Edel Rodriguez — The artist paints the childhood he left behind in Cuba
The artist paints the childhood he left behind in Cuba
As part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980, Cuban-American artist Edel Rodriguez, at just nine years old, moved with his family from their native Cuba to the United States, with little more than the clothes on their backs. In the subsequent years Edel began work as an art director before establishing himself as an artist and illustrator working for the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Times and TIME magazine – where his illustration of Donald Trump as a flaming, screaming fireball received international attention.
But even as Edel’s star in the art world rose, his home country of Cuba and all that he left behind as a child was never far from his mind. It’s an all too familiar story that has gained new poignancy in our recent times, and one that depicts the human side of immigration and loss. In this specially commissioned feature Cuban-American journalist Rebecca Sanchez follows Edel as he returns home for the first time in almost a decade, bringing the gift of creativity back to his beloved Cuba.
Guajiro, El Sol Te Llama
It’s nearly noon when the plane kisses the asphalt and comes to a screaming halt at the José Martí International Airport of La Habana. Already it is 98 degrees and the heat makes its presence known in undulating translucent waves that rise from the ground and can be seen from the window, before you even enter into them.
The Embraer E175 may be small as far as planes go, but on June 23 its cargo is far greater than its size lets on. In a stroke of serendipitous precision, the flight has just carried Idania del Rio and clan, of Clandestina — Cuba’s first independent fashion brand — renowned Cuban Conguero Pedrito Martinez and family, and Cuban artist Edel Rodriguez from Newark to Havana. It is a titanic delivery of artistry returning to the island all together, if even for just a few short hours, before everyone disperses and disappears into the old city.
For Edel, getting through the airport is no small detail — a fact that reveals itself in stacks of documentation and two passports clinched in his hand. Still, it is not enough. He is held briefly when the agent asks for a third passport he doesn’t have on him, but after a few minutes it seems she loses interest and grants him entry. Outside, Edel’s favorite aunt Nancy and cousin Liset rush toward him in anxious excitement. It’s been years since he has seen them and several rounds of hugs take priority before heading towards the car sitting in wait, trunk propped open by a sawed off wooden bat. Inside it there is only a spare tire and a machete.
Packing into the car, we set out, embraced by black and indigo velvet, which still pristinely envelops the firmly cushioned seats. Havana may be the destination for the very many tourists that visit the island each year — it is, in the end, part of the lure of the Caribbean that Edouard Glissant referred to, its being situated at the outer edge of space and time. And if Havana really exists as a city in Cuba, it is only under such a condition — encapsulated by isolation, in a distorted preservation that collides with the performance of cultural plurality, for the sake of an industry for foreigners. It exists as caricature.
Tourists may have claimed its beaches but the dirt has never been up for grabs, and Edel is today headed directly to a place where that dirt and its dust span out across vast and open horizons.
“Did you paint the house?” Edel asks his aunt from the front seat, knowing the answer.
“How well I prepare for you,” she replies cheekily. Though, the truth is, Liset painted the house — something she does every time Edel comes home.
“I want to paint the reality here — real life,” he says after a brief pause.
“Oh, you want to paint the reality,” she nods, “well good then, that’s exactly why I painted the front of the house and left the side untouched.
“There’s your reality,” she laughs.
“My aunt is many things,” Edel begins to say. And it is true, she is one woman but she is also legion...
Nancy may be mostly Cuban countryside, but she’s also a little bit Tony Soprano. Edel would have said it himself if he hadn’t been choked by emotion at the mere mention of her. It’s important to note that he can’t get the words out because it is a first — more than halfway into this trip — and it comes down all at once.
“It’s such a close family connection that when you say my aunt I think of her skin,” he eventually continues. “I think of what her skin feels like. Her touch. I grew up here and she would always hug me and play with my hair, so it’s a very close, personal thing that I think about first when I think of my aunt.”
That he lost 10 years with her after his family first fled is not immediately apparent. Nor does it ever become apparent, in fact. To the outsider, they are one in the same — appendages of one another, exchanging love and banter with a fluidity that passes as if it were water falling over one hand washing the other. And maybe that is the best description: each of them one of a pair, moving tenderly in inverse circles, never breaking contact, as if in a choreographed dance.
