featured gallery for October 2015

Arroz Con Mango: Life Through Cuban Eyes

Cubans are creative and colorful, in art and words, in dreams and deeds. As a language lover, I especially am attracted to Cubanisms, phrases you’ll only hear from Cubans. An entire conversation can take place with such phrases, often sounding as if the speakers are saying nothing but nonsense.

Example: “Es un arroz con mango.” Translation: It’s rice with mango. Meaning: It’s complicated. Example: “Me importa tres pepinos.” Translation: I care three cucumbers. Meaning: I could care less. Example: “Tu no pintas nada.” Translation: You don’t paint anything. Meaning: This is none of your concern.

I could go on. And on. And on. Learning a different language is difficult enough, so I have extra sympathy for folks trying to learn the way Cubans speak. Cubanisms plus a fast tongue and a tendency to drop letters and even syllables from words can drive anyone a bit crazy. But oh once you’ve got it, how sweet.

As a first-generation Cuban American born in New York City, I am proud to claim both cultures as my own. I grew up speaking English and Spanish, eating steak and potatoes and rice and beans. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I was just as comfortable hearing Karen Carpenter or Celia Cruz crooning from our record player.

My parents and sister emigrated from Cuba in the 1960s. Most of my father’s family left the island, but most of my mother’s family did not. As a result, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have Cuba on my mind. For years it was a place I could only daydream about, but I did get the chance to visit in 1983 and again in 1999.

Now that the United States and Cuba have reopened embassies in each other’s capitals, I am once again thinking about visiting the island. I was a teen in my first trip and a young adult in my second. Returning sometime soon, now that I’m in middle age, will hopefully give me more insight into the many meanings Cuba has in my life.

Viewing the imagery of these five Cuban-born artists started me on that path of greater introspection. Three of them are still with us: Orlando Ferrand, Carlos Gutierrez-Solana and Rafael Sanchez. Two of them are not: Carlos Alfonzo and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. All of them created works that speak to me.

Carlos Alfonzo evokes the complexities of grief, blood and peace. Felix Gonzalez-Torres makes us think about relationships. Orlando Ferrand sees beauty. Rafael Sanchez defies labels. Carlos Gutierrez-Solana challenges homophobia and AIDSphobia. All of the artists are different, yet they all share a heritage and a virus. I can relate.