Mujeres de la Habana: an intimate look at the lives of modern Cuban women

The Cuban Revolution affected women’s lives and gender relations dramatically and on paper, it offered them equality and gave them access to more channels of political and social power. But what is the reality of women’s lives in Cuba today? Having long explored issues of female identity and experience in my work as a photographer, I was interested in looking at the lives of modern Cuban women and finding out what their experiences were in Cuba’s current post-revolutionary political and social climate. The portrait series that emerged–which was shot solely with a Leica camera and includes in-depth interviews with each of the women–is an intimate look at the struggles, perceptions, hopes and dreams of its subjects.

Delsa Pena, 85, lives alone in a small dark apartment in Havana and spends her days walking around the city so that she doesn’t feel too lonely. She has six children, 14 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. “The hardest experience in my life was when my husband fell in love with another woman and I had to leave him,” she says. “I’ve always been unlucky in love,” she adds. Of Cuban women she says, “we are beautiful loving and respectful. Before the revolution, we were domestic servants but now we have more rights and possibilities.”

Grether Ballaga Perez, 25,  plays the cello for the orchestra of the Grand Havana Theater of Cuba. She studied music at the prestigious “Instituto Superior de Arte” and dreams of playing for an orchestra outside of Cuba. “The hardest thing in my life was when my father disappeared when I was 15 year old. Everything in my life changed after that and we still don’t know where he is. He worked on a cargo ship so we think maybe he’s in Europe with another family.” Of Cuban women, she says “a Cuban woman can become what she wants to be in this culture. I believe we have the same rights as men and are prepared to face any system, any society.”

Arletis Francis, 26, photographed here at one of Havana’s beloved salsa clubs, grew up in Guantanamo and came to Havana to study engineering. “I was so sad to leave my family but I knew I had to come here if I wanted to study,” she says. She currently teaches computer skills to high school students and teaches salsa dancing on the side.  “My dream is to become a professional salsa dancer but is it very difficult. You have to get special papers to get the jobs that pay well, she explains.  “Actually, even now I make less as a computer teacher than a dancer and I also love to dance,” she adds. Of Cuban women, she says “we are strong, fight hard, wake up every day to solve our family’s problems and we are resilient.”

Semara Garcia Gutierrez, 43, is currently serving a three year prison sentence in Matanzas but was photographed while on weekend leave visiting her mother in Old Havana. “I took the fall for a friend during a street knife fight,” she explains. “Prison conditions aren’t too bad.There are problems with food and water but everyone has their own bed and the guards are usually kind,” she says. She is enrolled in a cooking course in the prison and dreams of one day sharing a home with her female partner and working as a chef.  “Homosexuality is not accepted here in Cuba but people are becoming more open,” she says. “My mother and grandmother have always accepted me,” she adds. Of Cuban women she says “we are strong, beautiful and able to face anything because we’ve gone through so much already.”

Caridad Miranda, 53, photographed in her home with some of her family members and the laundry from her youngest grandchildren, lives with her husband, eight children and eight grandchildren. She studied theater at the prestigious “Instituto Superior de Arte” and has been a singer and actor, even performing in several Cuban movies. “The hardest thing in my life right now is our housing situation because there are just too many people living here and not enough food. We gets food rations but it’s not enough for all of us.” Of Cuban women, she says “being a Cuban woman means being everything for one’s family.”

Artist and photographer, Ismary Gonzalez Cabrera, 48, is photographed in her studio in Old Havana. “My parents were devoted to the revolution and were quite absent so I had a lonely childhood,” she says. She has one child, Pablo, and tries to share her experiences through her art. “I’m so happy that I have been able to make art my career. I know many artists struggle to live off their art and to me it is my greatest achievement,” she adds. She dreams of traveling to other countries and experiencing other cultures but knows that isn’t realistic at the moment.  Of Cuban women, she says, “We are warriors. Like everyone, we need love, we need family and we need work.”

Meivys Sahily Guilarte Miranda, 35, is a musician specializing in percussion and voice. She studied music for six years before getting a contract to play percussion in Singapore and then later moved to Bali to play Top 40 music. “The culture was so different in these places but I lived with Cubans so that made it easier,” she explains. She recently returned to Havana to look after her sick mother and reestablish her career there. “It was a triumph to come home after so long,” she says. “If I could make it over there, I think I can make it here,” she adds. Of Cuban women she says “we are very expressive. We show what we feel…and we love to dance!”

Yarlenys Torres, 34, is photographed in the hallway of her building where she dries laundry. She lives with her husband and two children in an apartment that doubles as her husband’s tattoo parlor.  While she completed a basic computer course after high school and also sings and writes, she’s happy being a mother and wife at the moment. “I have everything I want–a family, a home, love,” she says. “I dream of traveling to Brazil one day because I thing my grandfather was from there and I would love to experience it.” Of Cuban women, she says “we are social, loving and communicative. We keep the family together.”

Ismaela Perez, 76, is photographed in her home in Havana. She came to Havana the year of the revolution and became involved in a social organization teaching literacy. During the missile cirsis, she was mobilized with a group of women in a leadership role in the mountains. “We were totally isolated and had no idea what was happening with the crisis. We got a lot of distorted news and didn’t know if the war or the world had ended,” she explains. While she married, she couldn’t have children. I was sad that I couldn’t have children but in every student, I saw a child that I could nurture and I always felt my career was fulfilling,” she says. “Cuban women are brave and show solidarity between each other and women in other countries. I think Cuban women face many difficulties but remain stoic,” she adds.

Gabriela Fernandez, 17, who was moving to the United States a few days after this photograph was taken, is photographed in her bedroom with the suitcase and few possessions she is taking with her to the US.  She was raised primarily by her mother, with whom she is very close, who gave birth to her at age 17. Her mother recently married a man from the United States which is why they are moving to the US.  “We’re not the revolutionary generation and we haven’t seen the good part of the revolution,” she says. “Everything in this country is controlled by the government and the media especially is so restricted which my generation of course does not agree with,” she explains.  “Cuba has good things too though. We have a lot of free time and young people have fun because there’s not so much pressure on us. But if you want to do something big with your life, it’s hard,” she adds. Of Cuban women, she says, “to be a Cuban woman is to be self-critical, intelligent and passionate. Every woman in this country has had to sacrifice their whole lives.”

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