end of my visit.
La Esquina Caliente. This is a shot of the men who gather at what is called: La Esquina Caliente or The Hot Corner. This is in the plaza of Parque Central in La Habana Vieja, across the street from La Hotel Inglaterra. They gather every day to argue, vociferously, about baseball. Baseball is the national sport of Cuba, after hitchhiking one tour guide joked. I tried to get a sense of whether they were talking about U.S. or more likely Cuban baseball, but they talked WAY too fast for me to get a handle. Knowing that my team, the Chicago White Sox had acquired two Cubans for the coming season, I had something to bring up, but never got into the conversations there.
Me & Fe. This picture is a shot of Lidgia’s mother Fe, who traveled from Holguin to Havana to meet me. We are pictured here in the front yard of Rafael, Lidgia’s partner. Fe is the daughter of my Grandmother’s sister, Aida Isolda, whom we called Charito. She left Cuba during the Mariel boatlift period in the mid 80’s and I met Charito in Miami. She had a wicked sense of humor and, politically, was to the right. She died a few years ago.
Sky from Varadero is a shot of the sky as seen from the beach at Varadero, a popular resort town and point of entry for many foreign tourists. The various shades of blue are not well represented through this photograph, but you get an idea. The clouds were moving in and it did rain that day, which was welcome by the locals who had been in a serious drought.
Origami Crocodile is a shot of a painting done by Adigio Benitez. He is the Grandfather of Yelian and Yaniel and I was fortunate to meet him and get an extensive tour of his work, all of which was displayed in private homes. I call it Origami Crocodile, but that is not the title, I am sure. This picture was taken in the home of Yelian’s Aunt, who has an extensive collection of Adigio’s work.
Varadero Baseball Fans. Pictured here are three people on the beach at Varadero. I took a tour bus to this resort town and when the bus stopped, we had two hours before lunch. I took off my sandals and walked down the beach. At one point I took a picture of the sky, as seen earlier. I walked to a spot where 12 men were playing a modified version of baseball. One man would bat using his hand, or a block of wood and a tennis ball. There were three bases, not four, two bases and home plate. I watched and the woman pictured here invited me in Spanish to come and play. I told her I just wanted to watch, but she insisted and I played, went two-for-three, scored two runs and made a catch in the field. (They wanted to test the new guy.) I went down on my knees to catch a line drive. It turns out these were sugar cane workers on their day off. They get six days on and three days off. At one point, crossing home, I was given a bottle to take a drink. I expected water, but got rum. AGUA! I said and they made sure I got water before too long. In talking with the man in the middle of the picture, he was surprised I was from Estados Unidos. He thought my Spanish was pretty good, but I think he meant my accent and not my vocabulary and comprehension. We talked about American baseball and he said he liked American music. As an example he cited Barry Manilow.
Yelian on Drum. This is the artist whose work was seen earlier. Yelian is pictured here playing drum in his apartment. I had a chance to visit with Yelian, watch him at work and have a small lunch. You can see that Yelian does not have two hands, but is able to be quite resourceful with his one hand and his right arm.
Matanzas. On the way to Varadero, we stopped in Matanzas, which is Spanish for Slaughter. The irony of this was not lost on me, so I had a piña colada con ron and a cigar. I thought the red flowers in this shot, with a view of the sea in the distance would be a good way of remembering that Cuba has its own Slaughter issues and contradiction, as does the town in which I live which was founded as Slaughter.
Yelian at Work. Yelian invited me to his apartment to talk and watch his process. Here he is painting part of what he gave to his girlfriend as a birthday gift. The day we visited was her birthday. I helped him a bit with his process and it was interesting to see his intuition at work.
