Mapas de Ayer

Cuba Nostalgia Cartography

By Julio C. Zangroniz

The visitors would arrive, usually in twos, or threes or fours, or more –seldom by themselves. Usually, one member of the group, most often one of the most elderly, would start the pointing… jabbing the air almost feverishly, gesturing towards one particular spot on the floor. And like a small but well coordinated school of fish, the rest of his or her companions would glide over, to stare at the exact spot where the first person was pointing.

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And onlookers would start to hear: There’s such-and-such street… or, there’s our old “barrio,”… or, look! el parque zool’ogico!… or, there’s the stadium at El Cerro… or, El Cementerio de Col’on… or, one of thousands of other similar observations. Often, tears would follow. Even a detached, “objective” professional journalist had to stand by in awe, quietly trying to absorb the scene.

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Many of the map visitors cried silently, gently dabbing at their eyes with a tissue or more discreetly, with a handkerchief. Some, usually the men, would simply try to wipe away their macho-man emotions with the back of a hand, perhaps hoping that no one else would notice. Other map visitors just let their tears flow all the way down their cheeks, unashamedly –often all the way down onto that drawing on the floor.

If you looked closely, you could see small, round droplets of moisture on that yellow map. Some of those spots would be quickly smeared by the unending ebb and flow of shuffling feet. Others would linger. And practically each and every one of the visitors, of course, would volunteer his or her memories.

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That’s where I grew up! That’s where my parents still live! That’s where we all went to school! That’s where my grandparents are buried! Over there is where we fell in love, remember? I wonder what things there are like nowadays!?…

Some of the visitors found themselves quite disappointed: I lived at the Loma de Chaple, on Luz Oeste Street, but it’s not on the map! complained Frances Bestemi to her younger companion. Frances said she had lived in the city of Havana from 1929 to 1961, and before that, in Santiago de Cuba, with her husband, a man of Lebanese descent.

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Someone pointed out that the map reflects the streets of Havana as of 1953, and perhaps her street hadn’t been built when the map was made… or maybe the street was named something else… No doubt, the explanations brought Frances very little consolation.

Another visitor, Xiomara Rodr’iguez, guiding a group of friends, pointed to a street in Marianao.

My home was on Ada #41, between 56 and 58, she almost sobbed. That’s where I lived before those sons-of-bitches sent me, when I was 17 years old, to the UMAP. They used to call us “the Jackelinas!,” she recalled. The letters UMAP, signifying yet another shameful chapter of Cuban history written by the Communist dictatorship, stand for Unidades Militares de Apoyo a la Producci’on –compulsory work camps where the Cuban dictator sent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people that he wanted to punish because they didn’t think or act according to “revolutionary” dogmas.

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Xiomara, accompanied by husband Pedro, decried how the thugs (actually, her word, in Spanish, was a lot stronger than that, but we know there are children reading this blog, so we are trying to be polite) running the Cuban government had forced her to work for nearly “a year and a half” before they allowed her to leave the island.

From time to time, younger people also came to examine the map. Most seemed a bit more detached, when compared to the more elderly visitors. Maybe the younger ones had been born out of Cuba, after their parents left the island. Or maybe they left “la Patria” much too early in their lives to remember a lot. And yet, most of them stayed on the map a lot longer than mere curiosity could explain.

But the elders –that gray-haired, slow-moving, highly-dignified contingent– did remember. And they remembered well, very well.

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Standing around that map –and around another, smaller map in the other building, with the streets of Santiago de Cuba, which made its debut at this year’s event– and watching the hordes of visitors trek all over “their” neighborhoods, their streets, identified in black lettering against the yellow background, one couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that this three-day cultural extravaganza has, perhaps, the most apt name in the universe: Cuba Nostalgia.

5 thoughts on “Mapas de Ayer”

  1. Beautiful article. I was in tears by the end. There are so many of us who couldn’t imagine having to leave where we grew up, only to be able to see it again on a large-scale map. Reading the story and seeing the photographs made me feel as though I were right next to them, my tears dotting the streets as well.
    Que viva Cuba Libre!
    More photos, please!
    ~Ana

  2. One of Webster’s definitions for nostalgia: A longing for home; homesickness. The memories I have from watching the faces of those walking the map and emailing fidel will stay with me a long time. Longing for home, and finally, expressing anger to the one who stole it from them. What a great post Val.

  3. Great post Julio!

    As a map and geography nut, the floor maps at Cuba Nostalgia are one of my favorite parts of the convention.

    I have no personal recollections of the streets of Havana or anywhere else in Cuba because I’ve never been to the island. Besides watching relatives point out where they were born, went to school, etc., when I see the floor maps all I can think about are the arguments my older relatives used to get into about where those streets started, ended, and pass through.

  4. It is amazing the little things that choke you to tears when that which was yours has been taken away.

    I wasn?t aware of that tremendous map. But I have found maps of La Habana on the web (quite high-res) and I can trace my house in Marianao and invariable my eyes fill up with tears (I am kindda of an emotional guy)

    Then I look for “Maternidad del Vedado” where I was born, then my “Secundaria, or a house of a friend. I count the blocks from my House to “Coney Island”
    I just spend hours virtually visiting MI HABANA
    I remember the very first Supermarket I ever visited with Air Conditioning CASALTA (and I asked my dad ?what the hell just happened????) in front of “La fuente luminosa” on 5th Ave , the same place where I saw the Beast face to face for the first time as he was getting into the CASALTA restaurant and he slapped my head for no apparent reason “(maybe he already knew this 4 year old was going to pray everyday for his long agonizing death)
    Anyway.. It is such a great idea to have that map, to walk our streets, to remember. Memories. It is all we have.

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