Where there is a way, Nancy finds it. She is the family’s keeper and there is nothing, no matter the shortage or puzzle — as many, often overlooked, daily details tend to be in Cuba — that she cannot find. She is the first to appear when Edel arrives, coming to collect him at the airport, and she is the last to send him off. She cooks three feasts a day, when ingredients permit, and rains down cafecito and fresh jugo de mango in the interims. Hers is a silent power. Not silent because it does not speak volumes, but silent because it speaks volumes in the intention with which it is delivered. She is not without opinions and positions, though she may opt not to be vocal when it serves her best.
“There is nothing more tranquil than a life lived in peace,” she says assuredly. “Even if it means all you have to eat is boniato.”
For all that she is, Nancy is most forcefully immovably herself. Hers is an impenetrable integrity.
Where Earth Becomes Rust
The road out of Havana to El Gabriel is beset by signs that seem to be speaking to no one. Phrases declaring all loyalty in unity to the revolution, pledging fidelity to the notion that there is always more that can be done on behalf of the country, committing the remembrance of legacy to May 1 all appear only as memories, recalled only to themselves — the public gaze having fallen away so long ago it’s like it was never there in the first place. The walls and billboards, faded and decayed as many are, may as well be blank.
Horses graze along the uneven street, decorating sparse countryside that is otherwise kept company only by fruit stands and small outdoor bars, but there is, at this moment, a beer shortage, so we keep it moving.
These rural roads haven’t changed in the nearly 40 years since Edel left, though his experience of them has. As a child, he says, driving through the dark desolation of the fields at night inspired a particular kind of eeriness. Today, he’s more amazed that the trees are all exactly the height they were all those years ago — a thought he considers curiously, wondering how they maintain themselves so evenly — and marvels at the stark contrast between this eternal sameness and the pathological fluctuations of the Miami and New York City skylines.
In some ways it is as though this preserved landscape is its own monument, histories hidden in the sinewy guts of sugarcane and buried deep like roots grown into the earth, the fissures of which are betrayed by the unfolding of a horizon multiplying into the distance. It is here, in the paradox of all that has remained the same while also always being somehow different — where the soil is suddenly red like fire, like the sun’s heat that it guzzles and interfuses, red like blood spilled — that we find the reality of Cuba, and it is here that Edel’s art begins, just as Glissant says: “The storyteller’s cry comes from the rock itself. He is grounded in the depths of the land; therein lies his power.”
Edel first met Liset in 1993, when she was five or six years old. By then life had already dealt her a trying hand, her father having died in her first year of life...
Liset was never able to know her father and so, by the time Edel came around she followed him everywhere, and he was instantly charmed.
With each visit home he found her a little bit older and immeasurably more grown. Before long theirs became a kind of friendship that stretched far beyond the bounds of bloodlines and carved out its own transoceanic space where it could live in times apart. It was a familial progression all its own — born of an insistence on kindred bonds, despite political and geographic distances.
She strives always to keep abreast of the world around her, unreachable though it can sometimes be, and it is this impulse toward curiosity that ultimately formed her ferocity and strengthened the foundation of her shared interests with Edel. She is careful and calculated, always aware of her surroundings and how far into them her voice will carry. But she does not shy away from speaking her mind.
A friendship that was once mostly centered around a shared love for dance gradually became more grounded in a mutual vulnerability. In a lot of ways, despite a steady career in the pharmaceutical industry, maintenance of a home that is her own, and all the years that have brought her age and wisdom, she remains six years old in Edel’s eyes.
The little cousin with the big guts, she is today his friend and his fixer, organizer and bodyguard. Where he goes, she goes — stepping in to intercept women on the prowl in Havana’s dance clubs, just as well as she keeps eyes on his back as he goes about his work. She guides him through all the things that have changed since his last visit and is the perfect example, Edel says, of how the Cuban youth still have grit, still stand up for themselves, teaching their families along the way. At barely five feet tall, she is a fortress around the safe space of their reciprocal care-taking.
