Cuba: A country stuck in time
Finding beauty, desolation and my roots in the land of my ancestors
Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2016 12:00 pm
Viviana Pernot Staff photographer
It is the most desolate place I have ever seen.
It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
On nearly every block of cities such as Havana or Matanzas, slowly
crumbling buildings with stained walls, rusted window bars and
boarded-up holes sit next to piles of dust and rubble. Former buildings.
Yet, somehow, there is beauty in the decay. The detailed, century-old
craftsmanship is set off by exteriors painted in bright colors. Clothes,
hanging from wires, dry in the breeze.
Cuba is a country stuck in time. Carefully preserved cars from the 1950s
line the streets next to carriages and bicycles. For a visual artist, it
can be overwhelming, emotionally confusing.
There is such poverty, but also such happiness, apparent on the faces of
people sitting in doorsteps, watching the world go by at a leisurely pace.
And for me, my first visit to Cuba this spring was something more. This
is where my family came from. I was constantly aware that the streets I
was walking along were home to generations of my family. Everywhere I
looked, everyone I met, I thought, “That could have been me.”
I recently had the chance to visit Cuba and photograph it on a food and
cultural tour. Despite the more open relationship between our two
countries, ordinary Americans still can’t simply book a vacation to
Cuba. But my father, Guillermo Pernot, is chef partner of the Cuba Libre
Restaurants, one of which is located in Atlantic City. Twice a year he
organizes and hosts culinary tours with the help of the travel agency
With the quick and historic changes going on between the United States
and Cuba, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go along on the spring trip.
My culture shock began at the Miami Airport, before we’d even left
America. I watched Cuban families saying goodbye to relatives who were
returning to the island. Instead of luggage, they sent them on the plane
with hundreds of pounds of American products, all wrapped securely, as
gifts to people in Cuba.
If they are not biking or walking, the most common form of
transportation for average Cuban citizens is to hitchhike on crowded
cattle trucks. Children go to school in uniforms based on age group.
Some people, who are viewed as saints, wear white and cannot be touched.
On our second day in the country, I kept hearing the same song as I
walked through Centro Habana, the heart of Havana. The beautiful melody
was being sung by a woman dressed all in white. The lyrics of the song
were a single word repeated over and over, “money.” Whenever a group of
tourists would point a camera at her, she would block her face with a
fan and wag her finger, changing the lyric to “no pictures.” I can only
guess that this was her way of asking for money.
Because this was a cuisine tour, scenes like this were in stark contrast
to the incredible food we ate at restaurants that cater to international
tourists, food that average Cubans cannot afford.
For everyone on the trip, the tour was a chance to experience the
country and its culture. For me, it was also a chance to see first-hand
how my grandparents had lived. My father is Argentinian, but my mother’s
family is from Cuba.
I grew up listening to stories from my grandparents, adventure stories
about their life in Cuba before and during the revolution. When my
grandfather, Enrique Menocal, told these stories, they had all the drama
of a “Peter Pan” adventure, in which he was Peter Pan and Fidel Castro
was Captain Hook. He and Castro knew each other growing up, went to law
school at the University of Havana together and eventually went into
government together, until Castro’s communist plans came between them.
My mother was 1 year old when my grandparents carried her and her three
older siblings onto a boat to escape Cuba.
When I was a child, my grandmother made a dollhouse that was a replica
of the house in Havana that my grandfather grew up in. I was able to
visit that house and the building next door that my mother was born in.
I even met my grandfather’s little sister, who still lives in that same
house in Havana, with her daughter and granddaughter. It is now a
In my grandparents’ house in Philadelphia, I also would see photos of
the Alma Mater statue in front of the University of Havana. It was
modeled after my great-grandmother, Feliciana Menocal. And I am related
to Mario Menocal, who was president of Cuba from 1913 to 1921. During
the trip, I saw photographs of him at the Museum of The Revolution in
We also got a taste of the arbitrary way in which the Cuban government
controls citizens’ lives. We had been scheduled to stay in a hotel in
Havana, but because our trip came just weeks before President Barack
Obama and the Rolling Stones were to visit Havana, we were shuffled off
to Varadero, a beach town two and a half hours away from Havana by bus.
As I met Cuban people on the trip, I didn’t really know how to feel. I
wasn’t sure — I’m still not sure — whether to feel sorry for them
because they are living in poverty, make little money and subject to
government rationing, or if I should be happy for them because they seem
so content, living their relaxed lifestyle.
When we were touring Habana Vieja, “Old Havana,” a run-down area packed
with people, I was walking toward our bus when I stopped to take a
photograph of four skinny boys sitting on a horse carriage. They jumped
off the carriage and surrounded me, hugging me and asking for money. I
apologized for not having any pesos. One boy looked up and asked, “Tiene
caramelo?” — Do you have candy? Their eyes lit up as I reached into my
bag and pulled out six pieces of caramel candy. As they smiled and
hugged me again, I thought of how different my life might have been if
my grandparents had not come to this country.
The six days I spent in Cuba now seem like a dream. But I am grateful I
was able to see the island in these early days of a more open cultural
exchange with the United States, when the character of Cuba and its
people still shines through, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner.
Contact: 609-272-7242; VPernot@pressofac.com; Twitter @ACPressPernot
Source: Cuba: A country stuck in time – Press of Atlantic City: Living –