It took me over nine months to develop the eight rolls of film I shot during my virst visit to Cuba. Revisiting fading memories with the sharp detail of a developed photo was a reminder of the depth of culture, personality, and ingenuity I experienced in my time there.
Like many US born US citizens, I never imagined I'd actually ever be able to visit Cuba. My first trip to the island was both a blessing and a surprise, and when I say surprise, I mean it - I had only a couple day's notice when I was presented with an opportunity to serve as a director of photography for a developing research project. I did minimal research while preparing flights and sorting travel arrangements. I *literally* (don't judge me) said to myself before my flight took off mid- work email, "Oh, I'm sure there'll be some sort of internet cafe where I can finish this and look up some more hotel options." It’s not a moment I'm proud of, but we're being honest here, right? The second time I visited, I had a better sense of what to expect, but I ran out of cash in a place where you actually can👏🏾not👏🏾 get additional US dollars. Read on.
Landing in José Martí International Airport is dramatic. Let me explain. It's actually a pretty chill airport in contrast to what I was expecting upon landing in a place that until that moment seemed mythical and impossible to reach. The drama was more in the attitude of the space and swag of its people. Upon landing you are greeted with bright red terminal walls that seem to hum beneath dim yellow lights and the mostly female airport personnel are dressed in tightly fitting grey-green uniforms complete with a big attitude and to-the-point quips. They are at once authoritative and bored, wielding an air of sass and aloofness that lets you know, right away, they play no games.
Much like the women I encountered in my time in Brazil, the women of Cuba are a force to be reckoned with. They walk with a distinct brand of confidence that says “don’t mess with me, come correct.” Point in case: this woman on the bus minding her business unconcerned about anything else; a simultaneously affirming and intimidating energy to be around. We did not connect with any young women in Cuba- not for lack of effort, but lack of opportunity. Women were just too busy living their lives to be making tourist friends.
As a pair of Spanish-speaking, visibly black, young Afro Latina American women traveling alone, where we came from and what we looked like colored much of our experience in Havana. At times, it worked against us but mostly it worked in favor of our needs. We interacted mostly with men and it worked to our advantage. The cat calling is outrageous, but we never felt like our physical safety was at risk.
We were constantly asked where we were from and instead of saying America, we began to say Panama, or Puerto Rico or Honduras (where our parents are from) and immediately noticed the shift in attitude towards us. Hour internet access suddenly extended to two hours without extra charge. Folks told us where the locals ate and we listened. Conversations eased up immediately and we got to the truth of their thoughts and opinion with little prying. My sister used her gift of gab and we instantly went from being perceived as snobby, non-relatable Americans to a pair of Latina hermanas. We used our Puerto Rican Spanish when it made sense and spoke English when it was convenient. This code switching is a privilege, and also a skill learned to use over the years.
To be succinct: there is a general feeling in Cuba (and in most the world) that American tourists are tone deaf, arrogant, entitled and above all rich. Most Cubans we met found it hard to believe Americans could truly be broke. The perception is that if you have money to travel to Cuba then you have some sort of disposable income, which is true (and certainly the average American makes more money than the average Cuban) but ratio of income to cost of living in each place must be taken into consideration.
With limited access to international TV or news beyond hearsay, there seems to not be a general Cuban understanding of how much student loan debt, systematic racism, oppression, employment discrimination and cost of basic living effect lower middle class Americans. On the flip side, many Americans have no idea what a day in the life of an average Cuban looks like and don't think to research it. Therein lies the sheer value of cultural exchange; to witness and understand for oneself through the perspective of another. I learned more from a few random conversations late night over a shared bottle Havana Club than any professor could teach me in a classroom. If you are unable to travel at the moment and would like an up-to-date non filtered perspective of a Cuban living in Cuba, read and support Yoani Sánchez 's blog, Generación Y.
I write this with a keen awareness of my privilege of owning a working American passport and having the ability to travel wherever I choose. I am haunted by the ache in my Cuban friend’s voice as he walked me to the airport for my flight back to the US. He looked up at the sky, a departing plane’s roaring engine booming above us, and yelled at no one, at everyone, “Oh what I’d give to get on one of those planes and see the world.” He is a Cuban artist who has traveled to Brazil and tasted the richness of cultural immersion and yearns for more opportunities to do so. It's not lost on me that though many of the people in these photos desire the freedom and capacity to travel (some do not), they may never get that chance. I also know that sharing personal experience and exchanging stories with people who don't look or live like you raises collective consciousness and fosters understanding and potential for positive change.
Video of National Cuban TV
I am an afrolatina woman who was professionally trained in the arts in the USA. In all my education, I have never seen a black principle ballerina dancing in a national production that was not in parody, but rather in celebration. Sure, there's Misty Copeland and Alvin Ailey, anomalies I both love and deeply appreciate but simply was not raised seeing on television or taught about in classrooms. It took me all but a couple days in Cuba to see just that.
I was flipping aimlessly through a handful of local channels sifting through static, and suddenly there she was, gliding across the screen in an ensemble of pastels and ruffles: a gorgeous black woman in a Victorian dress radiating sunshine and goodness on screen for all of Cuba to see. My heart soared. This simple affirmation of black beauty in the arts combined with the ways I saw Cubans of all colors mingling and loving one another was enough to convince me racism in Cuba was different from the racism I've seen in the USA.
