For some time now I’ve been gazing at some peculiar paintings in the Futurama art gallery in Little Havana. The vibrant paintings depict Cuban-themed angels, virgins, palm trees, hearts and habaneras (elegant Cuban ladies of yesteryear). What caught my eye, and more so my heart, was a welcoming tonality in the art. The paintings have an alluring appeal to anyone who carries a tinge of melancholy for Cuba.
As I paid closer attention one day, I realized the artist was Ninoska Perez Castellon, the famed Spanish-language radio host. I was taken aback at Ninoska’s new-found talent. This week I chatted with her to learn more about her paintings.
As I approached her gallery, I made a mental note to try to stick to chatting about art and not delve into our usual, black-hole conversations about Cuban politics. Predictably, it took a scant few moments after greeting one another, for me to ditch my game plan and plunge right into the obligatory politics of the day.
We shared impressions on how repugnant it was to observe President Obama greeting Cuban dictator, Raul Castro — and though we don’t quite agree on whether any fault should be placed on the president, the fact of the matter was, it was a repulsive sight for any freedom-loving Cuban American. We also conversed about Elian Gonzalez and his recent, pathetically rote diatribe equating Fidel Castro with God.
Eventually I got around to asking the nascent painter about her work. “I paint from the heart,” Ninoska explained. “These paintings are an expression of my passion for Cuba. The good thing is, I get to pick and choose the aspects of Cuban culture that I want to highlight.” It quickly became apparent that Ninoska’s paintings offer a respite from the sad and sometimes harsh realities of exile. The notion of exile has been overused, if not trampled, by many who have manipulated it for political and financial gain. However, in Ninoska’s case, it has been “her cause” for more than years.
I met Ninoska more than 25 years ago when she was part of the Cuban American National Foundation. She was brash, outspoken and seemed to not be concerned about saying things that would not go over well with the Anglo establishment. Back then, the notion of a “good Cuban” among non-Cuban power brokers was a person that was civic-minded, spoke English and dare not talk about Cuban politics outside populist banter to garner more votes if they were running for public office. In fact, by the 1990s, chatter on the once-defiant, Miami Cuban radio waves began to mellow, as many of the independently owned radio stations were bought out by mainstream corporate entities that slowly silenced the strident, nationalistic rhetoric.
Ninoska never bought into the notion of being a complacent citizen who spoke about the injustices committed in her homeland in apologetic whispers. She remained true to her commitment to always speak her mind about the issues that were important to her family and her fellow exiled countrymen, thus becoming the most powerful Cuban radio voice in Miami over the last 20 years.
“The Cuban-American pain and angst over Cuba begins at home for most of us,” she expressed. “If you come from a place where the plight of the Cuban people is discussed regularly or perhaps your family, like most Cuban families, has been negatively affected by the tyrannical regime on the island, chances are you will be more aware and outspoken about issues relating to Cuba.”
Though we are not always in agreement, particularly when it comes to American politics, I am never at odds with the “tigress of Miami radio waves” as the Cuban regime has often labeled her, when it comes to her opinions on the despotic tactics of the Cuban government or the unabashed Cuban pride she has always personified and which she now expresses with her elegant brush strokes.