Perhaps it’s because of the deterioration of those gorgeous buildings around them. Or maybe it’s in spite of them. But one thing is certain. The Cuban people may not have running water every day, they may not adequate food to eat all the time or pesos to spend on superfluous things. But they do have happiness.
Why they remain so happy, loving and smiling in the midst of the poverty they accept as natural could well be because there are now more than two generations of Cubans who have lived under Communist rule and Castro. But someplace, buried deep inside their hearts and souls, there is a passion that can never be erased.
It’s a passion for art. And music. And color. And the Cuban people thrive on all three.
Art, for instance. There are all kinds of art museums….religious art, contemplative art, colonial art, ceramic art, historic art. They’re in all kinds of buildings, new modern structures like the National Museum of Art, and historic architectural wonders of another era. They’re filled with art work and many, many visitors, both natives and visitors.
The National Museum is across from the Museum of the Revolution, and is divided into two sections, one for Cuban art, the other for all other art. It’s on three levels each reached by ramps that open to the inner courtyard and give you teasing hints of the art work in numerous rooms along the way; it could easily take two to three days and still not see it all.
A highlight for me in this museum were the rooms set aside for children in art classes. Their work is proudly with as much elegance and precision as the works of masters, with students of each teacher grouped together. Their names, and that of their art instructor, are also clearly promoted, giving these youngsters the thrill of having their own work on display with the likes of Marcos Pavon Estrada, Guillermo Piedra Labanino, Jorge Pouvu, and many artists whose works I don’t recognize but who are upheld as masters in their own country.
Nor is art reserved for museums. Our friend Paval, who helped all the culture and entertainment with Cuba Educational Travel for our five-day trip with GUEST, the Girls Universal Empowerment Sports Tour program designed by Atlantic Highlands’ own Catherine Curtin, is one of those who has taken it to the streets.
In his ongoing effort to create a more beautiful community on the street where he lives, Paval has created designs of murals and neighborhood artists reproduce his works on the freshly scrubbed exterior walls of the houses and buildings along the street. The artwork, brilliant in design and shocking in vibrant colors, tells a story and stretches for an entire block. And if there’s a chip or piece missing in any of the art, Pavel is quick to notice and call in an artist to make ready repairs before it becomes an eyesore.
Even in recycling, the Cuban people are marvels. There isn’t much garbage or trash along the streets; the people use and recycle everything! Gifts shops abound with unique treasures; for $15, I purchased a silver and gold evening bag made completely of soda can flip tops all artfully crocheted together and complete with a shoulder strap. The woman in the shop explained that “the children pick up all the soda cans, take off the flip tops, scrub them clean, then it’s the women who crochet or knit the hundreds of little pieces together. We all work together to make something beautiful.” There is handiwork for sale made of wood, sparkplugs from cars, screws and pieces of metal and just about anything else that might be found, all put together in unique fashion to enjoy another life in another culture.
We traveled to a distance part of Havana, past the ambassadors’ homes and the embassies, to see the Muraleando Community Project, an area where a group of artists have used new and recycled materials to create artwork throughout the neighborhood. There’s a bench along the road and under the shade of several trees that the natives call “Elena’s chair,” in honor of the grandma who used to sit there waiting for her husband. The bench itself is made of thousands of colorful pieces of broken ceramic tiles. There are also shrines to the Blessed Mother, with a statue of Mary surrounded by car tire hubcaps shined to a brilliant silver. The water tank, three or four stories tall, that provided water in the early part of the 20th century when steam engines passed on the rails in this area, has been transformed into a museum. Sectioned off into three floors, it houses displays highlighting the ceramic, clay and oil and pastel works of local artists. The top floor is a club, complete with stage, and the day we were there, some local musicians who both sang and played guitars, drums, and violins., inviting everyone to get up and dance. The bartender at the little bar in the corner proudly showed off a drink that won them top honors in a national contest. Called The Watertank, it’s equal parts of chocolate and pineapple liquors blended with rum and served over ice. Certainly worth a try.
If color is the soul of their artwork, then movement is the heart of their music. Cubans simply can’t sit still once some melody, on any instrument or pseudo-instrument, strikes up. We ourselves got the opportunity for a rhumba lesson at a dance studio next to our casa, a dance studio and instructor so well known and recognized that we met visitors from as far away as Australia who come for a week or two in Cuba strictly to take lessons at Casa del Son. The studio spans six different rooms with as many or more instructors and is housed in a 1715 house similar to the casa in which we stayed, fully restored and inviting.
Another evening we took an elevator to the top of an otherwise abandoned apartment building where the rooftop bar had a magnificent view of Havana, the music was loud and inviting, and natives and tourists from Europe, Africa, Australia and the United States forgot any differences they might have in favor of dancing, laughter, and live music under the stars.
NEXT: Still more music and what’s on the city streets