Rafael y Lidgia. Pictured here are my gracious hosts. Rafael and Lidgia have been together for several years, though not married. They live in a very nice three bedroom home next to Rafael’s parents, Rafael y Nilda. Nilda’s ropa vieja was better than a version of it I ate in Miami at a restaurant. She also gave me mile (honey) they got from their garden. Rafael and I had many talks, some about politics. He supports the revolution and says it was good for the Marielitos to leave, as they won’t be happy in Miami either. He is not a fan of the government of the United States and given our policy toward Cuba, I can’t say I blame him. The need to control and Cuba’s willingness to experience severe hardship rather than kowtow to U.S. imperialism has been the recipe for the struggle of the last 40 plus years. In this struggle, and in the hospitality of Rafael, who had never met me and is not related to me, told me a lot about myself. Cubans are gracious hosts and very passionate about justice. They are willing to go through hell to achieve justice and are very proud people. I enjoyed my time with Rafael a great deal and he appreciated the one meal I made for Lidgia and him. Rafael and Lidgia both work in the tourism industry, Cuba’s largest employer. Lidgia is wearing her Cubatur shirt. You can barely make out Jesu Christo on the fridge between them.
Adigio & Me. This shot of Adigio Benitez and I in his home in front of a painting which displays the brilliant use of color in his work, as well as some of the regular themes he tends to juxtapose. The classical maidens one might find in Renaissance art are set amongst origami crocodiles with the artist asleep in the middle (between us) as if he is dreaming this up. Yelian introduced me to his grandfather and, inside Adigio’s home, I met Adigio and his wife, had coffee and was given a catalogue, a print and two cards, all autographed. It is this kind of hospitality that I have extended to artists who have come to Auburn that I never understood as a very Cuban trait. Yelian asked me to help arrange a tour for his grandfather in Canada and I have made some inquiries.
Another Bite Shot. This is another picture of the wound inflicted by Lassie the Killer Doberman.
Old Car in Havana Vieja. Here you can a sense of what Habana Vieja (Old Havana) looks like in the first of two old car shots I took. This was taken from inside the auto of Yaniel, a Russian-made Lada. Since the economic blockade imposed by the United States, car imports from the U.S. have stopped but many of the cars that were there before the blockade was imposed are kept running by the cunning of local mechanics.
The Five Heroes. This is a picture of a poster publicizing the plight of five Cuban men convicted of jeopardizing the security of the United States in a trial in federal court in Miami. The Cuban government, and the men in their own defense at the trial, says these people were only keeping watch on individuals known to have been involved in demolition of a commercial Cuban airplane in mid-flight on October 1976 where 73 people died and other acts hostile to the Cuban government. There are TV documentaries, posters, billboards and other messages all over Cuba regarding these five and the desire for justice. More details on the Cuban perspective on this case are available at: https://www.rcm.cu/patriotas/english/life/fernando.htm
Yelian with Masks. This is a picture of Yelian holding up one of the ceramic masks he made and displayed after the gallery opening which I attended. He chose to hold up the most gnarly of the masks, the one with the nails in it. A gallery employee, not pictured, holds up the other mask.
Editorial Cartoon 1. I have always been a fan of editorial cartoons. When I was young it helped me to understand the dynamics of the news and few American editorial cartoonists really have that bite I associated with the best of this art. Here, pictured outside the cigar factory in Pinar Del Rio is one such cartoon with the U.S. Constitution being trampled by Swastikas. It was interesting to see how the Constitution here is treated with admiration by the cartoonist, and only the policies of the current administration opposed.
Mascara Ancestrales. The first close up of one of the exceptional masks Yelian painted in simple black and white. This is what attracted me to Yelian’s work. This is a simple design yet radiates a powerful field for me.
Editorial Cartoon II. This is an even more wicked editorial cartoon that I could not help capturing. I went to Cuba to learn something of the Cuban culture, my own heritage and what makes me tick. It is this sense for the ironic, combined for a longing for what is just that makes this cartoon quite remarkable.
Esquina Caliente II. The second of two shots of men arguing about baseball in la Plaza de Parque Central, this one inspired the American Sentence written that day.
2.26.05 – Un Cubano bien peinado habla de beisbol escupiendo.
