Written by Julia Lopez, Magda Martinez and Michelle Angela Ortiz for Al Dia
August 14, 2014
“Las Gallas”, the Philadelphia based art collective formed by local artist Julia Lopez, Magda Martinez and Michelle Angela Ortiz, traveled in May to the International Festival of Poetry of La Havana to perform “Ghetto Bolero”, a play directed by Claudio Mir, conceived and inspired by 'boleros' but from a feminine perspective. Here, “Las Gallas” share their experience in Cuba.
With An Open Mind and Heart
In the time it took to drink my free soda and cookies on the plane, we were flying over Cuba. It is my first time to this country. A short 40 minute flight from Miami and I begin to understand the allure of this island nation a mere 90 miles from the United States. I looked out from my window seat aboard the American Airlines plane to see the green lushness of the cordilleras and countryside. The largest island in the Antilles, Cuba, was revealing herself to me. I have come to Cuba, with an open mind and heart. I will be reminded that like many nations the politics and the people are not always the same.
We land and disembark straight onto the tarmac. Suddenly I am a little girl landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the early 1970s with my abuela, all dressed up in special outfits my mother had bought for my sister and me. The air is thick, balmy, and hot and the accompanying sound of Spanish makes Havana familiar but different. I am waiting in line to go through customs between two Cubans, a woman and a man. Both live in Florida and hold a Cuban passport and have American residency. As we move along the line, I find out that they are Cuban born and that in the past few years Cubans in the U.S. have been able to apply for Cuban passports. They let me know that they are expensive, $200, and that they must be renewed every two years. I am surprised, why hasn’t that ever come up in a conversation? Already the trip is showing me, teaching me, reminding me how important it is to talk to people, to listen to people, to learn.
I want to ask more questions but we need to keep the line moving and wish each other well. Julia and Michelle, and I walk directly outside where families are waiting to wrap their arms around their loved ones. I remember the summers when I learned to speak Spanish, and love the blue, green waters of the Caribbean. Here like in Puerto Rico all the things that make us different in the States are natural and make sense.
We, Las Gallas, are in Havana to participate in the International Festival of Poetry. This year focusing on and dedicated to la mujer. We will perform our piece Ghetto Bolero and lead a workshop for local Cuban artists on community engagement and art-making, and to participate on a panel. All of this in seven days. I’m nervous and can’t believe that we, that I, am here. Performing reinterpretations of boleros in the land of the bolero.
As soon as we exit we meet our guide, Orlando, or Orly, because after the first 30 minutes we won’t call him Orlando for the rest of the trip. He is our guide, not because the Cuban government demands it, but because in order to get official permission to travel to Cuba from the United States you must travel with an approved company. The company must also present a detailed itinerary of your day-to-day activities in Cuba and the visit cannot exceed a week. This is just the case with Americans in Cuba, as we meet people from Latin America, Australians, Europeans and people from all over the world that travel freely, rent cars and apartments for long stays and don’t have guides, unless they choose to. I think this is one of the biggest surprises that emerges during my conversations with people back in the states –that the permission to visit has to be granted by the U.S. not Cuba.
The days pass in a flurry of activity. We go from the airport to La Plaza de la Revolucíon. See monuments to Martí and Fidel and Che and our first big cars. Yes, they are everywhere. Havana is in a time warp moving between 1959 (or earlier) and the 21st century. We meet Magía and Alexey of Obsesíon,
amazing hip-hop artists who have moved the form forward in Cuba. Magía’s mother, Afrika, who lived through the revolution, is an amazing singer, poet and reminds me of myself 15 years ago. Irasema who is the first real producer we have ever had, is full of a sense of calm. She makes sure we have a rehearsal space, props, musicians, stage managers, lighting and the most amazing musicians. Reina y la Real are young women just beginning their artistic journey as well as their life journey. All are one, two and three generations removed from la revolución. All the while we are being treated and respected as artists. No one questions that this is real work and should be respected. I realize when I return home what a privilege that has been.
Our performance at el Museo de Bellas Artes is a success and the question and answer period that follows allows us to talk about our realities in the U.S. and respond to the audience. People make comments like “I never realized that the lyrics where a little machista,” or “how do you balance the tragedy with laughter? It was so well done.” Carmen, the coordinator of the festival pays us a high compliment, and says that we have been able to say in a half hour what it would take academics 40 pages to describe about the situation of women. She reinforces my belief in the power of art and in Las Gallas work.
We spend a lot of our time learning about the day-to-day challenges of Cuban life, transportation, race, gender, employment and economic disparity. I spend a lot of time thinking about equality versus equity. About equality meaning everything equal but it assumes that we are all starting out in the same place, it makes no provision for historic disparities. Equity means what is fair, just and that will not always look equal. I want to talk more about equity…to see where that discussion will lead. The day before we fly out of Cuba we drive out to the province of Pinar del Rio to a tobacco farm. We have lunch, go to the barn where the tobacco is cured and smoke amazing hand rolled cigars, while we look out on endless fields of yucca plants and look at the mounds of limestone where the cimarrones escaped leaving behind their enslavement.
The morning we leave Cuba we say goodbye to Orly, Magía, her mother and Afrika. There are lots of hugs and some tears. I know that a part of me has been reawakened here. My sense of justice, my desire to think, to discuss, and to write have been reignited. Most importantly I sense Cuba has revealed herself a nation on the brink of change. Not sure yet what she will embrace and what she will leave behind. I am so glad to be here in this moment of transition. I sense the same moment of transition in myself. I went in search of Cuba with an open mind and heart and she did not disappoint.
