WHY CUBA? A photographer's inspired love and passion with the "Jewel of the Caribbean."
Updated: Sep 30, 2018
“Because most visitors have only the vaguest idea of Cuba’s troubled history, I am going to review it as briefly as I can, and if you are not interested, you can skip to the part about cocktails.” —Eleanor Early, 1950's
This essay is from the Introduction chapter of my photo book "Embracing Cuba" (University Press of Florida, 2015.
“Respond to every call that excites your spirit” - Rumi
How does one paint a picture with words when words are not enough? Upon sitting down to write the text for this book, I could not shake that gnawing question.
I think about the gifts this magical island, Cuba, has given me; the appreciation, if not longing, for a simpler time; the deep understanding of the importance of embracing and protecting one’s cultural heritage, especially in a time of rapid globalization; admiration for the optimism and generosity of its people despite a lack of amenities that most westerners, myself included, often take for granted; how the island has awakened my senses with its utterly unique vivid sights, vivacious sounds and victorious spirit.
Thirteenth-century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more commonly known as Rumi, once wrote, “Respond to every call that excites your spirit”. Having adopted this sentiment as one of my own personal mantras, I have followed the call of my heart by embracing Cuba as a place that feeds my soul like no other place on earth.
But where to start?
My relationship with Cuba began before I was even born. My father, having just graduating top of his class from umpire school in Daytona Beach, was invited to “try out Cuba,” since the major leagues were not yet accepting Negro umpires. Intrigued by the possibility, my parents paid ten dollars a ticket and boarded an Aerovías Q Airways flight and flew from Key West, Florida to Havana. In thirty minutes they were in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, investigating what opportunities my father might have for an umpiring career in the Cuban leagues. After spending a week on the island, and falling in love with everything that is Cuba, they returned to their home in Missouri, dreaming to soon revisit the exotic land where they could live and raise their growing family in a culture that was clearly more accepting of skills provided by people of color.
My father indeed found opportunities to umpire professionally in Cuba, but two circumstances prevented him from ever returning to the island. First, he unexpectedly got an offer from the Pacific Coast League (one level below the majors) making him only the second black umpire in a top-tier minor league. Secondly, and even more unexpected, a charismatic yet controversial leader by the name of Fidel Castro Ruz rode into Havana with his revolution, over-throwing Cuba’s infamous dictator and U.S. ally Fulgencio Batista, changing, nearly overnight, the direction of the country’s future.
Since my parents’ trip, Cuba has long held a special place in the hearts of my family. I grew up listening to my parents reminisce about their fun-filled, adventurous and eye-opening week; of discovering what was to them, at that time, wholly exotic; foods such as plantains, malanga and yucca, the freshest seafood ever; the pristine beaches, salacious nightlife, the rich and rhythmic music, nightly midnight parades through the streets of Havana, and some “damn good baseball”. I always listened to their stories with a tinge of envy, knowing the United States’ embargo might prevent me from ever stepping foot on the island.
As I got older and began to do the math, I ultimately learned that I had actually been conceived during my parents’ Havana adventure. Well, that did it. Now I felt even more of a connection to the mysterious island and became determined to “try out Cuba” for myself. Finally in 2005, I discovered that Americans had been traveling to Cuba for years by legal means. Why hadn’t anybody told me this sooner? Needless to say I jumped at the first opportunity to go. Traveling under a General License, as sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), I ventured to Cuba to do research for a PBS documentary I am producing about players from the Negro Baseball Leagues who played on the island during the off-seasons. It’s a rich and unexplored history that connects our countries through a shared national pastime, baseball. Expecting to immerse myself in research, I was completely unprepared when I found myself totally captivated by the islands’ charm, beauty and warmth. Like my parents had done so some forty-plus years before, I too immediately fell in love with this “jewel of the Caribbean”.
The moment I stepped out of Jose Marti International Airport and walked toward the waiting tour bus, I felt oddly connected to the island. It was a strange, unexpected and overwhelming sensation that is till difficult for me to put into words. I distinctly recall hearing a voice inside me whisper, “I’m home.” Having traveled to many different and exotic lands since I was a child, I dismissed the voice as simply the overwhelming excitement at having finally arrived at the place I had long dreamt of. I mean, come on; how could I possible entertain a whisper like “I’m home” when I hadn’t even left the grounds of the airport parking lot. But the whisper persisted, and by the end of my inaugural visit, I began to sense just how prophetic that whisper would actually become. Ten years later, I feel even more blessed that my curiosity, my research, my newfound “amigos”, and the love I feel for “my Cuba” (as I now affectionately call her) continues to lead call me back to the island time and time again.
Everything about Cuba fascinates me. The pre-revolution midnight parades and salacious clubs of my parents’ Cuba may be no more, but many things culturally and socially remain. Add to this the tantalizing rhythms and harmonies of the bolero and son, seducing and pulsating dances like the mambo and rumba. There are pristine, diamond-dusted beaches and balmy turquoise waters. Havana offers a feast for all the senses; the whimsical leisurely mood of the Malecon, the nostalgic aura of classic cars breezing by, the genteel beauty of decaying colonial structures, their eye-popping colors and multihued textures and patinas. And everything is infused with the genuine warmth of the Cuban people, their generosity, their resilience and spirit. Throw in some “damn good baseball”, and you have all the ingredients that have made me fall head over heals for this charming isle.
And if truth be told, the mojito’s ain’t too bad either!
There is so much to absorb and experience that it will take many more trips, if not a few lifetimes, to truly to experience the total essence of Cuba. I am honored to have this amazing opportunity to take you on this photographic journey and share some memorable moments that I have been fortunate to experience. In my heart I have adopted Cuba as my second home, or should I say she has adopted me. Whichever the case may be, I am eternally grateful for Rumi’s advice, and I will continue to embrace the spirit of my Cuba and respond to the call.
Click link above to purchase "Embracing Cuba".
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