Culture

Here’s A Brief Look At The History Of The Cuban People And The Island They Call Home

Most of us might think of white-sand beaches, tropical dances, colorful cars, and big cigars when Cuba is mentioned, but there’s so much more to this Caribbean island than meets the eye. The result of nearly fifty years of embargo and isolation might have put the country through some financial hardships in the past but also meant that it developed its very own, distinctively unique character and culture. Indeed, Cuba’s history is filled with fascinating facts. Here’s a list to prove it.

It was once called Isla Juan.

@Brian Godfrey / Flickr

Shortly after Christopher Columbus arrived at the Caribbean, his famous ships -La Nina, La Pinta and the Santa Maria- reached the northern shores of Cuba. Columbus claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Spain and named the island Isla Juan, after the prince of Asturias.

The origin of the name.

@Patrick Annable / Flickr

Cuba’s name is widely believed to derive from the Taino language and it may translate either to ‘’great place’’ (coabana) or “the place where fertile land is plenty’’ (cubao). There are also some who believe that the island got its name from the homonymous Portuguese town.

It was inhabited long before Columbus.

@Sami Keinänen / Flickr

During the pre-Columbian era, the island was inhabited by three different indigenous tribes: the Taino people that migrated from Hispaniola, the Ciboney people that came from South America and the Guanahatabey people.

Havana is much older than you’d think.

Cuba Old timer Havana old. Digital Image. Pixabay. 2018.

Initially named San Cristobal de la Habana, the city was one of the first Spanish settlements on the island, founded in 1515. Today, Havana is the capital and most populated city in Cuba.

European diseases brought the downfall of indigenous peoples.

@Theodor Hensolt / Flickr

Forcing the natives to work in harsh conditions under a tough regime was not the only reason behind their undoing. In fact, their population saw a dramatic decline due to contagious European diseases -primarily measles and smallpox- for which they had developed no immune mechanisms.

The 10 Years’ War.

Cuban volunteers in the barracks. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons. 2009

Cuba’s first war of independence began in 1868, led by Carlos Manuel de Déspedes, a sugar plantation owner who proclaimed independence and called all natives, regardless of race, to unite and fight for freedom. The conflicts between Cuba and Spain went on for a whole decade and war also became known as the “Guerra Grande” or Great War.

An offer to buy Cuba was denied.

Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons. 2010

The United States has attempted to invade independent Cuba several times throughout their history – without much success. After it became clear that conquering the Caribbean island was probably an unattainable goal, the American government offered to buy it from Spain in 1848 for $100 million, but the offer was quickly declined.

The mysterious explosion that started a war.

@Tim Evanson/Flickr

In 1898, the explosion of a United States naval ship called Maine shook Havana harbor. Almost three hundred men were killed in this calamity. Numerous investigations were conducted but revealed no culprits, causing outrage in the States with the press proclaiming ‘’Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” The explosion led to the Spanish-American war that started the same year.

Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana, Cuba for twenty years.

Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba 1946. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons

Even though Hemingway was an American, he is one of the most prominent literary figures in Cuban history. The famous author moved to Havana in 1940 and went on to write some of his most famous works there, including ‘’The Old Man and the Sea” and “To Have and Have Not.”

Cuba’s nickname comes from its physical shape from an aerial view.

Map of Cuba. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons. 1994

You might have heard Cubans refer to their country as “El Caiman” or “El cocodrilo”, meaning crocodile in Spanish. Have you ever wondered why? The answer is simple. Just look at any map and you’ll find that Cuba looks like an alligator from an aerial view.

¡Revolución! Cuba is the first communist country in the western hemisphere.

@Pignews.com / Flickr

Led by Fidel Castro, a rebel army of communist revolutionaries came to power in 1959. Castro went on to rule Cuba for almost 50 years until he stepped down due to health issues in 2008, with his younger brother Raúl taking his place.

It has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

@Javier Guillot Jiménez / Flickr

This is mainly due to the ‘’year of education’’, a campaign launched by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that aimed to combat illiteracy by sending ‘’literacy brigades’’ to remote, rural areas to build schools and train teachers.

The government controls all the media.

@Pedro Szekely / Flickr

Four national television networks, six national radio channels, several newspapers, and the internet are all tightly controlled and monitored by the Cuban government, the same way they have been for the past 50 years.

Cuba’s “Special Period” was a difficult time.

