The Other Cubans

The Artist:  The century-old brick and plaster house is both drunk with her art and testimonial to her resourcefulness; old keys for branches and buttons for windows and screws and stamps and hasps and beans and a surfboard tip for a mountain and driftwood machetes and the metal handles from black binder clips depicting what is unmistakably Mary cradling baby Jesus. Her canvas is never canvas – too hard to come by – and she instead uses wood and cardboard and old skateboard decks and the reverse of old posters, anything that will hold paint and ink and glue.  The ArtistI watch as she quickly cranks out three cityscapes, each with a brightly colored Cuban flag, buildings in varying stages of disrepair, and a more subtly drawn slogan, propaganda either for or against, the choice in the eye of the beholder.  She wants everyone to know that the beautiful buildings in Old Havana – her inspiration – are falling down, but she feels stagnated by the times, and everything looks today like it did yesterday like it did fifty years ago.  “Nothing is new,” she says.  “I think the muse is on vacation.”

Las Damas de BlancasThe Marcher: In 2003 seventy-five artists, journalists, community organizers and husbands were arrested and jailed for their anti-government activities; sixty-four were released in 2009 on condition that they immediately leave the country. The eleven remaining refused to abandon Cuba, and though they too were eventually released, their struggle continues.  For the last thirty-three Sundays, Berta Soler and her Damas de Blancas have met here, outside the Santa Rita de Casia church, where they protest their husband’s imprisonment by making one circuit up la Quinta Avenida to 16th Street and back again, then walk the three blocks to the beach where they are met, violently, by what they say are government employees ordered to confront and beat them.  And next Sunday? “We do it again.”

The Musician: The Malecón is a ten kilometer stretch of seaside road from Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta west to the Rio Almendares; dilapidated and ever-deteriorating buildings to the south and black coral rock breakers and a concrete wall to the north, Tromboniststorms above the Straits of Florida occasionally bringing waves so violent they smash against the seawall, flood the road, and drench the buildings beyond it.  Upon the wall sits a lonely, solitary figure with not a tourist in sight; a Miami Heat hat on his head and a trombone pressed so tightly against his lips his knuckles turn white.  Armando is a professional, he says, but lost several of his teeth to disease – he shows me his dentures – and now is practicing just to get back to where he used to be.  He plays three songs, All of Me, Memories, and the last, as I’m walking away, Yesterday, the significance of the last amplified by the supporting band of crashing waves, old cars, and history.

el CombatienteEl Combatiente
 On December 2, 1956, a twenty-nine year old Fidel Castro and eighty-one other men crash-landed the yacht Granma at Playa las Coloradas and changed Cuba forever. Francisco was eventually there too, a young man tired of Ferdinand Batista’s thuggery and wanting change.  Of the twenty-four men in his small unit, twenty are still alive today, on the 59th Anniversary of Castro’s landing.  Now Francisco sits on the sidewalk outside his house in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, where he meticulously scrawls out orders for his wife’s pan con perro, pan con mayonesa, and pan con croquetas and unsuccessfully cajoles her, twenty-five years his junior, into posing for a photograph.  ¡Vive Cuba!

The Boxer: In Barcelona in 1992 Héctor Vinent Cháron won an Olympic gold medal in the light welterweight division; he did it again in Atlanta in 1996. He boxed at the same Olympics as Oscar De La Hoya (reported net worth of more than $700 million), Gimnasio de BoxeoFloyd Mayweather ($500 million), Antonio Tarver ($10 million), David Reid, and Eric Griffin; and beat Sugar Shane Mosley ($10 million), David Diaz ($15 million) Stevie Johnston, and Fernando Vargas. Ring Magazine lists Héctor as the fifth best Olympic boxer of all time; today he sits on crumbling steps in an empty doorway across the street from the Rafael Trejo gym in old Havana, a stopwatch and whistle hanging around his neck.  He trains a few locals, his son, and the occasional drop-in tourist, and keeps ready a dog-eared folder full of pictures – him with Sugar Shane Mosley, him carrying Teófilo Stevenson’s casket, him fighting in Biloxi, Mississippi – and old computer printouts showing the brackets from his Olympic and World Championships.  He shows me a picture of his dresser at his mom’s house, stacked with trophies surrounded by medals; in one corner, an Olympic gold.

Frank, Playa Setente IIThe SurferThe surf along Playa Setenta is frequent and breaks both ways, but one man is selective.  He catches waves half as often as everyone around him but rides them twice as long.  He’s a dolphin trainer, tall-building painter, window-washer, rock climber, skate-boarder, champion BMXer, and part-time model, but the waves are what he lives for.  He is, surely, the best body-boarder, stand-up paddler, and surfer on the island, and though his uniform of board shorts, flip-flops, tank top and knock-off Wayfarers would place him anonymously on any surf spot in the world, Cuba is where he will stay.  For now.

The Campesino: All seventy-eight years of Angel’s life have been on this small plot of land adjacent to the Valle de Viñales National Park, where the campesino grows sweet potatoes, zucchini, avocados, corn, and coffee Angel the Campesinoplanted so sparsely and randomly intermixed with the lush, natural vegetation that he has to hold the plants in his hands before I can see them.  An “hola” and a smile turns into a forty-five minute discussion on family, farming, hurricanes, coffee (Brazilian is the best but he’s willing to change his mind), tourists, sons and pants – the former of which he has three; the latter, one. “Farming is hard and I wish I had more money.  But I have this view every day.”

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  1. Pam Huggins

    Wow!!! While I love your various photojournalism features, the ones which come with narrative are really amazing. Thank you for including me on your adventures.

    • Jay Morse

      Thanks Pam! More posts coming – Cuba was unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

      • Jane Male

        Good stuff. My best friend is headed down for a trip later next month. I’ll share this with her! Y el espanol?! A donde vas ahora?

  2. Great stuff…Happy Birthday, btw!

    Safe travels,

  3. Very cool. Enjoyed this one very much. Thank you for such a wonderful blog.

  4. Isabel Guerra

    Hola Jay, acabo de leer tus reseñas y me han encantado. Estoy en Colombia visitando a mi hija. Te mando un abrazo. Isa

Jay Morse

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