Posted by Nicki Fleischner- MA Candidate at CLACS/ Global Journalism at NYU
Kevin, a 24 year-old design student, checking out the skateboard exhibition at La Fábrica.
When we arrived there is already a line snaking its way around the block: Cuban girls in heels, boys in gold chains and brightly printed graphic tees, foreign tourists or exchange students sprinkled throughout. At the door a few groups try to grease the impressively built bouncers. Some people are successful just by dropping the right name, or flashing their Biennial art festival badges—available only to those (mostly foreign tour groups) who paid for them ahead of time. It’s the Biennial’s opening night at La Fábrica in Havana, and as several people have emphasized to me, it is the place to be.
I always knew I wanted to do my fieldwork in Havana. Following President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms in 2010 and then President Barack Obama’s decision to renew diplomatic relations with the country last December (and the slew of media hype that has followed), it feels like the right time to be here; a time when Cuba is on the brink of transformation (or not at all, as many of my more cynical Cuban friends will tell me). Leaving for Havana on my direct flight from New York (another change) the check-in line filled with American tour groups headed to Havana’s 12th Biennial— an international art festival that takes place in the city from late May through June—it did feel different, and that an opening up (and commercialization) is actually happening. Now in Havana it is my goal to assess what the “changes” we read about have tangibly resulted in for Cuba’s younger generation: does it impact their daily lives, their aspirations for the future, their conception of themselves?
I had planned thirteen days of research in Havana. I did not want to allow myself to be away from my children any longer than that. I am a Cuban and therefore had little illusion about what could be accomplished in the middle of a brutally hot tropical summer. I was well acquainted with the broken machines, the blackouts the transportation problems and miscellaneous delays…
And so it was. To start with, the National Library, the main place I was planning to work in, is to be closed until the Fall. In any case, I was doubtful of the utility of a search there. People without a history have there own histories, their own stories that have always served to help people exercise the hardships of life through the dances of son and rumba for a hundred years. My theses process requires a different type of investigation, a sort of archeology- plus time and a lucky star. The lack of previous research on Cuban popular dances makes it hard to figure out the state and location of sources. It is a headache, so “Corazon con Dios y pecho al agua”, as my Granma used to said.
My first clue is Rene Rivero, I just found two three minutes clips of him from YouTube! Tall and elegant, in the video he walks around his partner Estela, while doing the most impressive “tornillos”- son figures in that man resemble a screw, standing on a foot while the woman walks helping him to turn and to be stable- Almost eighty years after I haven’t seen nothing like it. My bridge to Rene Rivero is as uncertain as the weather in Havana, with a fifteen year old address in tow. I followed the traces of an amazing unknown man toward an street I never heard of in the heart of “Los Sitios”, one poor neighborhood in Centro Havana, whose single restoration plan is to fall down. I wish I had my video ready IPod on hand to make a nice clip of my journey. Continue reading