Cuba is Not Its Beaches or Its Whores
Cuba is not its beaches or its whores. It’s not the sadness of its streets or romanticism of the “máquinas” (cabs), the Moskovich, Lada or the American classics with loud hot-wired sound systems. It’s not the elders’ acquiescence or the youngsters’ indifference, nor an amusement park where you can throw a tantrum because you paid your ticket and feel some sort of privilege. It’s not a Safari or your local farmers market. Not all Cubans are panhandlers that want to jip you in some transaction, nor do all its women ask for copper in exchange for their affection. And if it weren’t for the inescapable propaganda, one could say that at this point, it’s not even the revolution.
When you ask around for tips before you decide to escape to The Princess of the Sea, you get some recurring ones (check out Phoenikerx’s Guide to Cuba), some are completely ambiguous and the rest you find them there, on the wawa, on your way to 26th St.
La Phoenikera.com wanted to learn about Cuba not through documentaries, books, essays, other people’s recollections or the propaganda that some of the bearded commander’s adepts still propagate.
We wanted to understand, at least in principle and thanks to the locals, the key to the island, its life tune, and how people create art when they have so many obstacles.
The Cuban counterculture is not always counterrevolutionary but it started the moment the revolution’s gravy wasn’t equally rationed among everyone.
When power disproportionally swings toward one side and as a consequence allows a very small group to fatten their wallets, it inevitably generates a counter-narrative, an alternate culture that evolves in par with tyranny only to maim it.
When you see classic cars from the U.S. the mixture of architecture; when you get the feel of the city and indulge in some ruin porn just for a bit, you can’t stop to draw parallels between Detroit and both cities’ decay. Maybe these cities downturned for opposite reasons, maybe not so much. It’s funny to think that some cars were even manufactured in Motor City while the revolution was still in its infancy.
In Havana, much like in Detroit, people survive in spite of their circumstances and both have been neglected by basically everyone around them. Their artists, like the rest of the population, have to hustle. In Cuba’s case, it’s scoring art supplies, through the support of friends or institutions/organizations from other countries.
Taller Comunitario José Martí
This workshop/studio/gallery on Paseo del Prado (Old Havana), witnesses that conversation all the time: where the fuck do we get the supplies to work with? The work they do with the youth is in part thanks to donations and for the artists in this collective, everything is a possibility. Such is the case of 2+2=5? (Fabián López Hernández), who sometimes draws his hooded character on the brown napkins everybody gets when they order a pizza, masareal (guava panetela) and snow cones, or in some shady branches of Pío Pío (a fried chicken joint) that don’t carry the fancy card boxes they usually give out.
Besides a gallery where the audience can interact with the artists and their work or take a class Saturday mornings, Taller Comunitario provides an exploration channel for youth who are curious and interested in learning visual arts or theater.
Hueso Duro (Miguel Ángel Hernández), a member of the project, tells us the collective participates in cultural exchanges and several of its members have had shows overseas like in the case of experimental photographer Yomer Montejo Harrys.
These travels have secured friends and organization support all over the world that periodically collaborate with them giving workshops and providing art supplies.
Yoanny Aldaya Ramirez is also part of the collective and his work must be seen because describing it with words is futile. Carlos Tato Ayress, a Chilean singer/songwriter/painter who exiled in Havana during the 70’s, is also a member and has been singing “Nueva Trova” since it started. Frida Granados, Osmany Carratala, and Vladimir Morejón are also part of Taller Comunitario
Keeping the workshops free with limited material for the kids is hard –especially when there are only two art supply shops in Havana and they replenish supplies twice a year, but government favored artists get dibs on the material and leave very little to the rest.
In spite of their adversities they produce and a lot. Just by looking around inside the gallery you get the sense that these artists are devoted to the fruition of their creativity.
Every month, a group of local artists gather at Taller Comunitario to talk, drink rum, smoke and listen to good music (the majority of the time Aldeanos, Silvito El Libre, Maikel Extremo, Wichy Vedado or something similar plays in the background).
