Published on August 30th, 2015 | by Mark Chesnut
Passage to Cuba: Cynthia Carris Alonso’s Photo Book Shows Cuba, Close Up
As governmental relations with the United States continue to evolve, Cuba is a hot topic in the travel world, as globetrotters scramble to see this beautiful Caribbean island before things change too much. But New York City native Cynthia Carris Alonso has been visiting Cuba since the 1990s — and her deep knowledge of and love for the destination has come to light in her work as a photographer. Her book Passage To Cuba: An Up-Close Look at the World’s Most Colorful Culture (Skyhorse Publishing) is an impressive tome of colorful photographs that captures not only the beauty of the island’s nature and architecture, but also the spirit and personality of its people. In this exclusive interview with LatinFlyer.com, she shares her love — and in part two (published right after this), she’ll share her own insider Cuba travel tips.
You’ve been visiting Cuba since the 1990s. How did you first get interested in the island?
In the late 1980s–early ’90s, country names, borders, and leadership of the Communist bloc in Eastern European were changing rapidly. Countries formerly part of the Soviet Union were surprising the world by becoming independent through peaceful revolutions, inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms. Yet Cuba, just ninety miles south of Florida but still connected to Russia for economic support, seemed unaffected by the distant uprisings. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, there was a feeling of global celebration. Hope and happiness were contagious. It was an exciting time to be working in the news as a photo editor and photographer at the internationally prominent Newsweek magazine.
DON’T MISS: 5 Amazingly Cool Historic Theaters to Visit in Latin America
I became increasingly curious and drawn to Cuba’s unique culture that seemed immune to the changing world politics. My own passage to Cuba began in December 1992, on a dark, cold, wintry night in New York City when I saw the Cuban rumba and folkloric group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas give a historic and magical performance. It was the first time in many years that a group of Cuban musicians had been granted visas from the United States, made possible by increased cultural exchange encouraged by U.S. President Bill Clinton’s policies. The group seemed to bring all the vibrancy and energy of the Caribbean sun to their performance. It was a night that would change the rest of my life. I realized then that I had to go to Cuba and experience more of its enticing and mysterious musical culture, one so accessible to Americans before the U.S. economic embargo, but now like forbidden fruit as a result of politics—isolated and far from our world, yet so close geographically to U.S. shores.
In 1992, very little was known to those outside the Soviet bloc about Cuba, except that its Russian sponsor of nearly thirty years was pulling out its economic support. I wondered why there was so little news coverage from Cuba; why it was illegal for Americans to travel there and spend money due to the decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba initiated by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, during the height of the Cold War; why there was still an economic embargo against the country if the Russians were pulling out. None of the newspapers or television news programs seemed able to answer these questions. Canadians, Europeans, and Russians travelled to Cuba’s notorious beaches like Varadero, and worked in Cuba on educational programs and research. Yet for American citizens, Cuba remained off-limits, except for those travelers with U.S. Treasury Department licenses, special entrance visas, and letters of invitation from the Cuban government. Amazingly, I soon became one of them.
DON’T MISS: Cultural Travel: 5 Must-See Museums in Latin America
Your photos show a very “insider,” personal view of Cuba. How did you gain that kind of access?
Since 1992, I wanted to see and photograph the “real” Cuba that few outsiders experienced. On official assignments, I had access to incredible Cuban dancers, artists, and musicians, to photograph them for their CD cover art or international magazine articles. Additionally, I covered memorable moments of news in Cuba such as the first shipment of US farmer foods to the island as a result of an amendment to the U.S. trade embargo, Elian Gonzalez’s return to his father in Cuba, and Pope John Paul II’s historic tour of the country, giving mass in public to hundreds of Cubans in a land whose ideology and leader had banned Catholicism for decades. Additionally, I married a Cuban and became part of a Cuban family still living in Cuba.
As an American photographer, accredited journalist, and member of a Cuban family by marriage, I had access and permission to go in and out of these two very different worlds with an up-close and insider view. I was able to visit, photograph, and enjoy the famous and pristine beaches and beautiful hotels, which back then were only accessible to foreign tourists. Being a part of a Cuban family, I was also able to photograph and experience the resilience, passions, struggle, and survival of the Cuban people that was usually kept separate and isolated from tourists’ eyes. Through my husband and his friends, I found a key to open Cuba’s guarded boundaries. I learned about the values, history, politics, economy, art, beliefs, and traditions that make Cuba so intriguing and unique.
DON’T MISS: How to Enjoy Theater in Latin America (Even if You Don’t Speak Spanish)
The more people I met and the more places I saw in Cuba, the more determined I became to using my camera as an introduction to special people and places, as well as a device for sharing scenes and stories with others who could not otherwise experience them, for economic or political reasons. I was inspired by their constant good humor—their optimism, passion, generosity, curiosity, compassion, and seemingly unlimited survival skills.
The spirit of the Cuban people moved me: their love of life and laughter in spite of dire circumstances and uncertainties, their strength, resilience, and values of education, research, family, friendship, art, community, and hard work. This culture and Cuban spirit was a perspective I aspired to share through my photography.
I used my lenses to capture moments seemingly paused in time, showing vistas of the beautiful cities and countryside. In my book, Passage to Cuba, I tried to represent the Cuban culture that continues to value art and its artists, its musicians and performers, the classical and the modern, all while withstanding the intricacies and ironies of the politics within Cuba as well as internationally, particularly with my own country, the United States.
What’s the best way for people to follow your work (and buy your book)?
People can follow my work and/or contact me through my web site: http://www.photosolutionsnyc.com/ or contact my publisher, Skyhorse Publishing. My book, Passage to Cuba, is available in most bookstores and online. You can order a copy here: http://www.amazon.com/Passage-Cuba-Up-Close-Colorful-Culture/dp/1632206528/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427997711&sr=1-1&keywords=passage+to+cuba or here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/passage-to-cuba-cynthia-carris-alonso/1120667862?ean=9781632206527 or find a local book store by entering your zip code here: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781632206527