Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
Sights and sounds of Cuba as told to me by the many Cubanos I chatted with along the way.
Like many national monuments, you cannot simply enter the Capitol Building also known as El Capitolio or Capitolio Nacional de La Habana in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) without a pre-purchased ticket. The building was commissioned by then President Gerardo Machado and took four years to build. It was completed in 1929. Today, Cubanos will tell you “it’s one of only 3 capitol buildings in the world.” But it’s really the gold leaf sheathed La Estatua de la República (Statue of the Republic) that resides inside El Capitolio which is the third largest indoor statue in the world. Although beautiful, it is highly protected and photographs were discouraged the closer you got to the building and clearly restricted once inside.
I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful cars. Two million cars were brought over to Cuba by the United States between 1945 and the late 50’s. Many of these gorgeous vintage cars are still in pristine condition. By 1959, parts and cars were blocked from entering Cuba and now less than half of those cars are still running. On many streets along my travels, I would see makeshift auto repair shops with cobbled together pieces and parts for the old Chevy’s, Oldsmobiles and other newer cars as well. Cubans waste nothing in their ingenuity to fix, repair and maintain their prized autos on severely rationed parts.
Primavera by Cuban scultptor Rafael San Juan and Roberto Fabelo’s Viaje Fantástico celebrate Cuban’s appreciation of women in the Cuban culture. The former, shows professor and sculptor Rafael San Juan’s appreciation for women and women’s ability to face problems head on with strength; which he captured in this graceful recycled steel head sculptor that I happened upon. The latter, is Fabelo’s nod to the women who resorted to prostitution during the “special years” as they are known to Cubans. The fork represented women providing food (through prostitution) for their families, the cock is a play on theme and words for soldiers in battle typically seen on their horses, the one raised hoof indicates that women did not die during “battle” but suffered the emotional stigma from their forced prostitution after the economic crisis became less problematic, and of course, her nakedness riding the cock puts it all together. She exudes a powerful presence in Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza).
One of the most thrilling days was to get a tour of Mujeres; a government owned, quarterly magazine. Revista Mujeres originated in 1961 is completely self sufficient in their impressive curbside office building. Although the magazine shut down during the Special Years, they returned with a younger version of the magazine by adding Muchachas alongside Mujeres. I was lucky enough to arrive on publication day where the magazine returns from the printing press and is sold mostly on street corners for a few pesos each. Sometime in the mid 2000s (if my Spanish was correct), Mujeres went digital and you can now find it online at http://www.mujeres.co.cu/. The women at the magazine were gracious in offering me a tour of the office, and were polite in asking me not to take any photographs other than the lobby area for “propósitos de seguridad” (security purposes). This also occured at Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana) where I was personally guided (escorted) to every building and although allowed to sit in on a psychology lecture, was not allowed to take photos or notes for the same “propósitos de seguridad.”
Any of course, anyone who knows me also knows that I’m a big boxing and MMA fan. While roaming the streets near the neighborhoods close to the Plaza de la Revolución, I noticed a small, black nondescript door with a sign to the left that read “Gimnasio de Boxeo, Centro Habana.” How could I resist? Quite disappointed that no one was practicing or fighting, I still enjoyed my quick look around before being brusquely commanded to “vete ahora!”
Like many countries, the Cubans do not have a wonderful history with Jews and Blacks. So I was a bit surprised to find “una roca de las montanas de Jurusalen” (a rock of the Jerusalem Mountains) as well as a memorial to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg which read “por la paz el pan v las rosas enfrentemos al verdugo” which I believe translates to “for peace, bread and roses we will face the executioner.” Additionally, I stumbled upon the “first College in Cuba which prohibited blacks and Jews upon their opening but now readily accepts everyone” according to a local passerby. Although I’m pretty sure the college looked too modern and techy to have been the first.
As I always do when I travel, I purchase artwork for my home rather than clothes, jewelry or gifts for others. More importantly, I try to only buy art from the artists that I actually get to meet. I was fortunate to find an adorable studio around town that had two artists in residence at the time. When I found two beautiful pieces that spoke “Cuba” to me, I was disappointed that neither of the artists were in that day. After inquiring a bit more, the other artists promised that if I returned the following day, they would make sure the artists were there for me to meet. Unsure of the proficiency in my Spanish conversation, I returned at 2pm the following day as I thought we had all agreed. Lo and behold, the two artists were there and graciously posed with their art (and me) for my keepsake memories.
Of course, I went to Hemingway’s famous bar, took lots of photos along the way, smoked a real Cuban cigar, ate at Ivan Chef Jugo who has the most famous Cuban Chef, Iván Rodríguez López in Habana Vieja, danced, saw The Moralla (The Goalkeeper) movie and enjoyed the simplistic, Spanish converted version of the famous La fille du régiment opera at the Gran Teatro de La Habana (Grand Theatre of Havana) and of course so much more. But we all know that what happens in Cuba, stays in Cuba!
All photos and goofy, unedited video are by the author.