People often ask “What was it like?”. The stories below offer a few glimpses into our experiences in Cuba.
Early one morning during the first Cuba trip I was out photographing a vintage Chevy when I met Isabel. She is a cleaner at the National Ballet Theatre. We talked, I photographed her and she invited me into her humble home. On my second trip I brought her the photos. She was surprised and delighted and we had another good visit. I have since received a hand-printed letter from her.
-Mary Ellen Kaschub
The Laundry Artist
Hugo Laborde Sanchez was quietly selling paintings in the refurbished fort, El Morro, in Santiago de Cuba. I asked him about the picture of a woman with a laundry line sprouting from her head. He explained that the portrait was of his wife, also an artist, who cares for their child and does the housework but misses her painting time. He added that he paints to earn extra money on the weekends. During the week he is an architect who designs museums including the building we were in. I bought the picture and wrote a note to his wife, Isabel, commenting that I, also, enjoy my children and my laundry and I know that our painting time will come again. She later thanked me with a painted card that took two months to travel from Cuba to California.
While traveling through Cuba you can’t help but be charmed by the Cuban school children, so neat and clean in their uniforms. Whether they are playing or talking in groups on the plazas after school or walking in a line with their teachers they seem so bright and lively. I ran into this group of elementary school students at the Museo Emilio Bacardi in Santiago de Cuba. When they found out that I could speak a little Spanish they sat me down and enthusiastically began to recite what they had been learning. They described the life and history of Jose Marti, the hero behind Cuba’s independence from Spain, as well as a writer and poet (his poem, “White Rose”, was set to music in “Guantanamera”). Each one proudly recited a part of his life. When one boy had trouble remembering his part, they all unselfishly, and cleverly, helped him to remember it. In a country where even the basics of life are scarce, I found the Cubans’ pride in their history and culture remarkable.
I first met Regal in September 2010. I visited her and her husband, Tomas, at least once each day while in Trinidad. I photographed her, Tomas, her new born, Carolyn, and many of the people in her neighborhood. I returned to Trinidad in April 2011 with many of the photographs I had taken. I asked Regal to look at them and to tell me what she thought. She was silent while looking at the photographs. After a somewhat long pause she simply said, “John, you are family now”. Magically, the entire neighborhood opened up. By the time I departed, I had met, photographed and spent time with a dizzying number of parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends of relatives. When I return to Trinidad, I will need a steamer trunk to carry the photographs.
While in Trinidad, I was astonished by the warmth of people in Regal’s neighborhood. These two girls are the daughters of a relative of Regal’s husband. On the first day they were always hanging around, wanting to talk and have their picture taken. After taking a few shots, I found out why. They had spotted a roll of Carmelos in my photo bag. I spent three wonderful days in Trinidad, purchased nine rolls of Carmelos and made two friends for life — The Carmelo Twins.
The Baseball Player
The economic situation in Cuba often makes it difficult for people to obtain ordinary items that we all take for granted – clothing, toiletries, food staples, toys, etc. We were encouraged to take small ordinary items as gifts for people we would be visiting in our travels around Cuba. Among the items I brought was a baseball — I know for certain that Cubans love the game and I thought a baseball might be a welcome gift at some point.
I didn’t have to wait long. On our second day in Havana I encountered a group of kids playing baseball in a plaza. Several of the bigger boys had ball gloves, and they had a decent looking baseball bat. But they were playing baseball with an old tennis ball! Perfect — my baseball had found a home. I watched for awhile and saw that one of the kids was a pretty decent player. I finally approached him and said that he and his pals should be playing with a real baseball. The photograph I wish I could have taken was a picture of his face when I pulled the baseball out of my daypack. But the one I made of him posing with his new ball isn’t bad.
La Virgin de la Caridad (The Virgin of Charity)
The Catholic Church continues to be an ongoing entity in modern day Cuba. We visited the Virgin of Charity in El Cobre just outside of Santiago. The young priest conducted the Mass that was held in the church chapel. Mass was well attended by both young and old. Many of the parishioners brought sunflowers as offerings. I also had a chance to visit a church in Havana that is situated just across the street from the Museum of the Revolution (formerly the Presidential Palace) where I observed people at prayer.
I was really tired and ready to go back to the hotel after a full day of shooting street scenes in Trinidad . On the way back to our hotel I met Abuela (Grandma), a friend of our Casa de la Amistad host in Trinidad, who invited us into her home. She was very proud of her “limpia cocina” (clean kitchen) and she spoke to me at great length about it (in Spanish). I photographed her super clean kitchen and her family with her wedding picture in the background. We both exchanged smiles in gratitude.
Our travels took us to the old colonial town of Trinidad on the southern coast of Cuba. One night we were invited to a block party in a working class part of town. The event was sponsored by the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, and the local block leader welcomed us with a brief and — surprisingly — nonpolitical address. This was followed by a short program of the resident children singing songs, reciting poetry, and one young man demonstrating his considerable gymnastic talents. They then played music over the PA system and our group and the neighbors all danced together and had a grand time.
One member of our group had brought a small, shoe-box-size photo printer. With his printer and digital camera, he sat up an impromptu photo studio in the middle of the street and started making and printing photographs of the children. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the place went nuts; many of the kids had never had their pictures taken before. But the most emotional reaction came from the parents as they were able to see and hold a picture of their kids. I realized at some point that we weren’t just making photographs — we were making family heirlooms. This perfectly timed picture is typical of the reactions the photos evoked between the kids and their parents.
Where Are The Goods?
I never really thought about the day-to-day effect of the US embargo policy on Cuba until I walked the streets of Havana. It seemed there were no paint or building supplies to refurbish buildings, much less computers and business machines for students and businesses. The Cubans have resourcefully developed skills to cope. I met a machinist whose entire shop only fabricates new parts for the baking machines of the city. I watched mechanics rebuild Nissan engines for their 50’s American made cars, and I commiserated with a trained engineer who was reduced to repairing locks and making keys in his “open air” shop. He tiredly commented, “This has gone on just too long…, it’s really a waste, don’t you think?”
A Cuban Start Up
We were always peering into doorways in Cuba. Once, to our surprise, a group of women invited us in. They seemed festive and industrious. They explained that they were cleaning up the storefront in order to start their own business. It takes a long time to get permission to open a business in Cuba and they were proud of their endeavor. When asked what they would do, they replied that they would sell the many different kinds of forms that small businesses need to file with the Cuban government. We wished them well, took their group photo and went on our way.
On my last night in Havana, I walked down to the Malecón to watch the sunset. The severed head of a bird lying on the rocks below the seawall caught my eye and drew me down to photograph it. As I was photographing, a jolly person came up alongside me and wanted to converse. Determined not to let him break my concentration from capturing the light, which was changing quickly, I ignored him and kept photographing.
He continued to speak, and my limited Spanish only allowed me to catch the word “celebration”, which he kept repeating. Assuming he was referring to the sun, which was about to set behind me, I waved my hand to communicate that I was more captivated with what was currently in front of my lens. With a sense of urgency in his voice, he repeated the word “celebration” even louder. I pulled my eyes from the viewfinder of my camera to find him pointing behind me. As I turned around, I found myself a front row witness to a Santeria ritual celebration with the setting sun a backdrop for the animal sacrifice.
– Ron Herman