Hi, my name is Denise Diaz; a 30-year-old Miamian of Cuban descent. I’m currently finishing my BFA in Photography at the Art Institute while also working at a Property Management Company, in hopes of moving towards a Masters in Art History.
What interests you most about traveling? Was this your first international travel experience?
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit. I enjoy seeing different parts of the world, always in search of something different, but somehow always being most enamored with the raw and abandoned hidden areas of the world.
What brought you to Cuba?
Growing up I dreamt of visiting where my family was from, but unfortunately was always warned against the dangers of going to Cuba. Having left her family behind 32 years ago, my grandmother finally made the bold decision to return to see her last living sister, Anita, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Having already lost two other siblings and her mother, I quickly took this opportunity to accompany my grandmother before she lost Anita as well. It was also quite moving to see all the places my mother and grandmother had previously revisited only in their daydreams.
Unlike most of the other trips featured on Spirited Pursuit, it seems as though the climate of this trip was more emotional and raw than it was relaxing and exciting. Please share/describe your experiences and what it was like to witness your grandmother’s homecoming.
I knew the trip would be emotional going into the experience because I knew what this trip meant to my grandmother. However, nothing could have prepared me for the huge culture shock that welcomed me once we arrived in the small town of Perico located deep in the country. I remember seeing my grandmother’s eyes watering up, her hands shaking after seeing her sister for the first time after over 30 years. It was a dream she had that she thought would never come true. Because Anita suffers from Alzheimer’s, the first couple of days were difficult, as she had no clue who my grandmother was. In fact she would often tell her that she looked like her sister, and then whisper to herself, “I wonder what she’s up to.”
Living in a home that had no running water, just one light bulb that worked, and no air conditioning or heater did not bother me. Seeing my grandmother and her sister, despite her not knowing whom she was, was worth so much. I will forever be indebted to my grandmother for allowing me to share in that with her. It was a very emotional trip indeed.
How did the trip impact the way you view your culture? How did it impact how you view yourself?
Through all of my photos, I chose to document the life of Anita, her surroundings, and most importantly the place she would sit as life passed her by for so many years. Watching her home decay, Anita’s health prevented her from doing much. She practically couldn’t do anything. The walls show over 30 years of life, love, change and the hardship of losing her only daughter. Regardless of all the limits brought to her life because of the Castro regime, Anita will not leave her country because of her unrelenting Cuban pride.
The trip to Perico made me realize that things are just as bad as all the stories I’d been told! Communism has truly taken such a beautiful place and turned it into a nearly deserted area, with people struggling to survive. Homes have fallen apart and have been left as empty structures. This realization continues to remind me of all the things I should be grateful for.
What would you like people to know about the country that is rarely represented in the media?
There’s so much of Cuba that people overlook focusing mainly on Havana, a city that booms with tourism, but no one ever goes deeper into the countryside. I surely want to bring areas like Perico to light so that others see the truth of what lies out there.
What is your favorite memory of the trip?
My favorite memory of that trip was a Saturday night, some of the people in the town wanted to take me out to the local club, but I decided to stay at home with my grandmother and her sister. That night Anita was as clear as ever! She and my grandmother sat up all night recalling stories of their childhood and their fights. They talked about how Anita would make my grandmother’s boyfriends life hell, about when Castro’s regime began, and about when Anita was still a nurse helping those in the war. Hearing these stories made me so emotional. Knowing my grandmother’s childhood stories was the most beautiful and favorite memory of that trip.
What is your funniest memory?
The funniest memory would have to be the first day we arrived, we came with an entire bag full of food for Anita and my grandmother decided to make her famous spaghetti. Anita devoured that plate like she hadn't eaten spaghetti in years - leaving red sauce all over her face and hands! I remember laughing so much, because seeing her with such a beautiful expression of joy and happiness brought me so much joy. And to think , it was all because of spaghetti.
What was the biggest lesson you took from the experience?
When I arrived back in Miami, I immediately felt a change in myself, in my heart. Having spent those days in Cuba gave me a look into a life that I was lucky to have only experienced momentarily, where it is permanent for those who live there. I realized everything I have and all that I work for is MINE. Fortunately, there isn't someone that controls my life and my decisions. That freedom meant everything to me once I stepped off that plane.
Which of the pictures captured mean the most to you?
The one with the green car parked outside a home that only has the entry way still standing. I remember walking around photographing everything that caught my eye. Immediately I noticed the green car with no windows, when I looked behind at the home I thought, wait a minute ... where’s the rest of it? This further proved the poverty level they are dealing with. They can’t rebuild these homes; they’re just left as structures when they fall apart.
What’s next for you?
I only hope that I will continue travelling and documenting the places I visit. It would be silly to not say that I would hope to be a well-known photographer at some point in my life for my Documentary work, but I feel it’s so difficult in this field to get that “chance”. Until then, I’ll continue photographing that which moves me, hoping to make others feel the same.
Images Courtesy of Denise Diaz