Havana and the Crumbling Aesthetic

by caseypeterson

During my first week studying in Havana, Cuba last year, my friends and I stumbled upon La Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro. Located in Old Havana, this musician’s guild and practice space is located in the worn-down atrium of an old colonial building. Tangled vines hang down from a net cast across the open ceiling. Shattered pottery and dirt line the edges of the walls. It is up to the imagination to decide what colonial temptress used to make her appearances in the dramatic space and what the butlers were wearing as they attended to her every need. But as in the rest of Havana, the bourgeois past is just a ghost that haunts the glorious buildings that are slowly crumbling all over the city.

In one, white-washed room off of the vast atrium, is the small practice space for Cuba’s best sonero musicians. I got to hear them play, and unlike the space they inhabited, their music was fresh and brilliant, cutting through the gloomy space to enliven it even for just a few measures.

This experience felt authentic to say the least. I finally saw the reality of the life of a Cuban musician and not the act the resort owners put on to disguise the real Havana. Every week, the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club, of which they are few, join together with a group of young musicians to put on a show at one of the city’s finest hotels, Hotel Nacional. I went to see the show later that semester, and it felt vapid and depressing. This wasn’t the true Social Club; this was a marketable act that the hotel used to hold up the disguise slipping down over Havana’s face. The current Havana is so much more; it is gritty, sad, and complex. And it is beautiful.

I have to take a step back after writing that last sentence. What does it mean for me, a visiting student from the US, the Cold War enemy, the privileged tourist, to say Havana is beautiful? It is true that I find romance in the city’s crumbling façade and delight in its dark and surprising corners. But what I’m really finding beauty in, if you strip it down to the basics, are people who can’t upkeep their buildings and a government that can’t afford to do it for them. Cubans make about twenty dollars every month if they earn their money legally, because they are subject to the implication’s of a charismatic leader’s lost dream. So why is this form of authenticity so nice to look at? Why do photographs of crowded balconies and structures full of rubble receive oohs and aahs from my friends and family when I go back home?

Is this all part of our need to feel part of something real? To witness the true life of real people in a real place that is the product of its inputs? I like to think that after spending several months in Havana, I now see beauty in the city, because I know what Cubans like the musicians practicing in the Rosalia Castro do on a daily basis to get by, and even to inspire delight, in spite of everything else. But I’ll never truly know. Maybe I myself have truly fallen victim to the crumbling aesthetic.

Either way, this is something we must be aware of in ourselves. As Havana continues to slowly renovate the tourist areas in the old town, it will inevitably seek to capture this aesthetic, this sense of authenticity, in its restaurants, bars, and cigar shops. It will essentially freeze a moment in Havana’s history in order to market the storied streets to the passers-by. We can compare this to the specialty shops in Lower Manhattan that evoke atmospheres of the early 20th century in order to sell cheddar grits for the monthly salary of a Cuban. We must step back to determine what is truly authentic in the spaces we inhabit, why that is valuable, and furthermore, whether or not we can truly call something authentic anymore!