One day we heard Tato Ayress playing some anthems of “la Nueva Trova’s” songbook and “De Santiago a La Habana” (From Santiago to Havana), a jam that we’ll never forget and you only fully understand once you’ve been there.
The night before, we got there late and the tickets they give at the entrance ran out (I’ll explain why these tickets are important in a bit ’cause it can save you 30 bucks and a whole lot ‘o embarrassment), that’s why we decided to get there at 8:00 p.m.
21:02:32 Late! We arrive at the place at the same time we did the night before, but there’s no line to get in.
Engrave this in your mind: Inside La Fábrica, you don’t pay for what you consume when you consume it. When you go into the venue and you pay your 2 CUCs, they’ll give you a card on which they tally everything you get. At the end of the night, when you have no idea where you are, whose clothes you’re wearing or who you are, you’ll have to present that card on your way out to pay your “tab.” If you don’t have the card, tough shit, you’ll have to cough up 30 dollas ’cause they’ll charge you.
21:05:16 The experience is distributed in different environments (they’re called “naves”), and each one showcases the works of local talent like Yomer Montejo. Nave 3 is showing Kid Chocolate, a play that chronicles the life of Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo, the first Cuban boxer to win a world championship.
Everything about this play is impeccable, from the vigorous performance by Jorge Caballero, the score performed by a live band or the use of the minimally dressed stage. Though the cherry on top is the use of props, specifically a hollow rectangular wooden box Caballero uses as a donkey, washer, shoe shining chair, a car, and a podium, among other things. It is like a Mary Poppins magical bag where he gets the costumes for the different characters he personafies (at least 5), it was friggin’ genius!
22:11:08 After guzzling our first official hard-hitter glass of rum inside the venue we went ouside to have a cig and hang around one of the many corners this place has and where you meet the most interesting characters. Like Frank, a Cuban writer who creates children’s books or Katiushka, a cook and spice collector from Brooklyn, NY.
After inhaling the nicotine-drenched cylinder, we hit the different naves and soaked up in Cuban art. I must confess that I feel a bit overwhelmed, saturated with so much to see.
22:30:04 Did I mention there are several bars and all the bartenders are pretty generous with the sauce?
We’re on nave 1, local DJs Obi and Joan Coffigny are spinnin’ deep house tracks, there’s a shitload of people dancing and weirdly, it feels like a 90’s rave.
23:05:02 After a brief but violent encounter with a wall that messed up my glasses in nave 5, we chill at nave 2 where they have a photography exhibit… I need some recoup time after splitting my cheek bone in half.
23:21:00 We are 20 minutes late (ok, 21) for Isis Flores’ set on the stage of nave 4. The blue-light walls are covered with images of Bowie, Hendrix, Moré, Madonna, The Godfather of Soul, and Lionel “Hamp” Hampton, among other music icons. Isis is working the crowd with her pop anthems that most people seem to enjoy. I’m in the middle of the venue grinning, looking like a creeper who’s staring at the crowd, happy that everyone seems to be having an awesome time.
01:03:09 We hung out and talked with the peeps from Taller Comunitario (because at La Fábrica you stumble upon most of the people you meet during the trip), Frank the storyteller and Katiushka the cook have come and gone, and people are dancing as if their worries existed somewhere else.
All programmed events are done, some peeps are dispersed throughout the other naves, confabulating erotic plans, others just dancing to sassy jams.
Quick note: The programming at this place changes every 3 months, what we saw most-likely will change, but you’ll surely experiment some bad-ass art.
Most people believe this is a private venture initiated lead by musician X Alfonso and other artists when really it’s a center of the Cuban Ministry of Culture in conjunction with some Cuban artists. Only the bars are operated by private contractors. The Cuban government knows how to milk the tourists’ tit.
Bellas Artes, Revolution Museum, etc.
