The Arts

Writer’s and Poet’s Street Mural


What I loved about Havana was a pervasive appreciation of the arts. On a wall a block from my hotel was a trompe l’oeil mural of Cuban writers dressed in nineteenth century garb. They were posed as if they were strolling the street or leaning out from balconies. I felt as if I were rubbing shoulders with notables, though I knew few of them. Writers are commemorated in more places than soldiers.

Ernesto “Papa” Hemingway was certainly appreciated. One source I read mentioned he was not invited into the inner circle of writers in Paris after living there for many years, so he moved to Cuba, where he was received warmly. His room in our hotel is a museum, and I can see why he stayed. He had a view up two main streets to keep tabs on the activity.

Booksellers in the Park on Sunday

We used Cuban poetry in my Spanish class. Booksellers on the plaza near our hotel could discourse on the leather bound classics they were selling. Old Havana has a museum in every block: history of many eras, Spanish, Cuban, African, art from Old Masters to contemporary, a rum museum and of course, the Museum of the Revolution, surrounded by khaki tanks, planes and trucks significant to the key event in recent history. I’m not a museum fan, but I did visit two. At the rum museum, I had to wait for an English-speaking guide to appear, so I assume most visitors speak Spanish. Unless I was actually there to notice how much they paid, I could not tell tourists from Cubans.

In the museum was a tiny model of a sugar cane plantation and rum factory complete with an operating model train, which won an award from model train fans. At the end of the tour, the guide reeled off the various flavors of old and new rum, spices and miscellaneous additives I should note in the sip of rum I was given to sample. I tried to not choke on the sudden burning as the rum rolled over my tender tongue that is accustomed to rum blunted by sweet fruit juices and served with a parasol.

Bookcraft, aft for sale in the Park on Sundays

The museum of Cuban art, near the Hall of the Revolution, had paintings and sculptures from the 16th Century to the present. The portraits of old white people looked the same as others I’d seen from European museums and were of the same high quality. I liked the country scenes the best, with trees fields and flowers, perhaps because I had only left Havana once and I missed the greenery. There were very few paintings of people of color.

As a part of our educational program, we were hosted at the African History museum by a young woman who introduced us to the wide variety of religious practices brought when the slaves were shipped over from Africa. Cubans don’t shy away from that part of their history, and they take pride in the elements of culture the people brought with them from Africa and kept alive under terrible circumstances. Having landed in a place dominated by the Catholic Church, the Africans paired key African gods and goddesses each with a Catholic saint, so that when they seemed to be worshiping a saint, their piety was not questioned, demonstrating the same resilience the Mayas showed in similar situation. Today, the music and religious practices are the places where the African influence in Cuba is the strongest.

After the tour, we were treated to a dance performance in a room so small that the people in the front row were spattered with the sweat of the lively dancers. Dressed in the symbolic color of their saint/god, the performers leapt and pounded their bare feet to tell stories of their history. Their energy was incredible and the bright skirts shook to the rhythms of a drum ensemble that sang accompaniment.

Havana was hosting the Annual International Book Fair in the fort across the water from us. The fort has a maze of rooms and tunnels where book merchants from many countries had set up displays. All day there were readings and special activities for the Cuban families who wandered the grounds with plastic bags of books dangling from their hands. I sat down in the shade next to Mattie, one of the women in my group, after prowling exhibits. A little boy about four sat with his father a few feet away. Mattie intrigued him and they tried a little conversation, but what he wanted was to show her his shiny new book. She offered to read it to him. Maybe they couldn’t converse well, but his rapt attention when she picked up the book and pointed to the pictures said a lot.

Several of us attended the ballet in a gorgeous old theater within easy walking distance of the hotel. The theater was in good condition, with red velvet seats with cotton covers to protect them. The gilding on the five balconies was in good condition as well. I don’t think I’d ever been in a theater with five balconies. Our tickets cost us $10 US and were very good. We even got a glimpse of people backstage. Cubans would have paid 10 pesos for the same seats.

Instrument Cases of the state orchestra

The first corps of dancers of the Cuban Ballet tours internationally and is well received. That evening four short pieces were performed and it seemed to be an opportunity for the lesser dancers. When the performance began the theater was only 2/3 filled but by the last piece, Cubans filled the main floor and first balcony in anticipation of a performance of the second act from Swan Lake by the more skilled dancers. At the entrance of the lead ballerina the auditorium erupted in enthusiastic applause and her performance, as well as that of the other dancers in the piece, was stunning.

The costumes showed the economic restraints. The skirts, not quite tutus, seemed a little limp and the white tights were not all of the same shade. I wondered what the food restrictions might have done to the physical needs of the dancers, or whether they might have had access to a better quality of food.

As an example of the mystery of Cuba, when Helen told me the seats were not reserved, I pictured sitting in a packed and sweaty pit. I was surprised to discover that our tickets were for a loge section with 15 seats, all very good. My mind was often fixed in a developing country mode, seeing the deteriorating infrastructure, roads, transportation, water distribution and food shortages. Then another reality appeared that reminded me that Cuba was once in much better condition.  This demonstrates the complexity of Cuba today:  the people are on restricted incomes but not in dire poverty and are surviving among relics from an era of incredible riches for some but not all.

Sunday Symphony in the park

One Sunday, an orchestra set up in the park near our hotel and played a broad selection of pieces. Though parts and replacements for the instruments are difficult to find, the music was of fine quality, pleasing everyone who had gathered to listen on that balmy evening.