Pinar Del Rio. The tour bus on February 24 went to Pinar Del Rio. We were given a tour of a cigar factory, a cave before which guarapo (sugar cane juice) was served with rum if you preferred and a mural of Pre-History. It is believed that the entire part of this island was underwater and the mural attempts to tell that story. It is also said that the high iron content in the dirt is not only what gives it this red color, but is also the reason the tobacco grown here has such a unique taste. Going by smaller houses I thought that Pinar Del Rio would be a good place to hang out for a month at a time, or even retire. Later, my Mother told me that was the home of her Father Francisco Pino. I did enjoy being in the higher elevations.
Yet Another Mask. As you can see, I was quite impressed with this series. This one especially. I can’t say why. I think it looks as if it is smiling, but that also feels like a ruse once your mind ponders it. Had I the funds, I would have bought this.
Mural of Pre-History Explanation. This sign tells the story of the mural of pre-history. Apparently, a student of Diego Rivera, the acclaimed Mexicano muralist, was hired to create a tourist attraction on the eastern side of Cuba. Supervising several campesino farmers who had never touched a brush before, he oversaw the creation of the large mural painted on a Cliffside in Pinar Del Rio.
Lunch with Music. Lidgia here, looking at the band, barely visible in the distance. This was at lunchtime during the tour to Pinar Del Rio and the band was accompanying a calliope that was fed by cardboard as a player piano is. A Player-Calliope? The songs ended very quickly. I ate everything they dished out and regret the pork and chocolate pudding. I napped much of the way home on the bus.
Las Poetas. Here I am pictured with a few of the poets who I met at the workshop held in the gallery in Alamar. Veronica, Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez, myself, Osmel and Jose. Jose had a line in the first workshop about a rusting loneliness. Osmel gave me a couple of poems in Spanish, which I attempted to translate. I met Yusimi at the gallery opening where Yelian was exhibiting his work and he called her over to translate. Yusimi works for the weekly newspaper in Havana and teaches English. After the workshops they walked me to the bus stop, so I could catch the 400 to Guanabo. I let many buses pass as I read Gloria Gervitz’ poem Migrations. They were entranced and asked me to send them a copy. I gave them my copy and ordered another one when I got back to Seattle. Meeting poets was one of the things I wanted to do in Cuba and I have had some correspondence since then with Yusimi. One thing she told me that I was struck with was: In Cuba we are poor, but we are not beggars. We have a spiritual rhythm. This phrase found its way into the poem I wrote during my stay there.
Mural de la Prehistoria. As you can see the evolution of creatures in this region of Cuba went from – left to right – sea creatures, to dinosaurs, to larger dinosaurs, to naked communists.
Gallery Altar I. Inside the gallery, it would have been better to have turned the flash off, but my attempt at a self-portrait, ala Ginsberg, ended up getting the reflection of the flash in the mirror. Nonetheless, this is a shot of the altar at the gallery in Alamar where the two workshops were held on Saturday. Displayed at the gallery was an exhibition of erotic art, of which I took several pictures.
Fertility Ritual. I did not understand the beauty of this piece until Yusimi informed me that it was a documentation (or reenactment) of a Yoruba Fertility ritual. You can see the subject rolling the egg all over her body and I would have to agree, by the end of the ritual, she looks ready to begin the fertilization process. How Cubans are so open about their sexuality, ok maybe not homosexuality, but sex, was quite reassuring to me as I have that openness and that is not the way society in the U.S. operates. This sexual oppression made me feel as if there was something abnormal in me, but my visit to Cuba helped me to understand that the neurosis, if any, belongs to this side of the Florida Straits.
Heart Sex Heart. Another shot at the erotic art exhibit, this one (in my opinion) illustrates the beauty (and importance) of a heart-centered sexuality.
El Cuevo. You can see in the distance, below the giant finger, the boat ahead of us, outside the cave in which we were in at the time. This short ride is given after the gurapo cocktail.
Strawberry Anyone? This flash-addled shot of another piece at the erotic art exhibit reminds me of an Indian story about Coyote burying himself in dirt, and only exposing a part of him as young girls were approaching.
