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Labor of Love: The Story of a Photo Exhibit

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What are the real family values when we keep families away from each other,? Mari, Washington, DC


In 2004, the Bush Administration issued a new set of harsh regulations on travel to Cuba, upping the ante significantly. While many Americans were impacted by this, the Cuban-American community has been affected most cruelly. Cuban Americans are restricted from traveling to the island more than once every three years to see their families, and family has been redefined in a very limiting way to include only: parents, siblings, children and grandparents. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and god-parents are totally off limits. There are no exceptions to these restrictions, not even for family emergencies or deaths. For the last three years, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) has worked closely with the Cuban-American community, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and other allies here in Washington, DC, to decry this violation of the basic right to visit one’s family.

One of our most ambitious projects to fight these restrictions was a photo exhibit, Love, Loss and Longing: the Impact of U.S.-Travel Policy on Cuban-American Families, which has been on national tour throughout 2006 and 2007. LAWGEF and WOLA have shown the exhibit in over 20 venues across the United States and have brought the message of needed change to thousands of Americans. Seeing how the exhibit’s photographs and accompanying testimonials touched viewers and opened their eyes to this cruel U.S.-policy’s impact, we have expanded the exhibit’s reach by publishing the exhibit in book form. You may view the book here

Why a photo exhibit?

Marisela’s father relied on her frequent visits and care packages to help fight his steadily-progressing Alzheimer’s. In 2004 the changed restrictions on travel to the island prohibited her from traveling to the island and reduced the amount and types of items she could send to support him. Shortly thereafter, Marisela’s father passed away; because she had been to see him during the previous three years, she was unable to attend his funeral. Now she asks: “I came to this country in pursuit of freedom! How is that…I can’t [visit] my father’s grave?” Mario, Sr., moved to the United States in 1992 and left behind his visually-impaired son, Mario, Jr. In the following years Mario, Sr., visited his son multiple times a year to help with maintenance around the house and to provide emotional support. Mario, Jr., recently had a son; and Mario, Sr., is now a grandfather. In 2004 when the restrictions on family travel changed, Mario, Sr., was prohibited from traveling to the island more than once every three years – no exceptions allowed. Now Mario, Sr., cannot help his son or be a part of his grandson’s childhood. He asks: “What does it mean to be a good father?” These are two of countless heartbreaking stories of family separation the LAWGEF has heard over the past three years.


 

Nestor Sr., 74
Upholsterer
Hyattsville, MD/Havana

"Who will take my ashes to Cuba?"

Nestor Sr. left Cuba more than 50 years ago hoping for a better life in the United States. He was 20. He settled in Washington, married and raised six children. Nestor Jr., photographer for this exhibit, is his oldest son. Vicente, who is pictured here, is his youngest.

Nestor Jr, was 18 when he traveled to Cuba and arrived unannounced on his grandmother’s doorstep in Los Pinos. With the embrace of his father’s relatives, he felt he had “come home.” Between 1978 and 2003 he made over 20 trips to Cuba, visiting family, exploring far corners of the island with his camera and organizing workshops and exhibitions with North American and Cuban photographers.

Vicente traveled to Los Pinos with his father and discovered that his Cuban family was larger than his family at home. Playing with cousins on the streets of Havana he felt safer than on the streets of Washington. After his trip he started asking more about his father’s homeland and began referring to himself as Cuban.

Under the restrictions neither Nestor Jr. nor Vicente can return to Cuba – ever. Their grandmother is deceased and their cousins aren’t eligible for visits as “family.”

Nestor Sr. wonders, “When I die who will take my ashes to Cuba if my sons can’t go?”

“¿Quién llevará mis cenizas a Cuba?”

Nestor, 74 Tapicero
Hyattsville, MD/Habana

Nestor Senior dejó Cuba hace más de 50 años para una vida mejor en los Estados Unidos. Tenía 20 años. Radicó en Washington, se casó y crió a seis hijos. Nestor Junior, fotógrafo para esta exhibición, es su hijo mayor. Vicente quien aparece en esta fotografía es el más joven.

