On the first full-day of our ten-day visit to Cuba with Elizabeth Cerejido’s project, Dialogues in Cuban Art, Aylet Ojeda, a curator at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes stated to the group that Cuba is a surrealistic country. Hand on hip, index finger tracing the emphatic Cuban circle of truth in the air, Ojeda explained that Cuba is a surreal place because of its ethnic “ajiaco” (Black, European, Chinese, Jewish, Middle-Eastern and more). Because it’s an island whose unique geographical location situates it between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. Because decades after other Latin American countries had won independence, Cuba was still a Spanish colony (the last Spanish colony, in fact). Ms. Ojeda was flashy and coquettish in her high heels and mini dress. She scolded our photographer in a sing-songy tone (photography is not allowed in the museum), but she also spewed off facts, context, and insights with passion and intellect. I’d never witnessed a museum curator walk such a fine line between sassy flirt and erudite guide, but Ms. Ojeda pulled it off. Already we were having one of those “Only in Cuba” moments.
None of the seven participants – all Cuban-American visual artists with strong ties to Miami most of whom were visiting Cuba for the first time – needed convincing. The Kafkaesque contradictions began before we left the airport as we watched travellers lug twenty-pound bags of dog food and life-sized baby dolls onto conveyer belts to ship to Havana where most people still stand in line for basic food supplies. Once on board, we saw cargo workers removing boulder-sized, shrink-wrapped packages from the belly of the plane because we were “sobrepeso,” I began to wonder if this romanticized Cuban “surrealism” might just kill us all. Alas, we made it to Havana and almost immediately the participants, visual artists Manny Prieres, Marcos Valella, Leyden Rodríguez Casanova, Juana Valdés, Bert Rodríguez, Ruben Millares, and Antonia Wright began comparing the Cuba before their eyes with the one they had heard about their entire lives.
A couple of days into our trip, I asked each participant to give a word or phrase that describes the experience so far. Here’s what they said:
Confused. Intrigued. Trying to make sense of what I thought it would be and what it is.
La Habana es Cuba y Cuba es la Habana. Está cayendo más que pensaba. Translation: Havana is Cuba and Cuba is Havana. It’s falling apart even more than I expected.
Misconceptions. All the discourse of an entire lifetime is crumbling and being rebuilt. The picture that was painted for us [Cuban Americans] was one of cruelty, horror, and destruction. Not to say they were untrue, but it’s not the whole story. You end up finding a place that is third world, catering to tourism – not that different than lots of other places. A place of history, culture and beauty with real people just trying to live a decent life.
Familiar. It’s my first time here, but everything is so familiar to the culture I grew up with in my small family.
Encontrada. Everything that’s happening I’ve experienced, but watching them experience it resonates in new ways.
Magic. I wasn’t expecting Havana to be so gorgeous. The sea breeze comes in through every inch of the city.
Weird. The idea I had coming here and the one I’ll take with me – the relationship between these two – is weird. I think the Cuba I thought I was going to see existed twenty years ago.
In Miami, a simple joke can reveal the slant of light through which a first or second generation Cuban American views the island. If the person’s parents or grandparents came in the sixties, the joke goes something like this: “How many Cubans does it take to change a light bulb? One to screw in the bulb, and the other to say, ‘In Cuba the lightbulbs were better.’”
If the person’s relatives left in the 90’s, the joke might be told as follows: “How many Cubans does it take to change a lightbulb? None. There haven’t been lightbulbs since the USSR collapsed.” Because of their ages, I think most of the people in our group had heard more horror stories about Cuba’s Special Period than pre-revolutionary tales of wealth and prosperity, so the initial reaction was often one of surprise. Marcos Valello, for example, obsessively snapped photos of store windows dressed in Adidas and bags of M&M’s because, as he explained, his dad would never believe these items exist in Cuba. Early in the week, though, Marcos met family members who live in a cramped Central Havana apartment and try to survive on the equivalent of around $100 a month and whatever relatives from Miami can send. Later in the trip, he connected with yet another branch of family members who own a lucrative art gallery and live in a beautiful apartment above the gallery. In Cuba the lack of clean, functional public toilets with toilet paper made this apartment’s spotless, gleaming commode a stand out (best toilet ever!).
This trip gave me an inside look at the elite world of Cuban art. It also reaffirmed the state of poverty and repression I had witnessed on previous trips, but these are not two sides of the same coin. Wealth and poverty are a dichotomy within which a multitude of stories co-exist. I returned from Cuba more more suspicious of and resistant to the “two Cuba” binary that is so satisfying to those of us trying to understand Cuba and so inconsiderate to the human beings who live in Cuba. In the face of the binaries that bind us when we talk about Cuba – black-white, privileged-poor, pro-government/dissident, and so on – I propose what my friend, the poet, Maureen Seaton calls “the third way” or what I’m calling the third Cuba. The third Cuba is an escape hatch from forced juxtapositions. It insists on keen observation and resists definitive declarations. It looks at Cuba from multiple perspectives and it is unapologetically inconclusive.
One final thought on the number three: in an essay on Sor Juana de la Cruz, Octavio Paz calls the triangle “. . . a figure where the animal and the divine converge.” Isn’t that where we can most hope to see humanity emerge with its flawed and miraculous moments like the two women I saw sitting on the stoop of a once glorious building now crumbling in a state of disrepair. The women laughed and joked as the younger one clipped her elder’s chin whiskers in the late afternoon Havana light that bathes everything in translucence. The architecture of that one moment reveals the age-old dichotomy of the majestic Spanish Colonial beauty of pre-Revolutionary Cuba and the decay and squalor of present-day Cuba. It would be so easy to stop there, but what about the two women whose names we don’t know and whose stories we know nothing about?