Skip the Museo de la Revolución, we didn’t because for most Cubans it is a symbol of oppression, but above all because the average Cuban would rather spend their 100 “pesos revolucionarios” somewhere else and so did we. Also, we didn’t go to the Museum of Rum or the one for chocolate.
If you’re an art junkie and need your fix, then Bellas Artes is your pusher. It has three stories of context, three floors that’ll help you piece out Cuba. Visit it, you might stumble upon the work of Leandro Soto, a Cuban artist who lived in La Phoenikera for a minute.
The museum is divided into two buildings, one for world art and another for Cuban. We decided to focus on Cuban art. Like we said, this place is huge and it has all the different eras of Cuban art history. It was really impressive and we particularly have our favorites which include Antonia Eiriz whose anguish-charged creations have a palpable darkness and expose the life experience in Cuba. Her style reminded us a little bit to Phoenikero artist Bobby Castañeda.
Other artists that made an impact on us were Sergio Martínez, Ángel Acosta León, René Portocarrero, Rubén Torres Llorca, Amilcar Cabral, and the genius Wilfredo Lam. There was one, however, that struck me the most and that was Servando Cabrera Moreno, an artist with varied styles that linger between the erotic, the human form and transparency… his art is sensuality.
For the purposes of the piece, we’ll only discuss Cuban street artists and not the work of foreign ones who did work on the island. Yes, Havana has tons of graffiti everywhere, sometimes it’s censored like in the case of El Sexto (@dmmelsexto), others not so much, which is the case of artist Yulier P (@yuliergraffiticuba) and others.
It is kind of provocative to see street art and propaganda competing for space and sometimes coexisting, complementing each other, it’s kind of poetic way in a way. You have awesome examples within the works of 2+2=5? (@ttttoe), @DuroHueso, 5stars (@5starsart), Dyoz, Caso, @ScottandDestroy, and @MK89.
Unfortunately, we didn’t meet any female or queer street artists working in Havana, we know of female artists who have worked in the city, but even doing some research it’s hard to find one. If you know of any, please let us know.
The Internet plays hide and seek a the parks
Cubans are masterful at workarounds because they’ve had to navigate restrictions at home and a 50-year embargo that has only made the lives of common people a moist mound of doo-doo. But they’re resilient, ingenious and undoubtedly have a revolutionary heart, though sometimes it’s oppressed.
They’ve also been isolated from the world for decades in terms of access to information and technology. Since the government allowed access to the Internet in 2015, things have been slowly changing (as slow as their connection). Cubans are eager for openness and are consuming the interwebs like reggaetón and coffee. It’s just a matter of time before power dynamics start shifting and the impact of them engaging with new technologies can be seen in fashion, the music they listen to, art, the Cuban identity and how it’s expressed.
If you walk by Karl Marx Park in Centro Habana, the park on Línea and H (Vedado), Park Estadio Latinoamericano in the Cerro municipality (home of “Los Azules”), or through the dozens of WiFi access points, the majority of people are glued to their screens or blastin’ Insurrecto on their Bluetooth speakers. Even though they’ve only had access for two years, people act as if it has been there all along. A girl we met there called WiFi areas zombie parks and watching Cubans getting their cyber fix is undoubtedly amusing, to say the least. They’re very social and communal, they do everything together: they suffer, cry, laugh, drink, dance and now they browse the webs en masse.
Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht
This cultural center has awesome programming and all kinds of peeps meet to have a cup of coffee with a bocadito (ham and cheese sliders), a brewster (Cristal, Bucanero or Presidente) and just chill. We saw Flechas del Ángel del Olvido in one of its theaters, a play by José Sanchis Sinisterra, adapted by Esther Cardoso Villanueva, and produced by Gaia Teatro de La Habana.
It was a dope interactive show about the influence outside forces have on youth and their future. Real solid show in terms of production value and acting.
Also, it was the first place where we thought Cubans talked a lot and realized that it’s because they don’t have their face glued to a screen. They look at each other when they talk, they argue, they communicate.
