Eduardo, the young Cuban photographer guiding our merry band of five is shouting at the sky behind me in Spanish. Seconds later, a set of keys drop into his hands. He smiles. “She’s inviting us into her home. Do you want to go?” I look up but the “she” he speaking of has already disappeared from the balcony at the corner of San Juan and Compostella, where we stood. All I knew was that a local was inviting us into her home. How great is that? It takes us less than two seconds to say yes before climbing her narrow steps to the third floor.
I’ve learned in my short time in Cuba that it’s not unusual for complete strangers to invite you into their homes. The people are gracious and as curious about Americans as we are about them.
At the top of the stairs, a short, squat woman in her mid-seventies greets us. Her name is Maria Therésa. She wears tattered striped shorts and a rumpled knit sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. It’s 60 degrees in Havana, chilly by Cuban standards, and her arms are sprinkled with goosebumps. Her short salt and pepper hair is wavy and disheveled and one eye doesn’t open as wide as the other like a pirate.
With a big smile, she motions for us to follow her down a dim corridor to her tiny 75 square foot apartment—her home for over 20 years. Through Eduardo, we tell her our names, that we are a group of photographers visiting Cuba with the Santa Fé Photographic Workshops, where we live etc., all the usual pleasantries that are exchanged in such situations.
We learn that Maria Therésa is a mother of two and lives alone. Her son passed away years before and her daughter lives in Miami, though she hasn’t heard from her in two years. She doesn’t mention a husband.
Her apartment is dim and worn and barely lit save a closet-sized alcove illuminated by a single window where sheets, a baseball cap and dirty rags hang on a clothesline. Maria Therésa gives us a one-eyed smile and leads us to her bedroom.
In the corner sits a small unmade bed next to an open armoire, revealing a threadbare wardrobe. Tokens from her life are scattered across her dresser: various doo-dads, assorted medications, an old half-open compact next to a pair of maracas. Tucked into a mirror frame is a hand-held fan decorated with a photo of “Papa Francisco,” a souvenir from the Pope’s visit last September. A tattered image of Christ rests against the wall next to a cross mounted on what looks like a bowling trophy. Later she will hold it in photographs as a tribute to her son.
She looks around her apartment and then sheepishly apologizes for its condition. My throat clenches. I hate that she feels embarrassed. I am so grateful for the invitation. Eduardo soothes her in Spanish while we stand shaking our heads, hoping the gesture would convey our feelings since our words could not.
Cuba is home to many wonderful things, but the living conditions for a huge percentage of its population is not one of them. The decaying buildings which are so glorious through a lens are substandard homes to thousands. I was told that a building collapses every day in Havana.
Cuba provides free healthcare and education for its citizens—the island’s literacy rate trumps that of the United States—but Havana has been in the grips of a housing crisis for decades.
The city was flooded with people after the revolution, turning one-family mansions into subdivided 40-family homes. The loss of the former Soviet Union’s support and sanctions imposed by the United States, left few resources to maintain or restore the city’s infrastructure. What money there is, is funneled into government parks, hotels, and public structures, leaving homes to disintegrate.
Maria Therésa stands by the window looking down at the street below. A warm glow from the light outside illuminates her face. A fellow photographer asks her if she can make her portrait there and Maria Theresa embraces her role like a pro. We take turns with our sweet Cuban model, knowing this is one of the most memorable moments of our trip.
As we say our goodbyes, we give her some money and thank her for her time and generosity. I hug her tightly and she responds in kind. When we hit the street and look back she is on the balcony, just as she must have been an hour before. We wave goodbye.
As we walk away, she blows us a kiss.
~Taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’: Seeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba: Words and sentiment are my own.
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