El Patio De La Infancia
The sight of a timeworn, decaying sugarcane factory is the sign that we are almost there. After all, it was the factory that came before the town, enabling the community whose livelihood formed around it. Edel hasn’t been home to El Gabriel since 2015, and even then it was only for a day or two, off the back of a work trip to Havana, so when he arrives it is not without fanfare.
“I spend a lot of my life and my career making portraits of scoundrels, dictators, criminals — people who don’t deserve to have their portrait made”
The welcome party is at first primarily a swarm of mosquito stowaways that burst into a frenzy when the front door of his aunt’s place opens, disquieting the air of the dark, shuttered house. The swarm is quickly followed by homemade guava cake — a story in itself — fresh tamales and back-to-back visitors, in between each of which he announces, “We’re going to head over to Nilda’s house.”
Nilda is Edel’s neighbor and the mother of his best friend, with whom he shared a backyard growing up. But it’s not until the next day that we finally make it over.
Edel, having come home to paint portraits of his townsmen, hoping to be able to give them something they’d never otherwise have, is surprised by the interest the project has garnered. He expected to have a few neighbors and friends to paint, but no excessive interest. He is instead faced with a steady barrage of requests, with sometimes two or three neighbors waiting their turn around the house in a formless line that feels more like a small party. It’s a pleasant, if unforeseen, development.
“I wanted to make these portraits and give them to people as a gift, as something special that they could hold onto and generally not something that small town Cuba gets,” Edel begins. “I always want to give these people in my hometown something, and this felt like the right kind of thing to do. I spend a lot of my life and my career making portraits of scoundrels, dictators, criminals — people who don’t deserve to have their portrait made,” he continues. “And I wanted to take a break from that to come here and paint people that deserve to be painted, because they’ve done so many things in their lives to help each other and their families. That’s important to me.”
What you learn quickly observing Edel in his hometown is that it is equally important to him to both have the opportunity to reconnect while, simultaneously, having the ability to put the excitement and inspiration that comes with seeing everyone — exchanging uniquely Cuban banter as his eyes scan bodies for colors and patterns — into art. And that balance is no easy feat to achieve amid family and food and friends, mosquitos, squealing pigs, street vendors and the sinisterly sedating sun, luring you into midday slumber.
“El perro se comió la cotorra del dueño!” Nilda exclaimed as she walked hurriedly down the earthy orange road. The dog had eaten its owner’s parrot...
What dog? What parrot? And who was their owner? Met initially by Edel’s curious befuddlement, followed nearly immediately by a rapturous eruption of laughter from those on this short journey from one house to the other, Nilda, without stopping her footing or so much as interrupting her pace, realized the seeming absurdity of the statement made fleetingly and without context. No matter. It was time for an afternoon cafecito and there was painting to be done, so she forged on to lead the pack to what she called “el patio de la infancia” — the childhood playground.
There cannot be a more infallible moment to depict the light-hearted but unstoppable force of Nilda, the neighbor Edel had known always as something of a second mother and a second set of eyes—both necessary attributes in a place where small missteps can sometimes reap big consequences. Around El Gabriel she is a fixed figure of storytelling, somehow always being in the right place at the right time and going on to tell the quirky tales that unfold about all manner of topics: toxic chemicals injected into fruit, vecinos who may or may not have been beheaded, dogs eating parrots. You understand. But for Edel, Nilda is, and has always been, the go-to. The keeper of the safe space, where work can be done amid butterfly clad blue bird cages and vibrant red pig-pens. Where food and coffee are in abundance, even, and often especially, when they’re not.
It was not merely a convenience that she is the mother of Edel’s best friend, though as children they shared a backyard that was its own kind of life force, facilitating play and, later, work (when it became a loving hideout in times of a professional need for some social distance). Though parts of the patio are now lorded over by Nilda’s tiny but ferociously aging pup, Princesa, Nilda and her yard today remain Edel’s refuge. This is where he paints.
Moving quietly across the space as Edel works his way around his aunt Nancy and Nilda’s husband, Pedro, carefully orchestrating the composition for her portrait, she at first seems more serious than she really is below the surface. Edel has her take her seat and place her hands together over her belly.
“Like a dead person?” She asks.
“Nilda, the dead place their hands higher up,” Nancy quips, and with that the childhood playground is awash with laughter.
