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Cuba’s Exemplary Arts for Social Change Programs

Cuba’s Exemplary Arts for Social Change Programs

The second two “arts for social change” projects which I would like to discuss–Cabildo Quisicuaba and Callejon de Hamel—are similar in that they are interventions using the arts in specific communities—communities plagued by poverty, and social and health problems like domestic violence and AIDS. The non-profit organization Cabildo Quisicuaba has based itself in the Central Havana neighborhood of Los Sitios and more specifically on the street, Calle Maloja. As a result of Quisicuaba’s partnership with the community, the street has transformed itself from one of ill-repute to a street that is known as the major artistic and supportive nerve center for the surrounding community. Calle Maloja now boasts a museum, artist galleries and dance studios, and hosts a monthly “Pena Cultural” which is essentially a community talent show.

The poetically articulated mission of Quisicuaba is “to achieve the elevation of the virtuosity of the human being” and to impact the lives of both individuals and families living in the targeted community of Los Sitios. While being very specific to state that the organization is both non-profit and non-prosyletizing, Quisicuaba is upfront about the fact that it is highly attuned to its community’s spiritual needs, in addition to its cultural and materials needs. Quisicuaba’s website ( states that “the structure and function of the organization are based on respect for personal identity guided by the commandments of our rule of Santeria… and according to the moral and ethical principals of our community.” The base of Quisicuaba’s moral code is derived from Santeria, which has its roots in Yoruba beliefs transplanted by Africans who were brought to Cuba, mostly as slaves. The code has sixteen commandments, including dictates like “don’t say what you don’t know,” “be humble and not egocentric,” “don’t perform rituals if you don’t have the basic knowledge,” “don’t deceive your fellow human beings,” “always respect the weak and treat them with much respect,” etc.

At the center of Santeria are the music and dances of the Orisha gods and goddesses (whether you are a ‘believer’ or not, this music and dance is a fundamental part of Afro-Cuban culture). It so happens that Quisicuaba has situated itself in a neighborhood that has been historically inhabited by Cubans whose lineage traces back to the Yorubans of Angola. Thus, far from being a belief system and cultural orientation imposed upon the people it seeks to serve, Quisicuaba seeks to affirm the most positive cultural values that already exist at the grassroots level and use them as the organization’s entry point in order to create positive change within.

On the particular Sunday I was there to enjoy the Pena Cultural, I saw young adults singing boleros, and dancing rumba and rueda (a highly entertaining social form of salsa in which couples constantly rotate partners in a circular formation), and two young teenage boys performing rap, a form of expression that is wildly popular in Cuba, which hosts an annual rap festival. (Click here for a clip of the rap performance by the boys in the photo above). Older women from the community and from Quisicuaba acted as MCs, making public service announcements and reading poetry and prose; meanwhile condoms and HIV/AIDS prevention info were distributed at some point during the proceedings.

But it was the “baby Orisha” group, an Afro-Cuban music and dance children’s troupe, that won my blue-ribbon for the day. I say “baby” because some of the dancers could not have been more than four years old as you will see in my photos and videos. (Click here for a video clip of “baby Orishas”). Watching this performance left me with a powerful message—the importance of these young people imbibing their cultural and artistic traditions at such a young age and the degree to which this will hopefully build a foundation for positive identity and self-esteem later on, creating a backbone to affront what are certain to be life’s challenges later down the line.

Projects such as Quisicuaba also serve as a means of community economic development; in the most obvious way by bringing foreigners to the area to spend money on things like art and CD souvenirs, food and drink, etc. But it is also clear that projects like this one help create a greater sense of community, strengthening social ties and accountability, benefits from which which everyone stands to gain when there is less crime, alcoholism and domestic abuse in a neighborhood. With the arts and culture creating a gateway to other social services, drug addicts, alcoholics, carriers of HIV and battered wives are given a chance to land back on their feet, eventually returning to their place of employment and becoming contributing citizens once again. By embracing and resurrecting the cultural values of a given community through arts programming, Quisicuaba is a unique roadmap to combating social problems and creating longer-term economic sustainability within a community.