Another Altar Shot. This shot would have been with Yusimi and me in the mirror, but alas, the flash!
Spider I. This is a shot of the giant spider sculpture in La Habana Vieja, which I understand is no longer being displayed there. There were two such sculptures and I am fairly certain an American artist created them.
Las Poetas Afuera. Here, near the end of the last workshop, the poets are sitting outside, as I recall, because of the noise in the gallery. No poets anywhere can get a break! All we need is a quiet place to read and maybe have some coffee or tea, but no! Is that asking too much?
Old Church. I got to view La Habana Vieja from the top of the building that houses Lidgia’s office. I just wanted a view from the top and this church looked like a good center for the shot.
Erotic Art. Another piece from the erotic art exhibit, I thought this was quite remarkable, but also thought that might be my libido talking, but when Yusimi pointed it out as one of her favorites, I felt better. At least I think she is a heterosexual.
La Habana Vieja Negrita. This woman, and her similarly dressed dog, offers tourists a chance to take her picture, but if they don’t pay her first, she covers her face.
One Last Erotic Art Piece. Yes you ask for fish is one translation. I also liked the piece next to it. A late Indian friend likened mountains to breasts and since I could get both pieces in one shot, I captured them together.
Bookstore. Before going in to the store, I thought it was an all poetry bookstore, but it is not. I did get a book on Lorca’s visit to New York and Cuba and believe Lorca wrote the famous Duende essay for presentation in Havana. I also got a book entitled: Los Perros Los Orishas to get a sense of why I was attacked. It worked very well as a joke to Lidgia’s co-workers and others and cost .25¢.
Poetry Workshop. Here are the participants in the second workshop held on that day at the gallery. The workshop leader is on the left, then Jose, Veronica, Jorge Braulio Lopez – who facilitated the first workshop, a haiku workshop, and three women whose names I did not get. Although I was not able to understand much, it was clear to me that poetry workshops have the same dynamic wherever they are. The facilitator wanted to know what people were reading. There was a mumbler, one who has all abstract references (concepts), one who read too fast (even for other Cubans!) one guy who had a very good line and one bomb poet who turned out to be the crazy one. A schizophrenic.
Lidgia & The Spider. It almost looks as if the giant spider sculpture is going to attack Lidgia, but that was not my intent. In this shot you can see both spider sculptures that were displayed in La Habana Viaja during my Cuba visit.
Aves Des Rapiñas. Here, atop the house in which I was staying, is a shot of the sky with turkey vultures flying. These birds are all over the island and it was amazing to me to see raptors in the metro area, though I guess we still have red-tail hawks around here, so it shouldn’t have been too surprising.
’55 Bel Air. I had to get at least one shot of a cherry old car. This ’55 Bel Air turned out to be the one. Here it is parked amongst the small cabs that are numerous in la Habana Vieja. To the right is the plaza where La Esquina Caliente is located.
Rambo, Lassie & Blackie. Here are the three dogs safely behind bars where they stay when there is a gringo in the yard. Lassie no se gusta Gringos after the attack. Rambo is cool and Lassie is the one who attacks. Go figure! Chiquitita & their other dog, whose name escapes me, are not pictured. They don’t always have to be pent up. It got to the point where I could whistle from a block away and Lassie would recognize it and start barking.
Jose Marti Statue. You can give a camera to a tourist, but they won’t always have an aesthetic sense. I wanted Jose Marti in the shot, but I guess I did not communicate that properly to the German tourist who took the picture for me. ARGH!
More of the recognitions I had are to be read in the daily journal I kept. I’d also refer you to the Guanabo poem, which is ten pages long and written in a Spanglish influenced by Victor Hernandez Cruz and Adrian Castro, two open form writers. SPLAB! will be bringing Adrian Castro to Auburn in October 2005 for a workshop and a reading as part of our tenth anniversary and I’ll get another angle on Open Form at that time.
peN – June 2, 2005 3:22PM