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Posts Tagged ‘Havana’

Letter from Cuba

July 2, 2015 | by

Will Americans “ruin” Havana?

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All photographs by Shona Sanzgiri.

Ten minutes after I’ve entered Havana’s Almacenes de San José, an indoor marketplace on the southern end of Old Havana offering kitschy souvenirs and erotic art, my expression has hardened. A dozen women, seated on stools, shout “hola!” from every direction, hoping to draw my attention to one of their many wares: Che Guevara ashtrays, wooden ocarinas, Havana Club T-shirts, leather engravings of Hatuey, the Taíno chief who was burned at the stake for resisting the Spanish.

I stop and look at a miniature sculpture of Hatuey. Even though he’s roughly nine inches tall in this rendition, he is heroically muscular, with proud, high cheekbones and defiant eyes. This is a familiar, orientalist interpretation of Native Americans, one that perpetuates the myth of the “noble savage.” Or—given the physicality of their real lives—maybe the Taínos were truly ripped. Read More »

Kid Chocolate

June 19, 2015 | by

Cuba’s boxing culture.

At the Rafael Trejo boxing gym. Photo: Brandon Downey, Monster in the Ring, 2013.

In Old Havana, the names of the streets before the revolution provided a glimpse into the city’s state of mind. You might have known someone who lived on the corner of Soul and Bitterness, Solitude and Hope, or Light and Avocado. After the revolution, they changed the names and put up new signs, but if you asked directions from a local today you’d get the old names. They all meant something personal to the people who lived on those streets. That avocado grew in the garden of a convent. That hope was for a door in the city wall before it was torn down. That soul refers to the loneliness of the street’s position in the city. Sometimes these streets lead you to dead ends and other times you stumble onto cathedrals, structures built with the intention of creating music from stone. The sore heart Havana offers never makes you choose between the kind of beauty that gives rather than the kind that takes something from you: it does both simultaneously.

While guidebooks might tell you that time collapsed here, another theory says that in Latin America, all of history coexists at once. Just before the triumph of the revolution, progress took shape in ambitious proposals made by American architects to erect grand skyscrapers all along the Malecón seawall offering a fine view and convenient access to a newly constructed multicasino island built in the bay. To accommodate the gamblers, vast areas of Old Havana were to be demolished and leveled for parking access. In 1958, Graham Greene wrote, “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor belt.” Yet this beauty the people of Cuba unquestionably possess walks hand in hand with their pain. Whoever you might encounter in this place lacking the ability to walk or even to stand for whatever reason will inevitably remain convinced they can dance. When Castro was put on trial in 1953 by Batista’s government and asked who was intellectually responsible for his first attempt at insurrection, he dropped the name of the poet José Martí. From the little I’d learned of it, the revolution’s hold on Cubans resembled not so much poetry as the chess term zugzwang: you’re forced to move, but the only moves you can make will put you in a worse position. Cuba had become an entire population of eleven million people with every iron in the fire doubling as a finger in a dike. Read More »

Fata Morgana

March 4, 2014 | by

Reinaldo Arenas, writers in exile, and a visit to the Havana of 1987.

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Hotel Habana Libre. Photo: Sandino235, via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years have passed since the publication of Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas’s tale of his years in Cuba under the Castro regime and his life in exile in the U.S. One of the most talented and prolific writers to emerge during the revolution, Arenas was persecuted for his writings and his homosexuality. He escaped in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and in 1990, dying of AIDS, committed suicide in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Published in 1993, Before Night Falls is as urgent and compelling as ever—a portrait of exile and longing, of the anguish and rage of the dispossessed.

Born in 1943 on a farm in the province of Oriente, Cuba, Arenas developed a rich inner life early on. “[Regarding] the magical, the mysterious, which is so essential for the development of creativity, my childhood was the most literary time of my life,” he wrote in Before Night Falls. Morning fog blanketing the landscape like a ghostly shroud, palm trees bursting into flame as lightning struck, dark rivers flowing endlessly to the sea—all entranced him. Most astonishing was night, when, beneath the ancient glittering sky, his grandmother told tales of the supernatural.

At sixteen, Arenas joined Castro’s rebels in the mountains, but his enthusiasm gave way to disenchantment and despair, a trajectory he chronicled in his writing. In 1962, he finished Celestino antes del alba (published in the U.S. as Singing from the Well), the first in his Pentagonía, a series of five semi-autobiographical books. Celestino won second prize in the 1965 UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) competition; in 1967, it was published in a print run of two thousand copies that sold out in one week. No further editions were issued; it was the only novel Arenas would publish in Cuba. His next novel, El mundo alucinante (published in the U.S. as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando), the tale of a renegade Mexican monk who dreams of a free society, was banned in Cuba for its “erotic passages” but smuggled out and published in France in 1968 to great acclaim. Read More »

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Yanet’s Vintage Emporium

November 27, 2012 | by

While I’m at Yanet’s apartment it begins to pour, packs of chubby raindrops in the tropical afternoon that make the dust in her Havana apartment feel thicker than it actually is. I’m trapped until the storm passes. But every surface in Yanet’s home is coated with objects waiting to be lifted, appraised, perused, felt—at least an afternoon’s worth. So I browse the waist-high tables and rich wood armoires with rows of cut-crystal wine and port glasses, mod carafes with faded metallic polka dots, kitschy ceramic table lamps painted with bright pastoral scenes, and patterned blown-glass globes that once held water and fish. Technically, it’s not legal for any of these objects to be sold. Read More »

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