I stood across the street from the Cuba Ocho Gallery on Calle Ocho and 15th street, smoking a smooth Cuban Churchill cigar (made in Nicaragua) when I noted picturesque caricatures that adorn the columns that sustain the building. They are quaint designs of Cuban music’s greatest performers and rhythms.
An ode to the cha cha cha, la rumba (without the h), the son and Latin jazz. The collection features legends of the past and great performers of present day — ranging from Ernesto Lecuona and Beny Moré to Gloria Estefan and Mr. 305 himself, Pitbull. What caught my eye about the collection was the particular style — one that is distinctly Cuban.
Over the last few months I saw the collection expand. I grew more curious until finally I had a chance to meet and chat with the creator — a humble, mild-mannered artist simply known as Aristide. While the sketches are simple at first glance, like most good caricatures, there is a heavy meaning and emotion behind them. Aristide is one of those characters who has accented Miami’s “Cubania” for the last five decades. He is clearly a fish out of water, a natural Havana cultural mainstay or Habanero, as we call it, transported to Miami due to the intransigence of a dictatorship.
In fact, Aristide, whose real name is Aristides Pumariega is like many Cuban artists, writers and filmmakers who have made their way to exile over the last 10 to 15 years. They are exemplars of the unfulfilled promises of the utopian revolution. Like many of his generation, Aristide (he signs without the “s” at the end) was a budding artist in search of a purpose and a career when Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959. Opportunity was seemingly in bloom that winter especially for upstarts and apprentices like Aristide, given that many of the entertainment, business, and academic establishment were leaving Cuba fearing Castro’s erratic behavior and incongruent rhetoric.
Cuba has a long, distinguished history of cartoonists and graphic artists dating back to the end of the 19th century and highlighted by the work of Antonio Prohias, the creator of works such as Spy vs. Spy, which gained notoriety on the pages of Mad Magazine. Prohias was one of those who fled Castro’s tyranny leaving a vacuum for a younger, less-proven generation which included the likes of Aristide who rather quickly ascended to the position of lead cartoonist in some of Cuba’s most important publications, including the internationally acclaimed, Bohemia magazine.
“I was apolitical. I was too young to feel really strongly one way or another. However, I was taken in by the allure of the promises. It was quite an adventure,” explained the 70-something-year-old artist while we sipped Cuban café (made in Colombia).
Aristide went on to create one of the revolution’s most noted characters, Subdesarollo Perez (Underdevelopment Perez), a typical Havana know-it-all whose observations of the ever changing society were humorous to the regime until the character began poking fun at the government’s failures. One of those failures was during the sugar crop of 1970 where the whacko dictator promised to reach the 10-million-ton mark — and, as one would suspect given the paltry track record, it failed.
Subdesarollo Perez’s ridicule of the fiasco was not taken lightly as Aristide was dismissed from his assignments and was placed in a work camp for two years to reflect on his cultural trespasses. Safe to say, Aristide’s art would never be recognized on the island again.
“Aristide, like many of the artists that are in my gallery, has withstood the worst of conditions. It is an honor to keep their art alive,” said Roberto Ramos, the owner of Cuba Ocho.
Nearly five decades after Subdesarollo Perez’s heyday in Havana, Aristide’s creations are exhibited in the heart of Little Havana — a testament to his artistic talent and perseverance and to the continuation of a long legacy of Cuban traditions like my cigar, the café we sipped and the music which Aristide’s caricatures honor.