Roma, the speakeasy of Aguacate
It’s always a good idea to share the location of a speakeasy if you happen to stumble upon one while traveling and it happens to us quite often. It’s on Aguacate St. #162 in Habana Vieja…fourth floor, the rooftop. Same, awesome vibes, cool jams by DJ Dark or Kike Wolf, cheap drinks and an environment assorted with all kinds of weirdos. Hipster alert! If you like to avoid them then don’t go. Yes, there are hipsters in Havana and no, not all are posers.
The first night we went to La Fábrica de Arte Cubano we were turned away because they ran out of tickets. While in line to get into the place we met two awesome twins (Wilbert and William) who asked us to join them at El Submarino Amarillo (The Yellow Submarine) after two fucking gringos and their entitlement tried to cut the line in front of us.
El Submarino is an underground bar that reeks of nostalgia and love for Glam Rock ballads, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, among other 70’s and 80’s bands (they only played The Beatles once). It’s a bar not sought out by your average tourist and bro’s and chicken brains quickly leave after they arrive. Beer and cocktails are cheapo and if you add Freddy Mercury Karaoke, you’re set for the night. People that go to this place usually want to avoid salsa, merengue, or any other traditionally Caribbean rhythm, specially reggaetón.
“The best coffee in Havana!” said Miguel Diezcabeza, owner of this tiny gem in Old Havana. Like many of the places we encountered, we just want to spend a lot of time in it. We had the Arcangel brekkie and it was amazeballs, and was packed with tons of fruit, eggs, toast, and coffee of course. Its café cortado is the best among those of 700 other establishments evaluated in Havana.
This place is like your tía cachivachera’s house, but with taste. It has a few separated areas and each one has its own decor. Where we got seated looked like the entrance hall at your grandma’s house. You know, the one that has the little table with the weird adornos and an old-ass phone? Like that. There was one right behind us and the owner called it to brag that still worked after more than 80 years. It rang, it was pretty loud. In the background, an old Columbia Musical Treasuries LP was coming out of a record player.
Cubans drink a ton of coffee throughout the day (they don’t even looked cracked out like people do here, must be something in the water), black brew runs through their veins and it’s another way to connect with the earth, is part of who they are and a lot of their interactions are while sipping coffee.
The coffee is brewed by Jedi barista Joao Diezcabeza, son of Miguel. He has visited several countries to learn about different coffees, altitudes, and everything there is to know about good ol’ Joe. The result is 27 tastebud-fucking, pupil-dilating, caffeine-high options on the menu. Cubans are genuinely warm and we experienced that even on our last day when we wanted to have our last black brew of the trip, and we made way to Arcángel, but they were already closed. When we mentioned that we wanted to have our last “best coffee in Havana”, they opened their business and served us a cafecito.
El Mago was born when Fidel croaked
On the inauguration day of El Mago, a coffee shop/bar we found by chance while roaming through the colonial streets of Trinidad, Castro slipped into his wooden pajamas (or so they said he did… we and a lot of Cubans think he was dead long before that).
Carlos Duffay, one of the owners of the place, remembers that everyone and their mother was at the opening party. At the climax of the night, the fuzz showed up to cut them off because it was a public display of disrespect to Castro. Carlos and his associates argued that they didn’t know but still cops took their license to operate and didn’t give back until nine days after.
This is a well-thought spot that inspires you to do several things at the same time: sit and prattle the whole afternoon, inspect every corner, every photo, the drawings or writings on the wall. Maybe (like in Cortazar’s Hopscotch), play “cyclops” with a special person, meet someone you hadn’t seen in a long time or simply –which is my case–, people watch.
Meeting Carlos and Melia was pretty dope. Carlos because he’s a young artist/entrepreneur that’s making his mark in his city (it’s the only place where you can hear EDM and reggaetón is banned), he’s transparent, loves to talk and share his humanity. Melia is kind of La Maga, she’s the most filter-less person I’ve met in a while and her sex stories are fucking hillars! We learned from her that Cuban women have the “whore seal” on their foreheads because the government has made a point to export that vision of its women.
