It had been ages since I’d visitedThe Center for the Book Arts, a small and lovely space in Chelsea where, among other activities, books are made. I’d all but forgotten about the spot, which hosts workshops, classes, and exhibits, but a question about book preservation prompted me to stop by last weekend.
Coincidentally, the Center was showing an exhibit about Cuba called “Aqui en la Lucha.” If you’ve been to Cuba, you’ll likely recall this phrase, a refrain of daily life that means, more or less, “Here in the struggle.” When someone asks, “How are you doing?”, a Cuban is apt to respond, “Aqui, en la lucha.”
The exhibit, which runs through March 29, is a project of Steven Daiber, an American artist who has been traveling to Cuba since 2001. There, he has taught book arts to professional artists and in art schools in Havana; the exchanges he has had with Cuban artists led, in 2007, to the development of a project that resulted in this exhibit, which consists of several handmade books containing images made by silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut. Each book is organized around a theme; though fairly predictable in nature (ie: the same social and political themes that are explored in most Cuban artwork shown in the U.S.), some of the images are really striking, including “La llama,” which shows a trio of paper airplanes suspended by a string, hovering between flames surrounding them on both sides.
The exhibit is small but engaging, especially for those who enjoy Cuban art or have a general interest in Cuba. “Aqui en La Lucha” runs through March 29.
Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Image: Courtesy of Cuba Libro
Because my husband is Cuban and because I’ve visited Cuba nearly a dozen times over the past decade, I get lots of travel questions about the island. I can’t answer most of these questions, as I tend to stay with my mother-in-law and I’ve never experienced Cuba as a tourist; I end up directing inquiries to my friend Conner Gorry, who has lived on the island for longer than I’ve been visiting. Her blog and her travel app are as much intel as you’re going to get without moving there yourself.
Conner just sent word about Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore and cafe in Havana… the island’s only English-language bookstore and cafe. It just opened this week. Here’s everything you need to know about it, straight from Conner:
This island is unique in so many ways (both good and not so) and one thing that has always struck me is that Havana must be one of the only – if not the only – capital city where you can’t get an English-language newspaper or novel. The reasons are complex (what isn’t in Cuba?!) but it means literature lovers have to beg, borrow or steal books in English or bring their Kindle well-loaded.
Located on a terminally shady corner in the desirable Vedado district, this ‘café literario’ is bringing the bookstore/coffeehouse concept to the island. All books and magazines pass through the ‘Conner filter’ (if you find a Harlequin Romance on the shelves, you get a free espresso!): I guarantee if you’re in need of quality reading material or conversation with interesting, creative Cubans, you’ll find it here.
In addition to featuring monthly shows by talented local artists – August showcases over a dozen captivating images by photographer Alain Gutiérrez – Cuba Libro offers many services travelers are after: water bottle refills; postcards, stamps, and mailing; a cultural calendar (so you won’t miss that hot concert or polemic play); and expert travel tips. This is an ethically-responsible business that offers a lending library for those who can’t afford books, a collective employment model where the entire team benefits, and an environmentally-friendly approach. Like Cuba itself, Cuba Libro strives for equity and a healthy, culturally-rich atmosphere.
This is also a regguetón free zone – we listen to real music at Cuba Libro! Come early to snag a coveted hammock or hanging chair in the garden.
Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
** I had never gone backstage, even when I was a teenager dragging my dad as chaperone to Poison and Warrant concerts.
I was always the appreciative fan who went home quietly satisfied after the concert, never the fawning, googly-eyed groupie elbowing for my shot to slip through the stage door.
Especially when the musician in question was 88 years old.
But as we got dressed for Bebo Valdes’ concert in October 2006, Francisco laid out the plan and said firmly, “We will get backstage.”
And so we did.
* Beyond wanting to express appreciation to Bebo for his music, Francisco had another reason why he wanted to find himself face-to-face with one of Cuba’s greatest living musicians. Francisco’s best friend from childhood was Bebo’s son, Ramon (named for Bebo, whose legal name was Ramon), with whom Bebo had not had contact for nearly four decades. Francisco hadn’t had contact with Ramon for many years, either, until I found Ramon after a determined search in the spring of 2006.
Bebo had left Ramon in Cuba when he decided to go into exile, a decision that took him to Sweden, the other (and colder) side of the world. He began a new chapter in his life, remarrying and starting another family.
Francisco wanted to tell Bebo that Ramon was alive and, by chance, living in New York. Like Francisco, Ramon had emigrated to the United States in the Mariel boat lifts of 1980, and after landing in Key West, the two had eventually ended up in New York as roommates. Though Ramon never enjoyed the success of his famous brother, the Grammy-winning Chucho Valdes, he too had inherited the family’s strong musical talent, which, I’m convinced, was genetic (Ramon’s sister, Miriam, is also a pianist. She lives in Havana, where she teaches music. One of her children is a member of Cuba’s famous group, Los Van Van).
Somehow, we slipped backstage, where we found ourselves among some Latin music luminaries, including Candido, and champions and scholars of Latin music, among them Fernando Trueba (producer of “Lagrimas Negras”) and Ned Sublette (author of Cuba and Its Music). And not surprisingly, Francisco eventually made his way to Bebo’s side, where he paid common courtesy and then leaned up and in to whisper in Bebo’s ear: “Ramon….”
We had just bought our first DSLR and I had no clue how to use it, so I shot a series of noisy, poorly lit photos as Francisco told Bebo about Ramon. Bebo, who was rarely photographed without a radiant, all-teeth smile on his face, grew serious as Francisco spoke, and the photos, which have been sitting in our desk drawer for six years now, speak, to me at least, of the complexities of exile and immigration and separated families.
