Cuba: A Changing Culture
Photo and story by Andrew Seng
A boy plays baseball on a corner of a busy street intersection in Havana. Like many Latin American countries, Cubans are very passionate about baseball. Due to a lack of access to goods like baseballs, bats and mitts, kids will go out on the streets to use whatever they can get their hands on, including sticks to replace bats, or rolled up tape and rocks to replace balls. Baseball was brought to Cuba in the 1860s and still remains of the most popular remnants of American culture on the island until this day.
Raul Acosta fixes the clutch of his 1954 4-door Chevrolet Bel-Air in the Cuban resort town of Varadero. In 1962, the United States implemented a trade embargo on Cuba, which effectively severed trade relations between the two countries. This meant that Cubans could no long receive new cars from the U.S. or service parts to repair broken vehicles. There are an estimated 60,000 of these 1950s Chevrolets or "Yank Tanks" that still drive the Cuban streets. Currently, the only way to maintain these vehicles is with Cuban ingenuity and the use of Russian car parts.
Lázaro Melgares is a farmer at the Organic Garden Cooperative in the Havana eastern district city of Alamar. Over the past few years, Cuba has developed one of the most successful urban agriculture systems in the world. Since the availability of petrochemical materials is very limited in Cuba, urban agriculture production is almost exclusively done with organic, biological fertilizers and biological pest control techniques. Organic and urban agriculture are essentially interchangeable terms since both draw upon organic practices.
Abel Hierrezuelo and his daughter Rosabel Hierrezuelo, sit in their house that also serves as Abel's place of religious worship. Abel is a priest of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, a religion that is derived of Western African and Carribean origins fused with cultural elements of Roman Catholicism. Santeria has a strong spiritual element to it, and emphasizes the religious worship and communication with the spirits of the dead for traditional healing purposes.
Elvira "Beba" Boullosa is a member of the Cuban therapy group known as Psycho-Ballet. Psycho-Ballet is a dance therapy program that specializes with rehabilitating psychiatric patients and Cuban elders in Cuba by using classical dance movements combined with music, dialogue, and collective exchange.
Walking through the streets of Havana, Cuba, an American civilian, especially one with a fancy camera from the Oregon University System (OUS), tends to turn a lot of heads. I figured that if I walked with purpose and confidence, I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. As a journalist in the United States, it takes a lot of courage to approach people you don’t know and ask for a picture or two. In Cuba, the biggest challenge is the language barrier. My only choice was to immerse myself head first into Cuban culture and attempt to connect with locals on a personal level.
While visiting with Cuban elders of the Psycho Ballet, a group that uses classical dance moves combined with music to rehabilitate elders and psychiatric patients, I had the pleasure of meeting Miguel Aguillar Torres and Carmen Garcia: a pair of 100-year old Cubans who have lived through Cuba’s pre-revolution era, Fidel’s revolution, and the Special period of the ‘90s when the country was struck with immense poverty after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even more touching was how they reveled in joy from seeing us OUS students.
The amount of energy they produced was astounding, almost palpable, and their stories were driven by emotion. It pained me to see Cuban elders display so much passion for their country and the OUS program that brought us to their country, when the United States government and American citizens have such a detached and misguided perspective of the beautiful people of this island.
Alfredo Prieto, a native Cubano and expert on Cuban-U.S. relations, told me “At the end of the day we’re supposed to have good relations.” I was struck by the simplicity of his statement because Cuba and the United States are only 90 miles apart, which is a shorter distance than driving from Eugene to Portland, Oregon. We’re so close, yet so far.
Prieto exudes progress when it comes to the betterment of U.S.-Cuba relations. He believes that if the blockade, an embargo that prohibits trade between the U.S. and Cuba, was lifted, American tourists would be a refreshing and uplifting change to the Cuban economy.
Cuban identity and nationality is defined by social unity between different cultures. Cuba is versatile in the sense that communities are able to absorb new traditions without the outstanding Cubano culture becoming over-saturated by foreign influences. This melting pot is largely evident in Havana, where you can observe the many influences that mesh together, creating the Cuban experience.
When it was time to return to the states, the Cubanos called us not friends, but brothers and sisters. They desired to help me provide the truth about Cuba. They wanted us as students to act as a medium for the truth, passing along messages of peace to our friends and family back in the United States. The spirit of my photos and the purpose of my work is to convey their passion for unity between the United States and Cuba—a passion that should be passed onto their, and our, younger generations.