When at last we make it next door to Nilda’s house she hurriedly ushers us out through the back. “Here we are, in the childhood playground,” she announces, knowing that Edel would receive it as an invitation to exhale.
In that moment Edel’s urgency to make it to that small, unassuming patio, and his insistence on returning to it every day as his makeshift studio became clear. The afternoon light flooded it with gold, casting down a dreamy glow. The yard alone had an imperceptible magic about it, all the more enchanted by its tangible elements: a large green birdcage housing eight Indigo Buntings — blue birds known to often migrate by night, using the stars to navigate — a former pig pen now painted fire-engine red and adorned with animal figurines — a triceratops, a laughing pig and a wax lion — and a variety of flowering plants. Trinkets hang along the walls — mixed messages, a pink mirror, Winnie the Pooh, Spiderman and another birdcage, only this one is small and pink. Bottles of Bacardi sit prominently on display despite the island being home to Havana Club Rum.
“We’re always focused on what immigrants want. And we never focus on what immigrants leave behind. So I wanted to respond with what I left behind.”
“This is why this place is so cool,” Edel says, pointing to a wall covered in oxidized tin. It was inscribed with an ode to Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, written in red paint. “Everywhere you look there’s something. How many times have I used that color in my work?”
Maybe it’s because he spent so much time here before leaving for the United States, or maybe it’s the memories that make it warm, but Edel has by now spent more time away from the childhood playground than he did in it, and still there are details here that can be found deeply ingrained in the themes of his work. They are details through which you can see his paintings come alive — details which make it seem as though either you’ve fallen through the canvas into a new wonderland, or the canvas has ruptured and bled out across the whole of the world surrounding you.
El Patio de la Infancia is as much a place as it is an illusion, a construction of reality all his own, a refuge amid the loving absurdity of El Gabriel, where the town jester found his voice only after having lost his voice to cancer, the children play baseball and make trouble in all the same ways they have for half a century, a local underground cake man bakes in an oven fashioned out of corroded sheet tin, the town market is actually called “The Illusion,” and the only official bakery is, accurately, “The Surprise.”
Pedro is the sort of person who is always giving and never taking...
Born and raised a farmer, he can build anything and fix any problem. If the popular Cuban adage “el Cubano inventa” sets the proverbial bar for Cubans as a resourceful people by circumstance, Pedro, barefoot and machete in hand, butchers the bar and builds a new one 100 feet higher. To hear Edel tell it, one would come to know Pedro as equal parts fixedly reliable and “wonderfully reckless”—enough to make a person wonder how he’s managed to make it to 71 without any major injuries. There is no better friend.
There was a time, Edel recounts, when pigs were a complicated get and pork was hard to come by. Like with any other ration or shortage, acquiring the product by other means could have dire consequences. When a mysterious pig was one day found in Edel’s family kitchen — seemingly having appeared as if from nowhere — Pedro followed closely behind. Arriving swiftly to lend Edel’s father a neighborly hand, he waltzed into the kitchen and, without asking questions, cut the pig into 30 tiny pieces in under three minutes. Just like that the pig was gone from sight, before anyone could happen upon them. That’s exactly the kind of person that is never going to get you in trouble, and that’s important in a place like Cuba.
On a punishingly hot July morning, just before dawn arrived and the roosters croaked, Pedro arose for a pig slaughter. By 8:00 AM, as the sky was swelling into gold, the deed had been done and he could be found in el Patio de la Infancia frying up pork rinds and draining them onto fly-covered cloth — his wife, Nilda, at his side. He paid no mind to the hands of the “foreigners” that were sneaking fistfuls before he could even finish cleaning up. It’s all the same for him because what he does he does always for others, and what he has for himself, he gives of himself just as easily.
Pedro’s life in stories is one of stubborn endurance, where he paints houses with lye and burns his feet but refuses to wear shoes because, why bother now? It’s one of fierce vigilantism, where a machete-wielding Pedro springs from bed and onto the street at the first sound of a homemade alarm system, running off thieves targeting neighbors in the night. He is both superhero and sidekick. Always with a smile, always in an uncluttered, no-fuss recognition of the absurdities of life in El Gabriel.
