Having grown up in Miami during the 50’s, I have iconic images of Havana, Cuba, a large Caribbean island located just 90 miles south of Florida.
Cuba, at that time, was Florida’s playground for the wealthy, which meant I would not be going for long weekends like some of my friends. I pictured Cuba through the media: The Tropicana Nightclub with its flashy, scantily clad dancers, its well known elegant buildings, hotels and wide avenues. Of course I remember the prevalence of American made cars in Havana, but also the mambo music that blared from car radios as teenagers cruised Miami Beach in their ‘57 Chevy’s. The well loved, “I Love Lucy Show” introduced us to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban American with his Latin rhythms and the ever popular conga lines we formed at every school dance. I was always mesmerized by the power of the waves crashing over the Malecon, the broad esplanade which stretches for four miles along Havana’s scenic harbor. Sadly, I also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, my neighbors building bomb shelters and the air raid drills we were accustomed to.
Now, almost 60 years later, May, 2013, fotografer Ron (my husband who also grew up in Miami) and I travel to Havana through a cultural program and fall in love with this vibrant city and its warm, lovely people.
It is an opportunity of a lifetime.
It almost brings tears to my eyes.
As we approach the famous Malecon, the ocean is quiet today. No waves crashing, but still a perfect backdrop for all that is to come.
Turning on to the Paseo del Prado, the wide tree lined avenue on the way to our hotel, I notice the grand elegant buildings that once were. The crumbling facades, the layers of paint at attempts to cover its decay and I become aware of the many empty storefronts.
Life is teeming above the emptiness. It is where Havana’s people live. Windows and doors are wide open to welcome breezes. Each apartment is utilizing every inch of their balcony with clotheslines, bicycles, potted plants and maybe a chair or two.
Those eyes from above don’t miss a thing on the sidewalks and streets, always calling out to a friend, neighbor or relative. Some silently sit or stand and gaze out over the rusty railings alone with their own thoughts.
There is a pulse above…and a rhythm below. With the exception of the Paseo del Prado, the side streets are narrow. Fewer cars and taxis, but easier for the bicycle pedi-cabs to navigate. We feel the energy as locals go about their daily routine. We see occasional thumbs up which means “welcome” and usually hear an “hola” from someone.
After awhile, the decaying, crumbling buildings fade into the background as the Cubans themselves come into focus. Their resilience, sense of pride, loyalty to family is reflected in their eyes.
Life has been hard for many, but according to our Cuban guide, there has been improvement since the late 90’s. It is evident in the restoration projects within Havana’s historic district, a UNESCO site, providing jobs in the labor force. Also, we are told restrictions are easing up regarding paladors, home restaurants as well as encouragement for Cubans to start their own small businesses, a major change.
Young people are not hesitant about sharing their hopes and dreams.
When I asked these three young girls what they wanted to be when they grew up, they replied individually, a dancer, a teacher, and a model.
There is beauty and color everywhere…among the peeling walls.
Walking is not just putting one foot in front of the other… it is moving the hips and not noticing or caring who watches.
Street dances and rumbas allow for the hips to sway and a release of creative energy for the young and the old.
The elderly, I’m sure, remember better times…but their souls are not crumbling. Cuba is complex. I came home with more questions than answers, but we enjoyed its pulse and vitality.
Photography by Ron Mayhew
Related article: Havana, Cuba, Not What I Expected and Much More.