On a subsequent Sunday, my research agenda brought me over to Callejon de Hamel, another outdoor neighborhood carnival of sorts, but with a very different feel than Quisicuaba. “Callejon” means “alleyway,” and “Hamel” is the name of a North American man of French-German origin who, back-in-the-day, was one of the first residents of the street and gained notoriety in Cuban history for the fair treatment he gave to his workers. Today Callejon de Hamel has been transformed from a forgotten urban space into a fanciful Afro-Cuban universe that comprises a two block alleyway and its surrounding structures. Callejon de Hamel also denotes the community arts organization that created this rising phoenix and all of its associated activities. Upon arrival to the newly famous alleyway that is written up in most Havana visitor guides, I was swarmed by people trying to sell me their CDs, a souvenir of a performance I had yet to even see. It should be noted that this was my only experience of this kind while in Cuba. One of the apparent leaders of the pack shooed the hawkers away and it was permitted that Luana, a regal-looking Cubana, become my unofficial companion for the afternoon. I was taken into the gallery which held works of local artists, and most prominently of the internationally known Salvador Gonzalez, who started Callejon de Hamel in 1990.

It was inside the gallery during my conversation with one of the apparent project organizers that I learned of the frustration that is felt over the fact that Hamel does not receive sufficient government support, in contrast, for example, to La Colmenita, La Castellana and Quisicuaba. A deeper investigation would be necessary in order to understand whether Hamel’s bitterness is because project organizers simply feel they deserve more from the Castro government, or if there has been some type of political fall from grace—more likely than not, it is probably some mixture of the two. Regardless, of the four programs described in this essay, Hamel certainly has the strongest sense of being a rouge arts project. Subsequent internet research revealed that Callejon de Hamel actually began as part of a government initiative to energize neighborhood arts projects during Cuba’s “Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union. I can only surmise as to what has happened in Hamel since the 90’s, but I was impressed that such a social project is still standing in large part because it has found a way to be self-sustainable, regardless of the size of its government subsidy. In a country such as Cuba, this could only be the result of a sheer force of will and the project organizers’ unshakable belief in the transformative power of the arts.

And it was through this lens that I understood my somewhat raucous experience in Hamel—the project depends on tourists’ cash for its survival because it is not guaranteed by the government. Although the weekly Sunday performances are free, tourists are constantly petitioned to buy CDs and to contribute something to the performers’ tip basket. But Hamel is not per say a tourist trap, as the whole experience involves being invited into a world that still retains authenticity—the performance spectators are a healthy mix of tourists and locals although the best seats are reserved for ‘paying customers’ (i.e. tourists). Cigar smoke and rum available at the Hamel kiosk flow liberally, and the performance itself is a formidable and enthralling session of three hours of live rumba and Afro-Cuban dance. (Click here for a video sample of Hamel rumba). My favorite interpretation of the session was by a young woman dancing as the trickster Orisha, Elegua, who can take on male, female or child forms. (Click here for a clipe of the Elegua of Hamel).

Being at Hamel on a Sunday afternoon is a must in order to take in the performance, but one should return another day to fully appreciate the artistry and cultural patrimony of Callejon de Hamel. During a quieter moment of observation, there are mural-size depictions of Afro-Cuban deities to be contemplated and sculptures made from scrap and old bike parts. Every inch of this neighborhood/community arts space is painted or adorned with creatively recycled objects, including a suspended bathtub titled “the ship of forgetfulness.” The playfulness with time-travel, the spirits of the ancestors and the gods, the collapse of images and memories, and having entered a parallel universe is enhanced by the incorporation of poetic phrases, like the one that appears at the entrance of the alleyway: “I can wait longer than you because I am time.”

I learned that Hamel runs an arts program for children and cultural programming for senior citizens, although I did not get to observe these activities, which are understandably suspended on Sunday when Hamel opens its doors to ‘the global market.’ Similar to Quisicuaba, Hamel’s programming presumably fosters a sense of community, develops young people as artists who eventually perform on Hamel’s Sunday stage or elsewhere, preserves Afro-Cuban culture, and provides a source of economic livelihood for those who are most closely associated with the project. I cannot speak to the larger impact of the project since the consumerist focus on Sundays admittedly obscures its objectives and social mission. However, it is this commercialization that allows the project to survive.

Hamel certainly doesn’t have the “neat and tidy” exterior of the three “arts for social change” programs discussed prior; but perhaps it is a few steps ahead in that it has found a way to survive without a government life support machine? I’m not sure. Yet it is precisely that government respirator that allowed all four of these “arts for social change” programs to incubate and grow. With the uncertainty of Cuba’s future, post-Castro, it remains to be seen whether or not the arts will continue to be upheld as an inalienable right for all Cubans. The survival of these model projects could hang in the balance when government is forced to make difficult decisions about infrastructure, health and education in a developing economy where the arts could regretfully turn into a luxury item.

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