“Everyone needs someone here that they can confide in, and he was that for my father,” Edel says, “and his son was that for me. You know you can always count on them, period. There aren’t that many people in the world like that—you get one, maybe two. And when they’re not your sibling, it’s even more special.”
Pan Con Aceite Y Sal
Moments into setting up the playground studio, Edel notes a fan that Nilda has turned on to blow away mosquitos. The fan, he remembers, is an old Russian model that’s no longer made, and it’s been in the family since the 1970s.
When his parents were preparing to flee as part of the Mariel exodus, they gave all of their belongings away to neighbors. It’s common practice in Cuba to gift or sell everything as the sign of impending flight. But when the military arrived with a list of items they knew the family to own, they demanded that every object be returned to the house and the house sealed, or they would not be granted permission to leave. This fan is the surviving artifact that was not confiscated — that was never returned to the house. Everything else — the car, the furniture — was taken into government custody. Nilda has kept it, in working condition, for 40 years. It is today a symbol, a piece of evidence, a monument of what once was and what today remains.
“I feel like this project at least is a drop in the bucket of giving them some dignity back”
“I love this fan,” Edel says. “This is why I love it here. Everything is so real. There’s so much power in these objects. You don’t have air conditioning so you really feel the temperature. You hear the man screaming outside, selling wheat for shakes. The roosters wake you in the morning.”
Edel trails off into his thoughts about the dueling realities and festering paradoxes here — the freshly painted front of the house juxtaposed against the aging side of the house that could not be painted, the eternal sameness that is somehow always different — things that break, social halls that fall and are never fixed or rebuilt, but remain in their place to fade in plain view. The bakery that bakes only two kinds of government-issued, rationed bread, which on any given day cannot bake because the ingredients don’t arrive. The food shortages amid agricultural abundance — hundreds of mangoes fallen everywhere creating their own swamps and emitting their distinct rot — the black market, the two currencies. The caged Indigo Buntings in Nilda’s yard that are pets as much as they are allegory, each night when the blanket comes down over their enclosure, severing their senses from their navigational tether and any possibility for orientation. The stars go dark. The birds are in a state of fixed motion, persistently fluttering about without being able to go anywhere, and still they sing early every morning.
Here, people live an eternal return. Every morning waking up and setting out to find the thing that is needed, often committing the entire day to the task, often reaching no resolution, only to wake up the next day and do it again.
“People’s dignity is crushed here every day,” Edel explains. “Every day, with everything they have to do: having to find food, not being listened to, not being respected, being lied to — their dignity is crushed every day in one way or another. And I feel like this project at least is a drop in the bucket of giving them some dignity back.
“I don’t presume to think that I can do that completely for people,” he continues. “But I do think I can bring them some happiness.”
In many ways life here is about entrenchment and endurance—about the world beyond this world, imagination, resourcefulness — because this one is inescapable. But the notion that this should devastate the collective spirit of a people is not a consideration. There is exhaustion and hunger, but like the Buntings that sing in the morning, there is also good humor — sometimes crude and inappropriate — and that is as Cuban as pan con aceite y sal.
The name does not mislead — hers is a sweetness made immediately available to all the senses as you stand before her...
Dulce's aging body is frail and folds over gently, shrinking her presence, though she carries it well. Her voice is soft — so soft you have to lean in close to catch even a word, and you wonder if that is a product of nature or circumstantial evolution. When Dulce looks at you, you know there is love in the world and a warm embrace is just behind the next blink of her eyes.
Over the years, each homecoming found Dulce at Edel’s door. As he remembers it, she was always the first to show, standing outside of his house until the moment the car would approach and finally grind to a stop. She would hug all the hugs not hugged and kiss all the kisses that could not be kissed in his absence, took note of how many years it had been since they had last seen one another and declared that exactly the length of time that she’d been awaiting his return. She would wrap herself around his arm and not let go.
Today that greeting diverges from the memory only by virtue of the place in which it unfolds. At 98 years old she seldom leaves the house, instead sauntering about her dusty, open-air home in champagne-colored slippers celebrating “Rosé all day.”
She is a fragile force, but a force no less. A living duality. A godmother that keeps alive the memory of a grandmother.
