Cuba's digital destination
I was eight years old my last year in Cuba. Even then I viewed the world frame-by-frame, dreamlike, through the lens of the bus windows, backlit by the blazing sun. At such a young age, I didn’t pay the images much mind. I was more focused on how small and anxious I felt around the larger upperclassmen, how the scent of the dank mahogany furnishings of the school filled me with dread. I couldn’t twirl a rifle and was a failure at fencing, a wildly popular fixation in Cuba since it had won the gold for that sport in the 1900 Olympics…
Snapshots of the revolution are etched vaguely on my retina. Rebels on the streets—sometimes sleeping in our house. A chance encounter with Fidel as he emerged from a meeting in a nearby residence. He stooped down to me and my playmates to shake hands (his redolent with cigars). The only thing of real interest to me was his entou¬rage of Army Jeeps and appropriated black Cadillacs. I loved cars, and from my blasé perspective, bearded men in green fatigues carried little significance…
…With every print of Cuban life and landscape that I acquired, sensations long dormant in my subconscious came roaring back. The scent of hay mixed with sea air from the Ringling Bros. Circus two blocks away in winter…the clanking of elephants’ chains against cement…the medicinal smell from my father’s pharmaceutical laboratories that permeated our home…the intrigu¬ing sound of his Blaupunkt shortwave radio sputtering in his room…the cacophony of my sisters practicing piano…visits to sugar mills, industrial fairs, and caves…
…Exotic and adventurous, my mother played squash, rode horses, and fearlessly water-skied in the inky waters off the beach clubs in Marianao. A close family friend was the race-car driver Alfonso Gómez-Mena, who appears in this book with his splendid Fer-rari 250 GT in a shot from the 1960 Cuban Gran Premio Libertad…
Around the same time, the film adaptation of Graham Greene’s spy thriller Our Man in Havana brought stars Alec Guinness and Maureen O’Hara to the capital, along with a wave of excitement widely discussed among my older classmates. It would be the last major international movie to film in Cuba.
In the rattletrap guagua coming home from school, I didn’t know how rapidly a way of life was disappearing. Something Cuca Machado, my grandmother, would later impress upon me during visits to her apartment in Southwest Miami, where she had settled. Possessed by a deep love of her native country—where she (always accompanied by her pet monkey) had been a colorful fixture in Havana’s El Telégrafo Hotel overlooking El Parque Central—she intimated to me during our visits that she feared the essence of that life was being lost forever. She pushed me to gather remnants of the old culture from here in the United States.
…Considering a photograph for the first time, I respond to the shape and feel of an image. Tone often trumps narrative. At the same time, I’m inevitably drawn to what’s outside the frame, or what one can only imagine: the rowdy banter echoing from a tableau of farmhands, the dry grass smell of the palm frond siding on a country bohío or the aroma of garlic and lime emanating from the crispy skin of a roasted pig as it is carried through the streets…
…Along with the showgirls and boxers and circus acrobats, I’ve looked for compelling fragments of quotidian life: Cuba’s hardscrabble farmers and fishermen, melancholy sugarcane workers sweating in the sun, hurricane holdouts braving the wind-battered El Malecón. Only a wide spectrum of lenses could capture such a rich pastiche of sultry locale, fiery gene pools, and a tangible aura of permissiveness that was Cuba.
Cuba has always seduced indiscriminately—from revolutionaries to mambo queens, failed spies to socialites, savvy gangsters to honeymooning Americanos…
And a certain curious cadet on a dusty bus coming home.
Cuba before Castro was defined by boundless tourism and vibrant nightlife. From the streets of Havana to the back roads of rural towns, Cuban life was a heady mix of music, dancing, sports, gambling, politics, and struggle.
Cuba Then celebrates the intensely colorful culture that photography collector Ramiro A. Fernández remembers from his youth. From the earliest daguerreotypes to glamorous shots of movie stars, a century of the country’s history is represented by a rich spectrum of personalities: race-car driving aristocrats, sultry showgirls, gangsters, everyday folk, and revolutionaries who would soon transform the nation, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. An introduction by Fernández shares his early memories of Cuba and details how his love of collecting vintage Cuban photographs began. Through a foreword and poems, Richard Blanco, the Cuban-American poet chosen to speak at President Obama’s second inauguration, meditates on the romantic legacy of old Cuba.
About the Authors
Born in Havana, Ramiro A. Fernández is the author of I Was Cuba, a former photography editor at Time, Inc., and the owner of more than 3,000 vintage Cuban photographs.
Richard Blanco is the award-winning author of four collections of poetry, including Looking for The Gulf Motel. April 2014 This article formed part of the April 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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