It was 4:50 pm and the history department office was just about to close when I sprinted in with my term paper. The last four days had been filled with nonstop schoolwork for Mike Fitzpatrick and me, and an unhealthy ratio of cups of coffee to hours of sleep was starting to give me a headache.
Since we were leaving school in the middle of final exams during our final year at William and Mary College, we were forced to complete all of our work before departing. Two days later, as our plane taxied down the runway at Miami International Airport, our days at school seemed as foreign as our destination: Havana.
Because we were students of film and architecture, Mike and I had obtained visas from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to travel to Cuba to attend the Latin American Film Festival. The director of the festival had invited us to the event, and it turned out to be more exciting than we had ever imagined.
The festival highlighted a vast collection of films. There is nothing quite as surreal as being an American watching a Russian film with Spanish subtitles, while sitting comfortably in the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. For us, however, the real excitement of our trip to Cuba lay outside the festival. It had nothing to do with film and everything to do with the Cuban people and our portraits of Fidel Castro.
For the past three years, Mike and I have been creating art together and portraiture is one of our favorite mediums. We usually find inspiration in the faces of American icons and construct images using materials from around our house. We have created a portrait of Jimi Hendrix out of used pizza boxes and another of Hugh Hefner out of old Playboy covers and a mirror.
During the summer of 1999, Mike and I lived in the Dominican Republic. With the hope of receiving an invitation from the Cuban government to visit Cuba, we started working on a portrait of Fidel Castro. We wanted to use familiar materials to construct the image. This time it would be American baseball cards. This was never intended as some grand political message. Rather, it was about a favorite pastime. America loves baseball, Cuba loves baseball, Castro loves baseball, we love baseball.
In just two days we built the portrait on a custom-made canvas with the Cuban flag painted on as a backdrop. The 400 or so Topps baseball cards (circa 1989-1991) were simply hot-glued to the canvas. The image was produced through strategically cutting and pasting the cards both face up and face down. When we had finished the portrait, which we called "El Líder," we brought the large (90" x 54") work to the Cuban embassy in Santo Domingo. The officals loved the piece and invited us to Cuba so that we might personally present the portrait to Castro.
Five months later, we stepped onto Cuban soil. The next seven days were destined to be memorable. As it turns out, that first portrait could not be flown to Cuba, and to this day, it hangs in the entrance of the Cuban embassy in Santo Domingo. Undaunted, we had brought along a bounty of baseball cards, paint, brushes and hot glue guns. We were determined to reconstruct "El Líder."
We had a room at the Hotel Copacabana and they asked us if we might work on the piece in their lobby so that other guests could witness its creation. We agreed and soon went to work with a glue gun in one hand and a can of Cristal beer in the other. Before we could get started, we needed a large canvas of the correct proportions for the piece. This proved nearly impossible. Canvas of any size was seemingly unobtainable in Cuba. Luckily for us, our friend and guide to the city proved to be an invaluable resource in getting the necessary materials.
After several meetings, we finally had the canvas in hand. God only knows what the Cuban people thought that day as they watched our blue Lada speed by with Mike and I hanging out the windows, trying desperately to hold the canvas down on the roof of the car. We started working on the piece that night and finished it two days later.
With hundreds of people seeing our work every day, word got around that there were two crazy American artists in town. The day after "El Líder: Numero Dos" was completed, Bob Walz of Last Frontier Expeditions, our trip coordinator and a longtime friend of Abel Diaz, the manager of the Partagas cigar factory, coordinated a meeting between Diaz and us; the Partagas people wanted a portrait of their own. We soon set to work. This time, instead of baseball cards on canvas, the piece would feature cigar-packaging materials, namely paper and cedar, affixed to wood. The image itself was the same as the previous two.
Working in the factory for a couple of days gave us a unique opportunity to befriend many Cuban workers as well as Diaz. Again, we were asked to build the piece where everyone could see it. Luckily, the room in which we worked was visible from the street, so Cuban pedestrians (who cannot enter the building as sightseers) could watch us work as well. By this time, the portrait was getting to be a snap, and it all came together in a day and a half.
The next day, Diaz and the rest of the Partagas family graciously accepted our gift and told us how much the piece meant to them. In return, they generously gave us gifts of tobacco and rum. Our main satisfaction, however, lay in seeing our work occupy the revered spot in the center of the smoke room, replacing the beautiful Cohiba sign that had hung there for years. That evening, amid a haze of Havana Club and Cohiba smoke, Mike and I began to realize just how sublime our voyage had been. Little did we know how much more we would encounter.
Through connections, a trip had been arranged to travel to Cojimar, home of Gregorio Fuentes, the "Old Man" from Hemingway's classic novella, The Old Man and the Sea. Bearing Romeo y Julietas as gifts for the 102-year-old fisherman, we seemingly entered a time warp that took us back 50 years to an age when Castro played baseball and Sam Snead golfed in Havana. Fuentes is quite a gentleman, and despite his age, still lives with a passion for life and cigars.
During our time in Cuba, the Elián González situation had escalated, and Castro had called for the city to show its feelings by protesting outside of the American Interests building on the Malécon. We asked our Cuban friends if it would be safe for a couple of Americans to go to the demonstration. They told us we had nothing to fear, except that it would require a lot of walking as the Malécon was blocked off for miles.
We hurried off to see just what 700,000 Cuban protesters looked like. Uniformed army and police personnel were everywhere, as were large signs that depicted a young Elián and read: Liberan a Elián. Huge Cuban flags were flown everywhere, and a five-story tall portrait of Che Guevera hung from a nearby apartment building. All of Havana's public transportation, including "Camel" buses, was being used to converge the city's humanity on this one spot. Throughout the day it was not uncommon to see dump trucks, overflowing with Cubans, slowly lurch toward the seaside with their cargo of protesters. The attitude of these people was not one of anger, however, and amidst all the seriousness were lighter moments punctuated by shots of rum and blasts of salsa.
As we made our way through the melee, I remembered that we still had a couple hundred baseball cards stuffed in the backpack that Mike was wearing. As we walked past a large group of kids, we broke out the cards and began giving them away. The next thing we knew we were in the middle of a horde of school kids, all trying to grab hold of a quintessential piece of Americana. Like Rocky Balboa being followed by a throng of youths during his morning run through Philadelphia, we began to travel through the protest with an entourage of Cuban children. That magical feeling was probably the highlight of the trip. Seeing firsthand the Cuban situation and the nationalistic feeling toward the boy made the Elián crisis that much more poignant.
As our plane touched U.S. soil again, we heard cheers erupt from the Cuban-Americans on the plane. Our trip to Cuba had been more than it promised, filled with cigars, culture and a little too much hearty food. The Cuban people turned out to be some of the nicest people we had ever met. The little they had they were willing to share with us, and at no point during the trip did we experience any animosity towards American people or culture. Still, America is home. Hearing the hundreds of Cuban-Americans clapping around us only reminded us how lucky we are, and we found ourselves cheering, too.
Jon Leahy and Mike Fitzpatrick head Room 206 Productions in Virginia.