For the last week in May, lapping over into June, our Roadscholar group of twenty-two was introduced to arts, music and dancing of Cuba. Or more important, the Cuban people who perform it. Our visit coincided with their Biennial (they say, “bee-en-ally”) Art Festival, so art was showing up everywhere along the public walkways and plazas.
Our first official outing took us to the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana where the gorgeous Danelle gave us a tour of the history of Cuba through art. She introduced us to a dozen or so artists’ work and explained what in the contemporary art world influenced their style and content and what was happening socially, politically and culturally in Cuba that was showing up in their work. She pointed out some “subversive” themes (like homosexuality) that would have been censored had the censors recognized them. I have never been on a museum tour that brought all of that together in such a meaningful way. (I’m always the one with a puzzled look, thinking “Is that a mountain or breast? and ”Why?”)
We asked Danelle about her background and she said she was a recent graduate in Art History from the University of Havana. Education in Cuba is free from preschool through university (for those who qualify and want a university degree), but graduates must dedicate three years of community service in their field to repay costs of their education.
The next day a music professor from the University of Havana presented a similar history of Cuban music showing contributions from the earliest natives to the conquering Spaniards and the West Africans brought over in the slave trade. He played instruments, sang and brought it all together with art. We gave him a standing ovation.
We visited other artists during the week. Most of these were operating out of their homes as private entrepreneurs. The living room and hallway served as galleries, the back room and yard as a studio/workroom. The kitchen might be where the negotiations took place. Kelvin is an up and coming artist who was recently featured in On Cuba, a new slick magazine on the scene, and also had an exhibit in one of the public venues for Biennial. Another was Bobo, the eighty-nine-year-old engraver in a flawlessly laundered shirt who explained his art and career in the cozy back patio of his home in a neighborhood of crumbling homes.
We visited the public plazas: The ancient Plaza Vieja (Old Square) which dates from the early 1600s shortly after Columbus “discovered” it; Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Plaza), with its massive baroque cathedral and cobblestone square. Work crews were busy spiffing it up for Pope Francis’s coming visit in September. Inside the Cathedral where worshippers light candles and make special prayer requests there was a group of miniature houses some petitioners had made asking for divine intervention to get them a home (or maybe thanks for getting one). Another two plazas, one for government, one for commerce, were also tourist magnets and examples of the careful restoration going on, however slowly. Here street performers danced on stilts and regular Cubans dressed in costume came down to pose for tourists — for a fee.
One late afternoon Orlando pulled #425 up to, not The Hotel Nacional, but a bar restaurant, and parked outside were half a dozen of the old 50’s American cars. Rose and Vivian had arranged for us to have a tour of Havana in their most famous mode of transportation. I chose a 1950 Buick convertible in a shade of orange never seen in Detroit. That’s when it became clear to me that these are not cream puff cars lovingly restored to their original glory, they are business — taxis, wedding limos, special event transportation, tourist novelties. That whole car thing is a great mystery to me. Are they privately owned? How does the buying and selling work? There must be a whole subculture surrounding them. It is a testament to their diligence and ingenuity that they have managed to keep them running at all.
The emphasis was “people to people” and we were treated to several community activities, a senior center and a local farmer’s market. My favorite was the Muraleando (loosely, it means “muraling”). This is a neighborhood community center that was rescued from its former incarnation as a garbage dump. They hauled, our host said, sixty tons of garbage away from the site. Under it they found an abandoned concrete water cistern maybe twenty-five feet in diameter that was repurposed as the clubhouse — scoured and painted and decorated with murals and sculptures. Now it provides space for after school activities and other neighborhood events. This evening the kids large and small sang and danced for us. Cuban kids master the Cuban beat by the time they are on two feet, so even the four-year-olds were unselfconsciously two-stepping their little hearts out. Artwork and CDs were displayed for sale inside on tables.
Then we were ushered upstairs to the covered patio for dinner. It felt like a neighborhood potluck. The tables mixed Cubans and Roadscholars and they passed bowls of rice and black beans and vegetables prepared by neighborhood parents. Then a small combo started playing and feet started twitching. Our Havana hosts pulled us onto the dance floor. When the band segued into “Rock around the Clock” and “Pretty Woman” (they knew their audience), we were all joyously dancing like Peanuts’ Snoopy. That happens a lot in Cuba.
Rosemary Rawson is the author of Coming of Age (SRP, 2014).
Coming of Age by Rosemary Rawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License