Nestor Junior tenía 18 años cuando viajó a Cuba y llegó sin anunciarse a la puerta de la casa de su abuela en Los Pinos. Con el abrazo de los parientes del lado paterno se sintió que había “llegado a casa.” Entre 1978 y 2003 el hizo más de 20 viajes a Cuba, visitando a su familia, explorando los rincones de la isla con su cámara y organizando talleres y exhibiciones con fotógrafos estadounidenses y cubanos.

Vicente viajo a Los Pinos con su padre y descubrió que su familia en Cuba era más grande que su familia en casa. Jugando con sus primos en la calles de la Habana se sintió más seguro que en las calles de Washington. Después de su viaje, empezó a preguntarse más acerca de la patria de su padre y empezó a identificarse como cubano.

Nestor Senior se pregunta, “Cuándo yo muera, ¿Quién va a llevar mis cenizas a Cuba si mis hijos no pueden ir?”

 


Two years ago, Dr. Jeanne Lemkau, a clinical psychologist, professor emerita at Wright State University School of Medicine in Ohio, and admitted Cubaphile, walked into our office to discuss a new research project about the effect family travel restrictions have on Cuban families. The project would be a collaboration between Jeanne and Dr. David Strug from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University, NYC, and would take the two to Cuba and all over the United States to personally interview Cubans and their family members. They would use their background as a medical professionals to assess the restrictions’ impact on family health.

The LAWGEF’s Mavis Anderson realized the potential this study could have in the policy debate and suggested turning the research into a nationally-touring photo exhibit that would bring the Cuban-American stories of love and loss to Americans across the country.

Nestor, a Guiding Force

From that point forward, LAWGEF staffers Mavis Anderson and Claire Rodriguez, along with our partners, Elsa Falkenburger and Geoff Thale at WOLA, worked closely with Jeanne and David to shepherd the project through production and began the daunting task of coordinating a nationwide tour. We realized we were heading into uncharted territory when we sat down to brainstorm with the exhibit’s photographer, Nestor Hernández, Jr., on how to ship the exhibit from one venue to the next. Nestor, a Cuban-American photographer in Washington, DC, was a veteran of traveling photo tours and had exhibited his works all over the world. He became a guiding force in the photo exhibit, and his beautiful photography inspired us to forge ahead with the tour.

In February 2006, as Nestor was photographing the second half of the exhibit, he fell ill and was unable to continue the project. Our work came to a standstill as we absorbed what was happening – we were losing a colleague-turned-friend, and one of the driving motivations behind the exhibit. If we hadn’t been emotionally invested in the project before, we became so then.

It was too late to delay the scheduled May opening; we had congressional co-sponsorship and the invitations had already gone out. Jeanne quickly contacted another Cuban-American photographer in her hometown, Juan E. González López, who agreed to take over for Nestor. With Nestor’s encouragement, we pressed ahead. Juan studied Nestor’s photographs and started photographing the remaining participants, trying to preserve Nestor’s distinct style. Shortly before the exhibit’s opening, Nestor’s illness began to progress rapidly; and the week before the exhibit opened on Capitol Hill, Nestor was re-admitted to the hospital.

The day before the opening, Juan and Jeanne visited Nestor and showed him the completed exhibit. Nestor expressed deep appreciation to Juan for continuing the legacy of his style and seeing the project to completion. Tragically, Nestor passed away the day after the exhibit opened on Capitol Hill. The exhibit’s nationwide tour and the book are dedicated to his memory. Nestor’s father, Nestor Hernández, Sr., is featured in the exhibit; his support and Nestor’s spirit continue to guide our work.

