I became interested in Cuba several years ago while pausing in New Orleans during one of my many journeys through the deep South. In retrospect, it is appropriate that the revelation of my eagerness to visit Cuba occurred in that part of the United States. Though the differences between the two places far outnumber the similarities, the similarities are significantly profound to warrant a comparison and are the point of reference from which my interest in Cuba derives.
Specifically, what I find most compelling is the enduring presence of elements of the past that were once utilitarian and are now defunct. The prevalence of such elements in the South, and to an even greater extent in Cuba, is central to my interest and my continued exploration of both places. It is the old cars and houses, stores and buildings decaying and crumbling in upon themselves, hand rendered signs and memorials, run-down parks, cemeteries, and gas stations – the layering of history and the slow moving gentle violence of time that are visually manifest in places where things are not quickly or habitually replaced. And, there are the people whose proximity to these things engenders a spiritual appreciation of history and society, and the character-building struggle that is the process of their lives. I suggest that this is visible when we look carefully at these people, and that those who live in the other part of human society – that of speed and the quick-fix lifestyle – are different, perhaps even look different.
During a conversation some time ago with a friend who oversees the distribution of funding to cultural institutions in the United States, the following phrase came up: POVERTY PRESERVES. They were her words, and the mention of her philanthropic position is intended to focus some of the irony of money’s precarious role relative to our culture, education, and art. It is a phrase I have loosely adopted to describe my interest in places like the South and like Cuba. However, it is not intended to claim that materially poor people are better off, or that where there is money there is no culture, though I think that there are surely examples of each. It is, rather, intended to indicate that when a society does not have enough money to change its past quickly it is more likely to have its past around long enough to learn from it. When something is no longer useful – in places where there is not enough money available to replace it – it stands there in that field, along that back road, or on that Main Street, as a reminder of itself, and as a reminder of the time in which it was useful. If we pay attention to it, it can be the very monument of civilization: an indicator of growth, of change, of progress, or in some cases, of regress. In this capacity, that object has a perpetuating new use, a hallowed use.
There are no corporate chains in Cuba (yet). There is no advertising, no billboards except the occasional emblazoned with “VIVA LA REVOLUCION!” or the idealized likeness of Che or Fidel (or more recently, Elian). And there is none of the high paced disposable culture that is the hallmark and the cancer of America and those countries who emulate her. In Cuba, what I see is a struggling, passionate, educated, creative, proud, and hungry people biding its time in the face of history and an international, political machine that has treated them and their country cruelly for two hundred years. But they do not have the appearance of victims or even of survivors. To me they look like a triumphant culture, dancing in the face of the odds of circumstance.
While the spirit of the Cuban people has been fortified by their ongoing struggle against alien and internal tyranny, their ingenuity lies in their ability to make do with and learn from what they have at their disposal. If convenience is the death of creativity, then the Cuban people are vitally creative. This instilled character, tempered and empowered by the aptitude of the State educational system (perhaps Castro’s greatest accomplishment), is the salvation of Cuban culture today. There is no material opportunity to speak of in Cuba; it is their education, the music, the dance, the art, and the struggle against blind complacency for oppression that is the wealth of the Cuban people.
I’d like to think that my respect for the people of Cuba is manifest in these photographs and that ultimately they embody some semblance of the Cubans’ spirit and function as an homage to the vitality of their culture.
—Peter Kayafas (2001)