@Pedro Szekely / Flickr

The harsh conditions and severe shortages in paper, fuel, and even food during the island’s economic depression in the 1990s led to this era becoming known as Cuba’s “Special Period in time of Peace” or ‘’Período especial.” The financial struggles were caused by the downfall of the Soviet Union and the following dissolution of the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance).

It has nine sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

@Gabriel González / Flickr

These include the colonial fortifications of Havana, San Pedro de la Roca Castle, the historic centers of Cienfuegos and Camagüey, the landscapes of the first coffee plantations, the Viñales Valley and Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios as cultural sites. Additionally, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park and Desembarco del Granma National Park as natural sites.

An import ban made the people adapt and work to make sure their things still work decades later.

Cuba Havana Oldtimer. Digital Image. Pixabay. 2016

It’s hard to imagine Cuba without the presence of colorful old-school cars strolling by the oceanfront. But, have you ever pondered the reason why there are so many classic 1950’s cars in the country? It’s because Cuban authorities had implemented an import ban on cars up until recently. The ban was lifted in 2011. So those charming photos are just examples of Cuban ingenuity living under an oppressive regime.

The highest number of doctors worldwide are from Cuba.

Estudiaelam. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons. 2015

Cuba has an impressive medical system and the highest number of doctors per capita in the world. In fact, Cuba has so many doctors that it has sent medical staff on international missions to over 40 countries. Cuban doctors played a significant role in fighting the Ebola epidemic in Africa.

Fidel Castro was a huge John Lennon fan.

@Gerry Zambonini / Flickr

Castro believed that Lennon was a real revolutionary in his own right. In 2000 he commissioned the construction of a statue of the famous singer of the Beatles in the famous John Lennon Park in Havana.

There were a record number of assassination attempts on Fidel’s life.

@Simone Ramella / Flickr

Fidel Castro probably did more to deserve the epithet ‘’cheater of death’’ than any other person ever has. Cuban officials claim the former leader survived more than 600 attempts – and that definitely wasn’t due to the plotters’ lack of imagination. Explosives, seductive women, cyanide pills, mob hits, a toxic dive suit, and even a poisoned milkshake were not enough to take down the hardcore politician, who proved to be a legendary survivor.

Cubans have very limited access to the Internet.

@Pedro Szekely / Flickr

Only a very small percentage of the country’s population enjoys open Internet access. Most people who do are doctors, engineers, academics or journalists.

Bacardi rum was originally from Cuba

@Graeme Maclean / Flickr

That’s right. The world-renowned brand of rum was made in Cuba, until it moved its facilities to Puerto Rico when Fidel Castro came to power, leaving Havana Club to claim the title of the most popular Cuban rum.


READ: Cuban Youths Are Skateboarding In Record Numbers And Don’t Want To Be Nationally Recognized As A Sport

Share this story with all of your friends by tapping that little share button below!

A New Documentary Exposes The Massacre In Porvenir, Texas That Left 15 Mexican-Americans Dead

Entertainment

A New Documentary Exposes The Massacre In Porvenir, Texas That Left 15 Mexican-Americans Dead

porvenirmovie / Instagram

Porvenir is a Spanish word. If you break it down, por venir literally means to come, and the translation is the future. It’s also the name of what used to be a tiny town in Texas located right next to the Rio Grande on the border. The village of Porvenir in Texas, which is a town no more, had roots that reflect the brutal and deadly colonization that this country was built on. 

“Porvenir, Texas” is a new documentary on PBS that brings to light the massacre that happened on the border more than 100 years ago. 

Credit: porvenirmovie / Instagram

As the tense immigration crisis continues in this country today, the documentary “Porvenir, Texas” shows how this struggle has been part of our history since the inception of the United States of America. 

The story of the massacre cannot be told before discussing the war between the U.S. and Mexico. While the U.S. continued to expand in the southwest through its war with Mexico, the battle to live and remain in the country affected the most vulnerable people who weren’t part of the war at all. They were Mexicans who lived in Texas and along the border before it was ever part of the United States. However, after Mexico lost Texas to the United States, those living in Texas, became Americans overnight. That didn’t please the incoming residents — white people looking to make the country their home. 

The documentary exposes the brutal killing of 15 Mexican men — some who were American as well — which the U.S. tried to hide from history. 