That is, until we met Evan who was quick to dismantle my optimism. We met randomly, as one does in Cuba, after dancing or grabbing a bite to eat or waiting for the let out when a casual conversation strikes up and suddenly you and ya crew are walking and talking, drinks in hand to El Malecon with said new acquaintance. Evan was a tall, slender, chocolate-skinned tour guide with shock white teeth and beautiful wavy black hair slicked back in a low ponytail. He looked about 23 years old and turned out to be in his mid 30’s - with kids. Say it with me - black👏🏾dont👏🏾crack👏🏾.
We eventually came to that part of the conversation where I asked what his experience as a black Cuban looked like on a day to day basis. He didn't hesitate to explain that colorism was alive and well in Cuba. Whether it was his non black boss giving him the least desirable hours of work and blatantly paying more money to less experienced white Cubans, or tourists refusing to do business with him because they feared he lacked ability, he had to work twice as hard to get equal opportunity and pay as a white Cuban man. It was a surprise to hear, but then again, it was no surprise at all.
So remember the part where I mentioned I damn near ran out of cash? Well, here's what happened next: rather than spend a majority of our remaining cash on room rental, we rented an airbnb via debit card - not the best option for the homeowner after card transaction fees and government cuts, but our only option considering our predicament. We settled on Casa Lolita, a wonderful room for rent in the Santos Suárez neighborhood just north of Havana Vieja, for a much appreciated change of pace from the hustle n bustle of the capital.
The owner of our airbnb was a biologist named Lolita. Being the children of an immigrant mother who teaches ESOL, we've always been made aware of the ways education can be devalued in political states or in the process of migrating to a new country: "You see that person working at the (insert any minimum wage job) they probably have a degree as an engineer/neurologist/doctor/lawyer in their country and is just doing whats needed to get by in this country." Though I heard this time and time again as a child, I was still taken aback by the details of our conversation with Lolita.
She is the kind of woman who will wait up for you at night and make sure you have a backup cab called for the airport just in case your first cab decides to not show. The kind who will give you her last piece of bread and ask if you're full. We stayed up many-a-night chatting about her life and it gave us major insight into what life in Cuba looked like for some. Not until you are faced with the day to day of managing a system of two different currencies, deciding between a cab ride and a shared meal, and witnessing the financial restrictions many Cubans endure, does the reality of life in a communist society set in.
She explained that airbnb was a new concept for her. Due to the lack of jobs in Cuba, she'd been unemployed for years and decided to rent her childhood home for much needed extra cash. Radical Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez describes the conditions of such an economic state in her biography: "It was a time (which continues today) when engineers preferred to drive a taxi, teachers would do almost anything to get a job at the desk of a hotel, and at store counters you could find a neurosurgeon or nuclear physicist." Lolita described with great love her time in Spain as a young biologist in training. She emphasized how room situations, just like the one she was now offering, was the only way she survived living in a new country with little income. By choosing to be a beacon of light for travelers on a budget, many of whom were in our situation- at the last leg of their trip and low on cash, she chose to bless others in the midst of her own struggle, and I am so grateful.
It was in her house that we got a sense of daily life in Santos Suárez. We made the bus our primary transportation rather than taxi, we split our beers, plotted our days strategically and budgeted for everything. We ate in local cafeterias watching the ebb and flow of foot traffic and navigated the sweltering heat with ice cold drinks and paced steps. Though we are native Spanish speakers, we spoke Spanish like never before and dared to commune with complete strangers, live like tomorrow was not promised and let the day lead us. We asked questions about the realities of being Cuban, we took notes, we shared, we laughed, we took chances and made friends.
MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
I make it my business to investigate how people live with purpose everywhere I go. If there is any place where I've seen people finesse the art of making something from nothing and excavating purpose in all, its Cuba.
This cup of coffee was Lolita's love language. She had very little in her fridge, and despite our objections, she insisted on making a cup of coffee for us each morning with the few crackers she had left. She adapted her breakfast menu to fit our budget and made us feel at home in the middle of a completely new country. She made something from nothing on the most ordinary of days.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Cubans maintain their belongings with as much care as possible because there is no other alternative. You take care of your 1950 Ford Fairlane because that car is your prime source of income. When the steering wheel breaks, you slap some packing tape on it and keep it moving because ya monthly salary average of $25 ain't gon' last long and you got extra money to make.
You pair the stale crackers crackers with a mango from the back yard to feed the guests. You ask your cousin to use a small bit of his storefront to set up an impromptu barber shop. You sell muddied grapes on the beach to tourists for way too high prices. You shine found shoes. You save a lil change, you drink your rum, you get through the day and you enjoy what you can.
I left Cuba more inspired to be generous, inventive and aware of my function in the world. If you visit Cuba, I highly recommend you give your patronage to the below establishments to support their business. Please know that even with the support of tourist dollars, a large percentage of their income still goes to the Cuban government
A portrait of Silvia standing in front of her cafe in Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana, Cuba
La Juliana - Think Pollo Tropical, but BETTER. Order the jámon y queso and french fries.
Heladoro - Very tasty home made ice cream in Havana Vieja.
Cafe Silvia - You won't find this on trip advisor, but ask anyone in Sánto Suarez and they'll know where it is.