We lost 4 today. They showed up late to our morning meeting and weren’t allowed to come to Salvador Gonzalez’s workshop/gallery, Revolution Square, el Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and Old Havana. Besides that, today was really interesting in general.
The first was defined by Salvador Gonzalez’s Santería-influenced art. Santería is one of the four major religions in Cuba, being Afro-Cuban
(descended from cultures ranging from Senegal to Angola). Another of these four is based on beliefs from Benin. Though these beliefs were apparent in the subjects of some of his murals and paintings, they were beautiful nonetheless (see below). Our tour guide described Santería’s influence on Cuban culture with an example of his college professors having him write his name over theirs whenever he said anything particularly diffident, and put it in the area above a refrigerator. This sort of religious superstition seems to define lives in many South American cultures, as similar Inca beliefs remain strong in Peru.
Besides Gonzalez, there were a variety of other artists displaying work in the gallery. One artist with whom we talked uses a press to create ink pieces from metal and plastic carvings.
Our next stop was the Revolution Square. Facing a statue of José Martí upon a tall pedestal on one side, the square faces large metal sculptures depicting the faces of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Besides these people, this square further celebrates the first Cuban Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1868 until 1878. It was started by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a very rich man who, upon freeing his slaves, organized them to fight for the independence of Cuba from Spain. A large reason for this was the fact that all second-generation immigrants to Cuba, whether from Spain or from Africa (white or black), had come to be known as Creoles, who were looked down upon by much of the population. This war was lost to the Spanish, though fighting lasted after de Cespedes’ son, Oscar, was captured and held hostage by the Spaniards, eventually being killed. Thus, de Cespedes was unable to establish Cuba’s independence or ban the slave trade in the country, but he managed to declare himself the father of the his Cuban supporters, and the president of the area he did manage to liberate (though not the entire country). The result of this was a political philosophy known as regionismo, where concern wasn’t given by much of the public for the independence of Cuba as a whole, but rather only of specific areas.
Though this detriment to political development existed for a good 2 decades, a second Revolutionary War was started in 1896 by José Martí. Besides being a Cuban National Hero and Apostle for doing this, he was also an international known genius, who published the popular children’s book La Edad de Oro, and the poem on which José de Fernandez’s song Guantanamera was based.
A final statue that can be found in Revolution Square is of Camilo Cienfuegos, another political genius who was known as something of an advisor to Fidel Castro.
Our next stop was El Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which was a headquarters for the Italo-American Mob in the 1930s and ’40s, and another place where Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote. It is also home to a number of cannons from the Cuban-Spanish-American war. On the way, we passed the Habana Libre Hotel, which was an old Hilton that was turned into Fidel Castro’s headquarters during the war for independence. We also passed the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, where parts of the film Fresa y Chocolate, an early piece about anti-homophobia, were filmed.
Throughout its history, Havana has changed hands many times. One of these primary changes was when it was re-acquired through payment to the British government by the Spaniards. One of the most visible results of this was the construction of metal lighting fixtures in central Havana from these old cannons.
After lunch, for which we had pasta, pizza, flan, sweet potato, and tapioca pudding, we headed to La Plaza de Armas. One of the notable structures was el Templete, a small temple in front of which lie statuettes of pineapples. Upon explanation, we learned that the pineapple is known as the queen of Cuban fruits and represents hospitality.
On another side of la Plaza de Armas stands the 2nd oldest fort in North America: La Real Fuerza. This fort was home to Fernando Desoro and his wife. Upon being killed while abroad, she spent 5 years waiting for him in a tower, honored by a metal statuette of her as a part of the weathervane atop this tower. She remains a symbol of the city of Havana. She’s known as la Giralda, and is found on all Havana Club labels.
Our next stop was the Presidential Palace, which now serves as the City Museum. Besides housing 65 colonial governors, it served as the Havana City Hall during the first half of the 20th Century. One of its residents had a significant beef with loud noises because of his daily post-lunch naps, so he had the brick road replaced with bricks made from the very dense Acana wood. The palace itself is built in the Baroque style with Moorish and Southern Spanish colonial influences demonstrated by the complex stained glass and tile work found inside. There is a large statue of Christopher Columbus in the main courtyard, and many historical artifacts, ranging from clothing to horse carriages, in the adjacent rooms.
Our final stopping place before ending our walking tour was the Cathedral Square, home to the Cathedral Church. It is thought that this is one of the locations where Columbus’ remains were stored, along with Nicaragua, before being sent back to Seville.
Nearby is another very important historical site: La Bodeguita del Medio. This was one of the bars where Hemingway used to drink in Havana, and is known as the birthplace of the Mojito.
Our final stop before returning to the hotel in preparation for dinner was the market in Old Havana. Despite being a tourist market, this was an interesting opportunity to talk to Cubans about their experiences. We had an extended conversation in English with one shopkeeper about the MLB. Aside from that, I purchased several paintings for my friends and family, and experienced the uniquely Cuban methods of hawking goods consisting of unusual respect for consumers and an amiable attitude. It was quite refreshing to witness this after the offensive behavior of both vendors and beggars in Morocco.
After briefly returning to the hotel, we took off for the Spanish fort across the river, and a restaurant where we ate dinner. We listened to live music and I drank pineapple juice and ate smoked pork loin. It being Adam’s birthday, the band called him up to play him “Happy Birthday.”
Our final stop of the day was the Spanish fort itself, the biggest fort in North America. The first sight we saw here was the lowering of the flags. Half the soldiers who participated in this ceremony wore long, white wigs. This was an interesting reflection of their perception of their history and to recreating it as it was, despite distinct differences with the society that exists today in Cuba.
While we waited for the cannon firing at 9:00, we explored the fort. We saw the church, with various remains of historical figures. We shopped around for gifts for Adarsh’s parents, and saw some of the more unique souvenirs of this trip. Just before 9:00, we headed up to the top of the fort, where we watched the actors march up the ramp holding torches, and proceed to complete a ceremony involving dancing before lighting the fuse to the cannon. As we were waiting for the cannon to go off, a guy standing in front of us who we later learned was named John asked if we would like to have a small conversation afterwards, after hearing Adarsh and me debate the Cuban economy. We told him afterwards that we would be unable to go out for drinks with him, but that he would be welcome to come by our hotel the next morning. Of course, Adarsh ended up spending the rest of the night trying to convince me that doing so was a bad idea, and that chances were that he was going to ask us to smuggle drugs for him or help him get out of Cuba.
The cannon firing itself was pretty cool, albeit loud. It was quite an interesting tradition considering the contempt I had expected the Revolutionary government to have for the legacy of Cuba’s colonial era. Following this, we simply returned to the hotel and went to bed before too long.