Credit: porvenirmovie / Instagram

With the expansion of the U.S. throughout its new state of Texas, white ranchers staked their claim in areas that were owned by Mexican-Americans. Like gentrification today, Texas was also gentrified during the Wild West, which meant Mexicans, who were now Americans, were displaced because of higher taxes. 

With the revolution still going on in the Mexican border and new white ranchers taking over land, racial tensions were high. White people were told that all Mexicans were “bandits” and Mexican-Americans were in fear for their lives thinking they could be killed based on the color of their skin.

White people were killing Mexican-Americans outright with no consequences, and the film shows graphic images of that. 

Credit: porvenirmovie / Instagram

Here’s a summary of that fateful violent night as reported by NBC News: “In the early morning hours of Jan. 28, 1918, a group of ranchers, Texas Rangers, and U.S. Army cavalry soldiers entered the village and rousted the residents from their beds. They led away 15 unarmed men and boys of Mexican descent to a nearby bluff, where they shot and killed them. These victims ranged in age from 16 to 72, and some were American citizens. The town’s women and children fled across the border to Mexico for safety. The next day, the perpetrators returned and burned the village to the ground. Porvenir ceased to exist.”

We have no idea how many other Mexican-Americans were killed with such brutality during this period because there’s no record of it. The only reason the story of Porvenir can be told today is because of two men that documented what happened. 

Credit: porvenirmovie / Instagram

Harry Warren was a white teacher that worked with some of the community in Porvenir and wrote about what happened that night. He also was a witness to the bodies.  José Tomás (“J.T.”) Canales, who was a state legislator at the time, launched an investigation against the Rangers, and his depositions and testimony have been preserved as well. 

“There were many cases like Porvenir, where the initial response from the state was to try to fabricate what really took place,” Monica Muñoz Martinez, an assistant professor at Brown University and the founding member of the public history project Refusing To Forget, told NBC News. “It was not unusual for the state to try to justify such acts, by criminalizing the victims. Residents of Porvenir were described at times as squatters or bandits. None of this is true.”

Christina Fernandez Shapter produced the film and spoke about the importance of making sure these stories are never forgotten. 

Credit: jefegreenheart / Instagram

“I am Mexican American myself, I am from Texas, my family has been here for generations,” she told NBC News. “And I know we all have stories in our families, sometimes of land being taken from us or other injustices.”

Here’s a clip of the film.

Click here to watch the entire documentary. 

READ: This Exhibition Told The Stories Of Mexicans And Mexican-Americans Who Were Illegally Deported In The ’20s And ’30s

Historic Chicano Murals Were Whitewashed All Over Los Angeles But A New Movement Is Bringing Them Back

Things That Matter

Historic Chicano Murals Were Whitewashed All Over Los Angeles But A New Movement Is Bringing Them Back

Javier Rojas / mitú

Ernesto de la Loza can remember a time when he could walk down the streets of Boyle Heights and be greeted by the sight of vibrant murals. Sometimes, he’d even run into some of his own work on neighborhood walls. 

“Things were different 40 years ago. I saw our community come together and paint our stories on walls,” said De la Loza, 71, who was a renowned muralist during the Chicano Pride movement in East LA in the ’60s and ’70s. “Now, all I see are new coffee shops and yoga studios. It’s not the same.”

De la Loza was behind some of the most iconic murals in the city that included work that highlighted environmental awareness and the fight for equal rights. He recalls the first mural he painted was a Mayan motif at El Sereno Park back in 1968 as a 19-year-old. 

“These murals represented our struggles and our stories that weren’t being taught in history books,” De la Loza says. “That’s why I started painting, to express myself and for the past 50 years I’ve stood true to that.”

De La Loza was part of the “Golden Age of Chicano Muralism” in LA during the ’60s and ’70s. Today, the work from that era is quickly disappearing. 

Credit: Javier Rojas / mitú

He takes me on a tour outside of his work office in Echo Park, a rapidly changing neighborhood in Los Angeles that was once predominantly Latino. He nods to the new art studio near his office opening soon and sighs. De la Loza says that there was once a colorful mural of the Lady of Guadalupe right next to his office but as we make a turn around the block to see it, we find white paint and graffiti covering any resemblance to the mural. 

“This neighborhood had a mural on every corner and you can hold me to that,” de la Loza says with pride in his voice. “It was beautiful.”

De la Loza is right. The streets of LA did indeed have a mural on every corner, or so it sure seemed like that back then. Murals popped up everywhere in Los Angeles in the 1970s as artists took to walls to express views on political and social issues, including student uprisings and civil rights struggles. 