Sitting in her garden, one of Edel’s favorite places, her portrait comes to life before it has even been painted. Reposed in an effortless stillness, she is framed by red and green hues that seem too saturated to be natural, and yet they are. Hummingbirds whisper about overhead. The walkway stretches eternally behind her. She speaks in murmurs, so as not to be heard by her caretakers inside. Having had a son who was a member of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, she is used to having a sort of “double soundtrack,” as Edel calls it, playing around her house at all times. She speaks dutifully, and then allows a responsible silence to befall the scene.
“I am very loved in this town,” she says with a smile, “because I have lead a very quiet existence.”
A Wake Without A Body
One morning in 1989 when Edel was 18 years old, he received a call around five o’clock in the morning. His uncle, the husband of his favorite aunt Nancy and father of his cousin Liset, had been run over by a train. It happened at a time when Edel and his family were barred from returning to the island, unable by politics and circumstance to make it back. That night, he remembers, he and his family held a wake in their Hialeah home, but it was without a body. There was a sense of familial and spiritual disconnect, a sense of metaphysical displacement, as he explains it, that they attempted to bridge with memories and jokes, but that only brought to the fore how old those remembrances were and how long the families had been apart.
“When you ask, ‘what do immigrants give up?’ You give up entire memories. You give up life.”
“I spent 10 years without seeing my aunt and that was 10 years of lost time, lost life,” he says. “So when you ask, ‘what do immigrants give up?’ You give up 10 years without seeing your family, without seeing your favorite aunt. You give up entire memories. You give up life.”
In the throes of reflection, gazing into long simmering resentments, he reaches the real crux of why he came back to paint these portraits. He left at eight years old, an age, he says, when children are just beginning to sense what people around them are, who they are, and suddenly you are gone and they are gone, and you’re left to wonder—with more age and awareness—what might have come if you’d stayed. If you’d been able to carry the weight that life is unfolding.
“I wanted to show the face of the people from these countries and tell their stories,” Edels says. “To get across to an American audience the idea of who these people are. The stories of why they left, why we left, why my parents left, why some decided to stay behind. We’re always focused on what immigrants want. And we never focus on what immigrants leave behind. So I wanted to respond with what I left behind. To show that we’re not just in the US to take, we’re in the US to contribute and give to our families, and we’ve also sacrificed to be there. We’ve paid our due.”
“Recently it seems,” he continues, “you give up all of these things to go to a country and start a life, for a reason, or different reasons, and then you have people refusing you. Accusing us of just taking things that belong to Americans.”
For all that Edel has made public about his positions and politics, his personal story and that of his family, he remains a somewhat elusive figure at his core. He remains light on the exterior, at almost any cost, and it isn’t until this moment that a person sitting before him can really see him sit in his pain and keep himself company. So I put the pen down and let him speak. About the aging faces he left behind. The sense of abandonment and guilt. The loss of life and the determination to present that through art, in a way that might make strangers feel it too.
These are his stories and those of his loved ones, and so it is only right to end them with his words.
“As much as you’ve helped and stayed in touch throughout the years, you still have the sense that you’ve abandoned people because it’s just the circumstance. I didn’t have anything to do with leaving here and my father left for a better life but there were a lot of problems they dealt with that we weren’t around for. And it’s really weird to have your grandmother and grandfather die and you can’t get here. You can’t get here in three days or a week’s time.
Or two weeks or even three weeks. It wasn’t so easy. So you don’t have that closure, without burying your grandmother or your grandfather, without burying your uncle. You’re always left with these stories that don’t quite have an end. They don’t close out for you. And occasionally throughout the years I’ve put it into my work just as a way to think about it or to cope. And I don’t know if part of the reason I make art is also to avoid that sort of stuff. When I was writing my book, any time I started writing about my grandmother I would just break down. To feel that and then have someone go out of their way to write to you and say ‘shut up, just paint other things’ and ‘why don’t you appreciate America, what did you come here for, why are you criticizing the government…’ When you’ve gone through all that, it irks you. Meanwhile here you have all these souls that are leaving this place and eventually it’ll just be empty. There are spirits here that are just — “ he looks down and snaps his fingers, “gone, gone, gone, gone.”