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’s speaking of has already disappeared from the balcony. All I know is a local is 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.
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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
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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61 thoughts on “At Home in Cuba with Maria Therésa”
Nice Photos. Thank You.
She Looks so cute hard worker …
THANKS FOR SHARING!
Superb. I remember having dinner in the house of a local family…I’ve never felt so welcome in my entire life.
It really does make a difference in the overall trip to have such an experience. I felt the same way, Cubans are incredibly welcoming.
Absolutely. It is one that I shall not forget in a hurry, if ever. There’s something so humbling about being invited into the home of a family with very little and being made to feel like you are royalty.
So good pictures, and the photo of the face it’s so beautiful
Many many thanks. I appreciate you taking the time to check it out!
Very poignant images and story
So glad you enjoyed it!
A beautiful piece, positively oozing with warmth! It sounds like it was a lovely encounter, even despite having to come to terms with all the poverty. I agree with the others commenting on this – the personal angle really brings the story to life!
Hi Anna – It was a delightful encounter and truly one of the best parts of the trip. Thank you for your kind words. Glad you liked it.
Such a touching, inspiring and moving piece. The photos capture the depth of what you have wrote, what a fantastic experience, take care.
I truly appreciate your very kind words. I’m so glad you were moved by it.
Such beautiful pictures, they speak volumes 🙂
An incredibly moving experience. Best to discover a country through it’s real people.
Couldn’t agree more.
What a wonderful tale, and even grander culture! Makes me want to visit as well, thanks for sharing.
I am very happy you enjoyed it Suzanne!
Thank you for sharing a glimpse into that world. I can’t even imagine living in 75 square feet for a month much less 20 years. What generosity of spirit she had.
It’s like living in my dorm room my whole life.
She was delightful and sweet and so kind for having us in her home.
I like your photos
I have just started a blog any tips
Hi.. That’s a pretty broad question. Any specific questions?
Yh how can I get followers
Post great content and promote it via social media. Ask your friends to share as well. 🙂
Brilliant post Susan
Really happy you think so Mark. Means a lot.
Thank you very much for making me feel so experienced on how does it feel to cross the world through your words and your pictures. It’s incredibly heartwarming. 🙂
Thank you very much for your kind words. I am very happy you enjoyed the post. More to come…
Your writing style seems to capture your portrayal of that woman so well; it’s amazing how kind people can be when they have comparatively next to nothing themselves.
Just while I’m here I’ll mention that I’ve just started a food blog, just writing wee things about dining out in places in Glasgow, Scotland (and possibly further afield). Things have been tough for me over the last few years but food is something that has always brought me comfort (not necessarily a good thing hahaha). Would love it if you were interested and wanted to have a look or give me a follow, it would mean a lot.
Thank you very much. I am happy you liked the post.
Good luck with the blog!
What a wonderful post! How super to be invited into a stranger’s home. How lovely to be able to share these very special images ..
Thank you! It was a very very special experience
What a beautiful portrait of this precious woman, and the photographs are just perfect, capturing her sweet spirit and also the hardships that are revealed in her eyes and on her face. Thank you for sharing all of it with us. It is difficult to understand how government parks could be more important than the well-being of the citizens. Hopefully, reforms will follow to create safe environments for some of these people.
I’m not sure the gov’t has the money to house all the people while they restore, or demolish and rebuild Havana.
Not sure I know much about their system, or how their money is spent, but the recent changes seem promising!
Very poignant images and story. The duality between what you enjoy as a photographer and the reality of crumbling buildings is really telling. But the people are the riches of the country.
Oh Susan, your images of Maria Theresa warm my heart. You know how to capture the Cuban character perfectly; the warmth, the struggle, the faith.
Your words are so moving about the crumbling buildings being a photographer’s dream, but are in reality, dangerous, primitive dwellings for Cubans. In July 2015, a building at 409 Habana St, just three blocks from where Maria Theresa’s house stands, collapsed killing four including a three year old child. This happens almost every day–some occupied, some not. The government alternative, to move to the hated lower class suburbs and concrete block apartments, is far worse to them than the fear of Old havana or Central havana building collapse (central havana is much worse than old havana) . At least in their crumbling homes they have family and community. However, the decay of havana and its living quarters is a daily source of danger and death for its inhabitants–albeit a source of wonder and photographic delight to tourists–including me.
The contradictions and complications of Cuba are myriad. I know many Americans want to get to Cuba “before it changes” I for one am praying that it changes as fast as humanly possible for the people of Cuba. The growing/changing pains will be hard and disparities will be great, but the children will have better opportunities, and if you talk with a Cuban, that is all that matters to them–a life of opportunity for their children.
All this is written in the portrait that you captured of Maria Theresa.
You have expressed the contradictions better than I. Thank you, Patricia. It’s difficult to reconcile the desire to see authentic cultures remain constant but also recognize that in today’s world that means not having many of the goods and services I take for granted. People have the right to better themselves, but it’s still a tragedy how much gets lost in the process.
And it is a tragedy to see how much MoneyWorld mean. That community can’t organise themselves, they need money to grow money… how sad…
That’s incredible. It seems to be amazing how meeting one heartfelt person can really open your eyes to the whole infrastructure of the country like a magnifying lens.
Yes, it’s very true. Plus you learn so much more about a culture across the board when you are able to spend time with a local.
It does seem like a wonderful country. I love the playful glint in her eye despite how little she seems to own. They’re really great photos by the way!
There’s much to be admired. Their sense of community is incredibly strong. They’ve all been through great hardship together so their sense of solidarity is palpable. I think every culture could learn from this as I find that the more modern a country gets, the more people tend to care only about themselves, except in crisis.
There’s a story I heard a few years ago about a mayor of a small eastern European town, I don’t remember the details. But his monthly wage was huge, being the mayor and all, and he chose to go out and give almost all of it to families that he knew weren’t coping by themselves. I can’t help but think about a lot of the homeless community here in England and how much better off they would be if there were more people to help them
That’s so very true
And I aslo often think of our over consuming. It’s feels almost as a crime in front of examples like that.
We are a glutinous society. So many wonderful things about the USA but we don’t seem to have the same sense of community,comparatively, that the Cubans have on a daily basis unless we’re in crisis. Thankfully, we seem to band together then.
Not because we are together, but we are together, because we are against. And this “against” happening for all the wrong reasons lately… Seems like we just want to feel a shoulder of aggressiveness. Easy to reflect negativity
Yes, in many cases that’s true, but there are many heartwarming stories of people pitching in to help others and I do my best to focus on those good people. The news unfortunately is too focused on all the negative.
I couldn’t agree more. The food that we waste every year could keep a country like Cuba in good health easily!
And it’s not only about a food… in one show once was a fraise: “-I don’t believe in wrapping paper.
– What is God or something to believe in it?”
I still laugh about it, but I aslo don’t believe in such useless thing like a wrapping paper or flyer or double box for Japanese tea.
Yeah, that’s true.
I know what you mean.
Good one. Facts are always known to local. Nice photo work.
I absolutely agree…You were really lucky!!!