More than the Revolution
Michelle Angela Ortiz
Cuban cigars, 1950 Chevys, balconies with clothes dancing in the wind to music, the sound of the ocean waves hitting the Malecon, images of Fidel, Che, Jose Martí, phrases of the revolution…all of these things both past and present exist and are alive in Havana.
Cuba has been on my list of places to visit. Not just because of limited access to the country, but to see with my own eyes, if Cuba is really what is presented in the media. Were the stereotypes true? Did the Cuban people live in repressed environments? Are they against everything from the United States?
In May, I had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba for the first time with my artist collective Las Gallas through an invitation from the Institute of Culture to perform at the International Festival of Poetry. Through several fundraising events and generous donations from our supporters in Philadelphia, we were able to realize our trip to Cuba. I would finally travel to Cuba with my fellow collective members, Julia Lopez and Magda Martinez, and share our work with local and international artists/ poets gathering in Havana.
There were several groups traveling to Havana, with now easier access to enter the country under the new presidency of Raul Castro. On the flight, we were the very few artists of color flying to Cuba. And although we are considered “gringas”, I was not treated differently because I am from the United States. On the other hand, I believe being a child of immigrants, Spanish-speaking, and socially conscious, impacted the type of experience I had in Cuba.
Cuba is not just la revolución, Cuba is el Caribe, where they say ‘mi amor’, ‘mi cariño’, where hands are used to exaggerate stories, make art, and offer help to others. This is the Cuba that I found within the local artists and families that we connected and worked with during our time in Havana.
Art is ever present in Havana, from the intricate tile work in the hallways to murals that appear as you walk from one street to another. We visited El Callejón de Hamel, a community art project created in 1990 by self-taught artist Salvador González. El Callejón is a two-block area filled with murals, sculptures, artist studios, and weekly rumbas in honor of the orishas.
As a muralist, it was an amazing opportunity to see the varied styles and processes of murals in El Callejón. As we walked down the outdoor gallery, Las Gallas had the opportunity to meet some local printmakers and the artist Salvador González. As we spoke with Salvador we realized that he had a connection with Philadelphia. He painted two murals, one of them entitled “Butterflies of the Caribbean” in the Norris Square neighborhood where fellow Galla, Julia Lopez, resides. We were so far away from Philadelphia and found a connecting dot with Salvador in Havana.
As we walked in La Habana Vieja, we discovered the Taller Experimental de Gráfica. I was able to connect with local printmakers and see their works in process. In 1962, muralist Orlando Suarez founded the Taller with the support of Che Guevara. The Taller plays an important role in the history of printmaking in Cuba. It is here where the most noteworthy graphic works in Havana have been produced. The Taller continues to be a place where local and visiting artists gather to study and create new works. The Taller stands as one of the many workshops that support the long history of the traditional art form of printmaking in Latin America.
Cuba in Pictures
I stare at the pictures; Magia & Alexey from Obsesion, the participants bright eyes during our workshop in Regla, men drinking cerveza on the beach as the waves hit their backs, choking on my 1st cigarro Cubano, the mural on the mountain, my obsession for the Jose Martí Memorial and his legacy, el Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and feeling like I am in Puerto Rico, the pimped out cars from the 1950’s, mujeres on the street by our hotel begging for hard candy, Moros y Cristianos with dinner, the plaza where enslaved Africans were sold and the post modern statues acknowledging the sacrifice, Afrika singing at the Festival, and our producer Irasema aka Labios de Miel taking care of us and our performance of Ghetto Bolero en el Museo de Bellas Artes.
I stare at the pictures. How do I choose from all of the moments. How do I write about the mind flips of my past and present Cuban experience, when all the moments are new again. I stare at the foto taken from across the street in order to fit the painted letters on the wall that spanned half a block, saying Que Viva Cuba Libre! The heat of the pavement in La Habana, the free air, even the heart of Cuba’s Sun is different. The recuerdos, difficult to translate.
25 years ago, I travelled to Cuba with Pregones Theater to the Festival Nacional de Teatro Camagüey with a two day stay in La Habana. It was a Cuba of rations and endless lines for basic needs. I was a typical North American, ignorant to international conflicts. I engaged in endless conversations about life in Cuba. I gathered information from multiple perspectives including a group of Cuban 3rd graders in the hotel swimming pool, more informed than I about the world. More articulate. In the end I learned about what it meant to be a Puerto Rican born in the U.S. having to defend what I thought was my birthright, new perspectives of colonialism.
Cuba 25 years, back to the future, invited to perform Ghetto Bolero written with Magda Martinez, Michelle Ortiz and directed by Claudio Mir. Not enough time to reflect on the shiny new cars, newly renovated Habana Vieja, the CUCs (money created to exchange US Dollars) or the van driver who complained about ‘la gente que abusa de la ayuda del gobierno’! No time to break down the symptoms of capitalism and colonial residue.
Irasema and Magia anticipated our arrival and looked forward to the audience response. Our performance would provide a different view of boleros. We would break with the tradition of the men who wrote and sang their sides of the story. Ghetto Bolero would share the story of women who are ridiculed when they can confront their men when they drink, who desire the men that are dangerous and unattainable and the girls who are brutalized for trying to find themselves and sanctuary on the street.