El Mago is the concept of a group of friends (Laura Vaillant, Lyhan Arango y Yilien Moje) that started in 2016 with a few hundred dollars borrowed from friends and family. There are two things on the menu that’ll make your eyes roll back with ecstasy: the Baracoa coffee, a multilevel swirl of frappéd yummy black brew with chocolate, and the Canchánchara, a concoction made of honey, lime juice and aguardiente that initially the Mambises used as a remedy for respiratory ailments. My sickness was sobriety, so I had a few just to make sure I didn’t get too sick. The few I had though, had a slight variation… ice and soda water.
Carlos and Melia recommended La Botija for dinner (order an Ensalada Campesina, it’s super fucking weird, and share the spaghetti if you order one, it’s huge!), then we would convene at a later time at La Cueva, a cave of wonders where one practices all kinds deeds. Melia hangs out at the café and is Carlos’ roomie, she’s a trained violinist and also waits tables at a fancy joint in Trinidad. Carlos traded engineering for photography and makes the meanest Chancháncara ever! We had a genuine connection, nothing transactional about it. There was a lot of learning, especially for us since we’re used to discard things, even good ideas.
They mentioned that murals and street art aren’t accepted as much, although there is some around the city. Carlos says that murals are frequently covered because the city is still very conservative. There are murals, but there are plenty covered by a mediocre layer of paint.
When in Trinidad, La Cueva is a must. This nest of hedonism is inside a system of caves where people drink, grind until they wear out, and leave their shoe soles on the dance floor (sometimes also their decency, like I did).
To get to La Cueva is a bit of a hike because it’s situated in a mountain hill. On your way up there are small impromptu stands that sell Cancháncharas at 1,25 CUCs, which is less than half of the price inside the club for the same drink, so take advantage of that.
La Bodeguita del Medio
Yes, go to this place only to take advantage of their insane Happy Hour (2 mojitos for $2.50). Yes, they say it was Hemingway’s bar, but weren’t they all at some point? That old fucker was a party animal! Maybe you’ll even have Rey Fabré y su Grupo Original playing to liven up your mojito binge.
Trinidad is also called “the museum city,” it has a several options to visit (Museo de Historia Municipal, Museo de Arqueología, Museo Romántico, Museo de Arquitectura Colonial, etc.).
La Casa de la Música
Yeah, this one too, but just to warm up the party engines so you can then go and discover what the city has to offer. It’s a cool place to dance outdoors and to watch the best and worst dance moves ever.
Cuba is what you are inside and you find what you seek. If you take bad juju and you’re stuck up, then most likely that’s what you’ll get. Cuba is a mirror that reflects intentions, a place where its citizens coexist with “the damned circumstance of water everywhere.”
If the purpose is to be a tourist à la Houellebecq, there will those DTF. If you want to avoid crowds and just enjoy self-discovery trip, you can do that too (with the occasional interaction which will help you realize that Cubans approach you because they want to ask for or offer you something, or in rare instances, simply because you intrigue them).
Cuba is everything you heard and people have told you, but it is also what they didn’t. Yes, there are impromptu parties in the middle of the street while it’s raining and music can be heard everywhere. People are joyous because they choose cheerfulness instead of the alternative.
No, not everything is Son, Chachachá, Guaguancó, Rumba or Mambo. Guantanamera most times is just an eco overpowered by a Chocolate Nestlé jam that’s blastin’ from a 55′ Bell Air.
Yes, there are hot people but, isn’t that the case everywhere, isn’t there always that person that makes you look twice? Get the fuck over it.
Oh, the Cuban Sandwich (or Medianoche) that I wanted to try in Cuba since I was 6-years-old, the one with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, no, it’s not better in Cuba.