Eduardo, the young Cuban photographer guiding our merry band of five, was me shouting behind at the shy in Spanish. Seconds later a set of keys dropped into his hands. He smiled. “She’s inviting us into her home. Do you want to go?” I looked up but the “she” he spoke of had already disappeared from the balcony of the building 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 was that? It took us less than two seconds to say yes before climbing her narrow steps to the third floor.
I learned that in Cuba it wasn’t unusual for complete strangers to invite you into their homes. The people were gracious and as curious about Americans as we were about them.
At the top of the stairs a short, squat woman in her mid seventies greeted us. Her name was Maria Therésa. She wore tattered striped shorts and a rumpled knit sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. It was 60 degrees in Havana, chilly by Cuban standards, and her arms were sprinkled with goosebumps. Her short salt and pepper hair was wavy and disheveled and one eye didn’t open as wide as the other reminding me of a pirate.
With a big smile she motioned for us to follow her down a dim corridor to her tiny 75 square foot apartment—her home for over 20 years. Through our guide we told her our names, that we were a group of photographers visiting Cuba with the Santa Fé Photographic Workshops, where we lived etc. etc., all the usual pleasantries that are exchanged in such situations.
Maria Therésa was a mother of two and lived alone. Her son had passed away years before and her daughter lived in Miami, though she hadn’t heard from her in two years. She didn’t mention a husband.
Her apartment was dim and worn and barely lit save a closet-sized alcove illuminated by a single window where sheets, a baseball cap and dirty rags hung on a clothesline. Maria Therésa gave us a one-eyed smile and led us to her bedroom.
In the corner sat a small unmade bed next to an open armoire that revealed a threadbare wardrobe. Tokens from her life were 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 was 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 rested against the wall next to a cross mounted on what looked like a bowling trophy. Later she would hold it in photographs in tribute to her son.
She looked around her apartment and then sheepishly apologized for its condition. My throat clenched. We didn’t want her to feel embarrassed. We were so happy to spend time with her and grateful for her invitation. Eduardo soothed her in Spanish while we stood 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 high quality 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 to government parks, hotels, and public structures, leaving homes to disintegrate.
Maria Therésa stood by the window looking down at the street below. A warm glow from the light outside illuminated her face. Lisa Cutler, a fellow photographer, had asked if she could make her portrait there and Maria Theresa embraced her role like a pro. We took turns with our sweet, Cuban model, knowing this would be one of the most memorable parts of our trip.
Maria Theresa’s dresser
When we said our goodbyes we gave her some pesos to thank her for her time and generosity. I hugged her tightly and she responded in kind. When we hit the street and looked back she was on the balcony, just as she must have been when we were on the street. We waved goodbye.
My last memory of her she was blowing 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.