I went to Cuba for the first time 12 years ago. I hoped to photograph the “diez pesos fiestas,” the underground parties in people’s homes or rooftops that were mostly gay and featured transvestite shows. I learned about these parties from a man in New York who frequented them with his Cuban boyfriend. He could not tell me where they were because their locations changed every week. I would have to find my way when I arrived.
I was born in 1957, two years before the overthrow of Fulgencia Batista and the victory of Castro and the Revolution. I was taught to be equally afraid of Cuba as I was of the Soviet Union and to hope for U.S. victory against the evil Communists during the Bay of Pigs invasion. I grew up with a wary eye on the “enemy”, and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis. I later learned about the successive and thwarted attempts to oust Castro, and I watched with fascination the images on television of Cubans who braved perilous waters in makeshift rafts in their attempts to float to a new life in United States.
I fell, head-over-heals in love with Havana. Everything about her is breathtaking, exciting, complex, sweeping like the feminine curve of the Malecon – the iconic seawall that runs for miles along Havana Bay. The city is broken yet vibrant and layered with contradiction, beauty, despair, longing, sensuality and paint.
I have also had fall-outs in my love affair with Havana. I have seen my friends depressed, oppressed and poor. I have witnessed some of them become prostitutes just to make a living, marry foreign men to be able to leave the country, be chronically unemployed and settle for less than who they are or what they deserve. I have become enraged and deeply sad and left the island early.
My anger, however, always passes and happiness returns like the lights flickering back on after a blackout. It can be as simple as Ana’s smile, the diva transvestite Cindy lip-synching to “New York, New York,” dancing hot mambo with a stranger, clinging to Silvita on the back of her motor bike, or the exquisite warm breezes blowing along the Bay at 3am. Havana forever draws me back, and there is the rush of love again.