Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Fascination with Cuba

I’ve long been fascinated with Cuba from the tales of by-gone days when expat writers, e.g. Ernest Hemingway, lived there.  I've loved the black/white images of Cuba in a photography book I bought a few years ago—Walker Evans’ Havana 1933.  As I reread the narrative that accompanied Evans’ photographs, I learned that Evans spent three weeks in Havana taking photos to illustrate a book by a leftist author who was protesting American support for the Cuban dictator of that day.  It was a time of student unrest and police brutality, but the photos I remembered showed interesting buildings and the great cultural melting pot that is Cuba, depicted in people’s faces.  I probably just fell in love with Evans' photographs, just as I had years earlier in Now Let Us Praise Famous Men.  The following photos are not the necessarily the best in the book but provide some examples of Evans' Havana work.
 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Cuban Children
Havana, 1933
Walker Evans (1903–1975)
People in Downtown Havana
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1952, 52.562.7

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Woman on the Street
Havana, 1933

Then in the 1990’s came the Buena Vista Social Club, first the album, then the documentary.  I loved the film, the vibrant and ageless sounds of the music.  The fact that this music and many of its aging musicians survived is testament to the resilience of the Cuban people. 

Thus, when I saw the book, Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana in the book store, I bought it, but I just now got around to reading it.

Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana
Isadora Tattlin
Broadway Books, 2002

Isadora Tattlin, the nom de plume of a diplomat’s wife from an unnamed country, lived with her family in Cuba in the early 1990’s and kept a diary of her experiences.  This book basically depicts the daily lives of a privileged family in an underprivileged country.  Tattlin’s primary job as a diplomat’s wife was caring for her two children and running her home with a lot of assistance from her Cuban household help.  Tattlin was obviously sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people and paid her employees well, but the Cuban government took a large portion of their salaries. Foreigners in Cuba could also expect that some of their employees were reporting to the government about the household. 

Tattlin detailed complicated shopping excursions as she and her employees searched for necessary goods and foods unavailable to the average Cuban, or even to foreigners with money, unless they had contacts in the right places.  Everyone had to deal with complicated laws, which changed frequently, about who could sell products and who could shop in designated stores.  For example, state-run dipolmercado markets had exorbitant prices, often inferior products, accepted only dollars, and were for foreigners living in Cuba.  Agropecuarios or fruit, vegetable, lamb and pork farm-to-market stores accepted only pesos, but anyone could shop there.  Farmers were allowed to sell in the agropecuarios a certain percentage of what they raised, but it varied year-to-year whether these markets were allowed to open.  The state ran pesos-only bodegas were for Cubans only. Cubans were given ration books in order to buy staples from the bodegas, but the products were often unavailable. 
The diary described side trips the family made to other parts of Cuba, but the accommodations and food always seemed to be minimal.  Tattlin described restaurants without food with a few sad looking people sitting around, and beds with dirty sheets. 

The one thing that Tattlin seemed to love about Cuba was her house.  It was huge with garden areas for outdoor living, quite a contrast to many Cubans who were living in apartment buildings with no running water. They got their water from tank trucks, then had to carry it to their homes. 

This book was just as the title says—a diary.  There was no narrative structure in the book.  Tattlin described many daily experiences in detail and some entries were quite interesting and entertaining, while others were boring, just as life is.  Tattlin met some interesting characters in Cuba, and on one occasion she and her husband entertained Castro in their home.

The diaries weren’t what I had hoped they would be, or perhaps it was Cuba that wasn’t what I had wanted it to be.  I probably won't be traveling there any time soon.


  1. Love the photos. Life in Cuba, even for the privileged leaves a lot to be desired--especially if one is from a country with fewer restrictions and more luxuries.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jenny. Have you read much about life in Cuba under Castro?