According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, 69, a mural expert and historian, at the height of the mural movement in LA there was an estimated 2,500 murals up on city walls. Then, they started disappearing. 

Due to an increase in city-wide graffiti, weather damage and neighborhood complaints, many of these historic murals began to be whitewashed across Los Angeles

Credit: Javier Rojas / mitú

“Los Angeles was once the mural capital of the world. All over the Eastside of LA there were beautiful pieces of art that celebrated and empowered Chicano culture,” said Rojas-Williams. “There were well over 2,500 murals over the city from Boyle Height to the San Fernando Valley.”

She says that the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights was the birthplace of the Chicano mural movement. Over 90 murals once stood at low-income housing projects where some of the most well-known muralists like De la Loza and David Botello painted work there. Today, there are roughly only 50 murals there. That is due to graffiti and lack of financial funding to restore the murals. 

“There was tagging all over them and that was painful to see because it was our own people behind it,” De La Loza as he looks up to the sky. “We killed the mural movement and that pains me.”

The erasure of murals in LA can be traced back to the ’90s when murals began to disappear due to tagging, damage due to weather and overall lack of maintenance. In return, the damaged murals became “eyesores” to some in the community and complaints to the city followed. Gentrification would also begin to hit Northeast LA during this period which led to a change in demographics in these neighborhoods. 

“They didn’t understand the importance of these murals and what they meant to our people,” said Rojas-Williams. “That was the beginning of the end of the mural movement and then came the moratorium.”

In 2002, the city of Los Angeles essentially banned the painting of murals and enacted a moratorium on murals on private property and businesses. That period is known as the “dark age of muralism in LA”. 

Credit: Javier Rojas / mitú

Los Angeles put a mural ban in place due to advertisers suing the city on 1st Amendment grounds. They argued that while their ads were banned from being placed on city walls, muralists could still create giant pieces of work. In return, city officials opted to prohibit all new murals. An individual who wanted to put up a new mural could be fined or even put in jail due to the ban. 

The moratorium lasted 11 years until it was finally lifted in 2013. A new mural ordinance would also be enacted that protected artists work if ever damaged or attempted to be painted over. The rules permitted new murals in business and industrial zones as long as artists registered their projects with the city and paid a $60 application fee. But for many, the damage was already done.

During those 11 years, hundreds of pieces of art were lost due to the whitewashing of murals from the city. There was anger from the art community and historians like Rojas-Williams, who worked on lifting the ban, says the city painted over iconic murals that can never be reclaimed. 

“It felt like the erasure of our culture and the city did this over a decade span losing hundreds of murals in return,” she says. 

For De La Loza, when the moratorium ended it coincided with another wave of change that came to LA around 2013. Highland Park and Echo Park, both Latino enclaves for decades, saw more gentrification hit and a wave of new owners come to the community. By then, murals in those neighborhoods were long gone. 

“I look around this neighborhood and it feels like we were never here,” De La Loza says as we head back to his office. “We lost more than just a piece of art, we lost our history, we lost years of hard work and more importantly we lost our presence in this city.”

Today, Los Angeles is starting to see some of that creative boom again as new murals have popped up all over the city. Yet, there is still much work to be done. 

Credit: Javier Rojas/ mitú

Artists in LA today have more creative freedom than ever when it comes to putting up new murals. But things aren’t as easy as just simply picking a wall and painting on it. With the addition of fees and permits and an agreement that a mural must remain up for at least two years, the new ordinance had unintended consequences. According to Rojas-Williams, many Latino muralists that she speaks to can’t afford these fees or have the time to acquire permits. De La Loza agrees.

“The ordinance helped but in reality it helped the more affluent and outsider community that was coming into the city,” he says. “It’s obvious when you look around the neighborhood whose art is up. It’s nice art but it’s not ours.”

We return to his office and as we say our goodbyes, he shows me one last thing. It’s a book about murals with his artwork on the front cover. He tells me his niece in college was required to read it as part of her college art history class.

“She told me when she saw the book cover she immediately knew it was my work,” De La Loza says as he wipes a tear. “Knowing that a new generation is getting to know about that history and that period gives me hope that one day it’ll be back. 

READ: Mexican-American Artists Add Their Touch To New Mural Corridor At LA’s New LA Plaza Village