At Home in Cuba with Maria Therésa

Marie Theresa  by the window in Havana

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.

 Photographing Maria Theresa in her apartment in Havana Cuba

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.

Photographing Maria Theresa in her apartment in Havana Cuba

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.

Marie Theresa's dresser

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.

Marie Theresa  holding trophy by the window

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.

Photographing Maria Theresa's closet in Havana Cuba

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.

Marie Theresa looking down.

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

  1. pixieannie says:

    Superb. I remember having dinner in the house of a local family…I’ve never felt so welcome in my entire life.

      • pixieannie says:

        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.

  2. afedorova says:

    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!

  3. parahytha says:

    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. 🙂

  4. glasgowfoodieblog says:

    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.

  5. carlamcgill says:

    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.

  6. svtakeiteasy says:

    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.

  7. Patricia Pomerleau says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

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