* Once he’d finished receiving his well-wishers and friends, Bebo invited us to dinner, where he did with conversation what others do with booze, which is to say: he talked us under the table. It was 2 AM before we left the steakhouse. I was happy but thoroughly exhausted and could barely hold my head up. 88 year old Bebo was still going strong as we said good-night; he had been a gregarious, gracious, generous, and absolutely in-love-with-life dinner companion, and the memory of that night has stayed fixed firmly in my mind. I sensed then that we may never see him again. While utterly vital and vibrant, his age, the distance, and a number of professional commitments (his late-life career was soaring) would likely conspire to make this our one and only encounter.
And so it was.
I had been thinking about Bebo frequently as of late, always keeping an eye out for the possibility of a concert announcement in New York but suspecting that he was closer to death’s threshold than was comfortable for Francisco or me to say out loud. When the news came today that he had died at the age of 94, we didn’t say much to each other– why speak into the spell of our memory, six years distant but still so fresh?
Francisco looked out the window and was quiet for a long time. I thought of Miriam and Rickard and Ramon, Bebo’s children who have not been mentioned in the obituaries published so far. And I thought of Bebo’s large hands and longer fingers… of the photo of his somber face as Francisco whispered in his ear, his smile, and finally, the lyrics of “Lagrimas Negras”:
“[S]iento el dolor profundo de tu partida….” [“I feel the profound pain of your departure….”
Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos & Videos: Francisco Collazo
** Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez arrived in New York City on Thursday and immediately began a series of press conferences and talks about her favorite topics: the failings of the Cuban Revolution, the promise of technology, and the importance of blogging as a platform for expressing individual opinions.
Sanchez, who started a tour of the Americas (and will continue on to Europe after her New York stop) after she was allowed to leave Cuba for the first time in five years, has received a mostly cordial reception in New York, in contrast to her visits to Brazil and Mexico. In both countries, she was greeted not only by supporters, but also be detractors and protesters.
Sanchez spoke earlier today during a press conference at NYU; among the topics she addressed were these: What does she expect will happen to her when she returns to Cuba after this trip?, and Why hasn’t Cuba had its own version of an Arab Spring? Francisco was at the press conference and shot videos of her answers:
Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
** 1. The people who say Cuba is trapped in time just parrot.
In the two years since I’ve been here, the following things have changed: (a) There is an epidemic of really bad haircuts, a style called “el yonki,” among young Cuban men. In nearly 10 years’ worth of visits to Cuba, I have never seen so many bad haircuts in Havana.
(b) Numerous houses on my mother-in-law’s street have been painted. We’re talking intense, tropical pastels: purples, blues, pinks, and yellows. In fact, I didn’t recognize her building, as the downstairs neighbor painted her part of the fachada a robust violet. My mother-in-law says the rash of fixer-upping is due to the recent change of policies that allow property sales, as well as a certain neighborhood entrepreneur who’s caught on to the concept of “flipping” houses. My mother-in-law grouses about what she assumes is the woman’s deep pockets and tidy profits. Whether her theory is right, I don’t know. But there’s a rebuilding and renovation boom throughout Havana; I noticed major works projects in La Vibora and Barrio Chino, too.
(c) There is red meat again. The garlic and onions aren’t shriveled imitations of themselves. I saw a lot more variety among the goods being sold by fruit and vegetable vendors.
(d) Like “el yonki,” an obsession with the British flag has taken hold in Havana (and outside the capital, too, according to my friend Conner). From Toms-like flats to the unfortunate trend of the man purse, British flags are everywhere, and have replaced Chinese and Venezuelan flags.
(e) My favorite Chinese restaurant. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll go back. My meal there was a “never as good as the first time” moment.
(f) Wireless networks. Now that’s something I never thought I’d see in Havana.
2. There are the things that haven’t changed, too. The view of the Monument of the Revolution from my mother-in-law’s balcony. The sound of hooves and bells as a horse and carriage full of neighborhood kids round the block every afternoon. My mother-in-law picking through the rice to sort the good grains from the bad ones. Terrible Internet connections.
3. Mariel gets sick as soon as we land and stays sick for our entire visit. Each family member feels compelled to take her temperature at least twice a day and to offer her thoughts about the course of treatment and how it should be carried out. Finally, my sister-in-law decides that my “Let’s wait it out” approach is a form of unacceptable maternal negligence, and she obliges us all to visit a retired pediatrician who lives two doors down. The pediatrician listens to Mariel’s lungs and advises we should take her to the hospital for a placa. Only I can’t go because if they know Mariel is a US citizen, they’ll charge us. And Mariel can’t talk at all– her looks won’t give her away (“She looks so cubana!” everyone says), but her English will. An hour later, Mariel has had her X-ray and I am delivered 5 glass bottles of powdered Amoxicilin to mix and administer every 8 hours.
4. 363 emails. That’s how many messages I have when I log into my account on Friday afternoon to send Francisco a message. Only three are important. It’s a compelling argument that I need to spend more time offline.
5. As I board the plane to return to Miami, I am surprised by the tears in my eyes. My feelings about Cuba are ambivalent at best, but I do have history here. My own Cuba story has been created during periodic visits over the course of a decade; while short, every visit has been incredibly intense. And in my visits I have been able to step into Francisco’s past in a way that few partners can, I think. I’ve been wracked by secondary nostalgia all week, and as I’m walking up the stairs to the plane, I feel saddened by the not entirely rational thought: “I may never come back here.”