As I’ve mentioned before, in the center of Havana lays Parque Central, an oasis of wealth and tourism that is so opposite of anything more than a block away.
Fast forward to my last day in Havana. It’s 5 o’clock and I’m still on the prowl for opportunities to photograph the people and culture of Cuba. Jennifer Spelman saw me in the lobby of our hotel and asked me if I’d like to meet Paticia and see her home, “She lives close by.” About 100 feet from the hotel and kitty corner to the building is a beautiful bakery, with prices only tourists could pay. We stopped in because “Paticia loves baked goods”. After buying some lovely looking baked goods, Jennifer took me to a barely noticeable door right next door. When someone unlocked it from the inside, I entered a different world. In spite of the facade seen from the square which included the aforementioned baker and state-sponsored restaurants (again, for tourists), we found ourselves inside a shell of a building is horrible disrepair. Beautiful marble and iron work of 100 years ago was cracked, rusted and falling apart. We climbed the three floors up to Paticia’s apartment where a neighbor let us in to the common eating area for all the dwellings on that floor.
We knocked on Paticia’s door and was met by a wonderful woman that, despite her poverty and poor health due to a stroke two years prior, was full of spirit, spunk and, well, life. She immediately took to me as I did to her. She showed us photographs that one of my fellow travelers, JoAnn Rosen, had taken on a previous trip. She was so proud of those images. Her husband was there as well. A gentle soul, he showed me to one of the two rockers in the room and brought in the two electric fans they had to keep me cool.
Though I had been in many homes during my week in Cuba, this one was an eye opener. Less than a hundred yards from Hotel Decadence, here was an apartment in the middle of what amounts to a gutted, post-colonial building. Her apartment had two sides… two small sitting/bedrooms on the
left, a tiny kitchen/eating area and toilet on the right. Bisecting her living space was a collapsed staircase (as seen in the photo of the neighbor above) and, above, collapsed roof. When it rained, it rained down the middle of their apartment.
You’d never know how bad it was from being with Paticia. Her space was impeccably clean and orderly. Everything was it its place. When I was photographing her kitchen area, Paticia ran over, grabbed a spoon and pretended to be stirring a pot. Breaking into laughter, she then started dancing for me with the most angelic look on her face imaginable. I fell in love with her on the spot. This is the spirit of Cuba! These are its people. My fear for Paticia and others in her situation is that as Americans begin to flood the capital, these
buildings will be restored, not for the people who have called them home for generations, but for Starbucks, McDonalds and other mega-corps. And what of Paticia and others? Well, when Cuba decided to renovate the waterfront, they build huge, concrete tenements miles away and stacked the people up like chickens in a coup. As one Cuban said to me about the U.S. embargo… first they tried to crush us and now they will try to poison us.
By the way, see the images of the Parque Central that I placed at the top of this post? Those are from a shared balcony on Paticia’s floor. The image below? An apartment without walls along the stairwell below. The divide is hard to believe.
©2015 Alan Lawrence – Images and Text