Touring the Nation

The day the exhibit opened on Capitol Hill was a stressful day for our office. We wanted to make everything perfect, from assembling the easels to display the photographs at 6:00 in the morning and then rushing back to the office to put the whole exhibit online for press calls and immediate access for the public. In the late afternoon, the room started to fill, and over 150 people attended the opening reception. Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) attended and spoke about the need to change policy. The next day the Miami Herald ran a story about the photo exhibit opening in the broader context of the changing Cuban-American community in Miami, FL.

Demand to show the exhibit in cities across the country was high. Love, Loss and Longing was exhibited in: Oakland and Sacramento, CA; Miami, FL; Chicago, IL; Bloomington, IN; Cambridge, MA; Baltimore, MD; Minneapolis, MN; Jackson Hole, WY; Newark, NJ; New York, NY; Yellow Springs and Dayton, OH; Devon, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, PA; and Arlington and Crystal City, VA.

Showing the photo exhibit in so many venues in such a short time presented many challenges that we had not anticipated. Who knew it would be so challenging to find a crate to ship a 200-pound photo exhibit or that shipping companies would be so unreliable? However, the rewards of accompanying the exhibit on its nationwide tour more than made up for the challenges. Working with an art exhibit allowed us to partner with people across the country with whom we never would have had the opportunity to collaborate. We worked with art galleries, museums, local governments, political cartoonists, churches, social-justice groups, restaurants, and committed individuals. We loved bringing so many new faces to the Cuba-policy debate.

Empowering the exhibit participants to share their stories of separation was a moving experience. Many of the Cuban Americans, especially those living in Miami, have faced vocal criticism for their position on travel; and their bravery in coming forward with the pain this policy causes their family was inspiring. The strength of their stories made the exhibit more moving and motivated us more than we thought possible. In Jackson Hole, WY, the photo exhibit host’s son, a young high school student whose father is Cuban American, saw the exhibit and was moved to tears by the stories portrayed in the exhibit. He said, “These people are just like our family.” His words inspired his older brother to accompany their father to Washington, DC, for a Cuban-American lobby day to speak in favor of ending the restrictions on travel for all Americans.

The day after the photo exhibit showed in Miami, an article ran in the Miami Herald about the changing nature of the Cuba debate in Miami. Love, Loss and Longing was exhibited at Tinta y Café, a new café on Miami’s Calle Ocho, which the owner opened to “give a voice to the silent majority of people in Miami who are frustrated with the failures of U.S. Cuba policy.” (1) Five years ago the café wouldn’t have been permitted to open, much less display a photo exhibit calling for policy change.

Wrapping it Up

The LAWGEF has seen how effective an advocacy tool the photo exhibit has been for our work and is considering touring another exhibit. The LAWGEF’s Colombia program hopes to bring a photo exhibit about the impact of the war in Colombia to the United States next year. The exhibit will tour the country visiting churches, peace organizations, and art galleries.

Finally, after a great year and a half, the time has come to retire the Love, Loss and Longing photo exhibit. We are pleased to announce that one copy of the exhibit will be on permanent display at the Dayton International Peace Museum. The museum provides a space to promote peace and nonviolent solutions to conflict. You can learn more about the museum and their initiatives at: http://www.daytonpeacemuseum.org. The other copy of the exhibit will be divided and shared with the exhibit participants.

Arlene, a photo exhibit participant from Chantilly, VA, says, “Family is more powerful than any law.” We know she is right—working together over the past year-and-a-half, we became like a family. We visited the photo exhibit subjects in their homes, in the hospital, and in their places of work. We have seen what families can do together. And we have witnessed the pain that a misguided policy can cause.

To order your copy of the Love, Loss and Longing book today click here

In addition, we are grateful to our faithful supporters and the many individuals who personally and generously donated to this project. We would especially like to thank the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the Arca Foundation, Oxfam America, and the Bruderhof Foundation for their support of this project.

1. Corral, Oscar. “A New Forum for Exile Discourse.” Miami Herald. 23 February 2007