The 1959 Cuban Revolution transformed Miami forever.
Because of the Cuban migration that followed, we became an international Latin-tinged city, our culture inextricably intertwined with one of the first and most-important Spanish colonies in the New World.
But walk through the extensive, captivating and simply wonderful exhibit at the Wolfsonian FIU Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction, and you’ll find out that during Cuba’s relatively short history as an independent nation (the Cuban Republic was founded in 1902), the island and the entire United States have been joined at the hip in more ways than many North Americans ever knew.
It’s not a surprise that this connection is often tied to the 20th century phenomenon of tourism. The introduction to the exhibit is a big video screen showing black-and-white, home-made films from American tourists who visited Havana pre-1959. Three years ago, this would come across as heart-breaking nostalgia — but as of April, it’s a reality again, as cruise ships from Florida are now docking in Cuba, with new airline flights soon to be arriving by the day.
That intro sets the tone: Americans have been involved in Cuban life, and Cuban culture has been imported north, for more than 100 years.
The exhibit is dissected into the eras following the island’s independence as it tells the story of 20th century Cuba through memorabilia, artwork and imagery revolving around its unique and often seductive cultural heritage.
Many of the artifacts, particularly the quirky and rare printed ephemera — more than 1,000 pieces of ads, menus, postcards, record jackets and labels — come from a gift made by Vicki Gold Levi that previously have not been formally exhibited.
Behind the video screen, the first room is filled with paintings and magazine covers revealing the emergence of a “Cuban identity,” according to one of the curators, Rosa Lowinger, an art conservator born in Havana. After throwing off the yoke of the Spanish, Lowinger says Cubans started to embrace their roots, including the significant Afro-Cuban culture that had developed since slavery. Many of the people depicted in the exhibit are clearly Afro-Cuban, living in rural settings, dancing, working.
There are also items related to that work: the labor-intensive cultivation of sugar and tobacco. These themes continue to crop up throughout the exhibit. The mixture of a Caribbean topography with Spanish colonial legacy and African traditions was forming a “sense of Cubanness” during the early 1900s, Lowinger says.
The next section explores the first wave of American tourism in the post World War I years, which would also add to a new Cuban identity. The Roaring Twenties blazed in Havana, which was trying to sell itself as the “Monte Carlo of the tropics.” As Lowinger pointed out, the city had two big advantages over other nearby, warm-weather destinations: both gambling and booze were legal. (Prohibition had clamped down in the States in 1920). It also was the dawning of the era when travel became more popular as air and cruise travel increased, bringing Americans to the island.
The result, says Lowinger, was a melding of Hollywood and American jazz with native music and dance of the island — a perfect recipe for a glamorous hot spot with a unique flavor.
While Havana was transforming and marketing itself, the image of an exotic fun-and-sun holiday destination was forming in the eyes of its northern neighbor. We see brochures of Americans living it up in casinos and nightclubs, surrounded often by mixed-race entertainers, palm trees and other “signatures” of tropical paradise.
In conjunction, points out Lowinger, Cubans started to embrace sports and games associated with gambling, such as jai alai, dominoes and boxing.
Although tourism was literally creating a culture on the island, for the most part American visitors were from the upper classes only, labeled in Cuba as “The Drinking Class,” says Lowinger. Glam hot spots such as El Floridita served this class, including its most famous frequent visitor, Ernest Hemingway. There may have been up to 5,000 bars.
There are some witty illustrations here. While the brochures aimed at North Americans picture super-chic and beautiful “flappers” and gentlemen, Cubans drew them — for their own eyes, in local magazines and publications — as fat and loutish.
The Depression slowed tourism; by World War II, it came to a halt. But by then, the identity of Havana had been shaped and imprinted in the minds of Americans.
By the late 1940s, tourists came flocking back, this time including the middle-classes, and Havana went into overdrive. Some of the most famous nightclubs the world-over popped up, such as The Tropicana.
These hotels and clubs were adding to another layer of development, as they were designed by some of the biggest named architects in the new Modernist style.
In both the tourist clubs and those smaller, cheaper venues favored by Cubans, music and dance were becoming essential elements, impacting not just the island but the rest of the Western world, especially the U.S. Afro-Cuban jazz was accompanied now by the mambo, the rumba and the cha-cha-cha — also musical and dance forms based in African roots, but now adapted for new audiences.
The central room in the exhibit is dedicated to this frenzied era, when with a simple tourist card people could travel back and forth between countries. On one big screen, we see actor and dancer George Raft — who had virtually moved to Havana — and a partner dancing a very Anglicized version of the mambo, while a few minutes later local Cuban dancers take over the screen to show how it’s really done.
On a center pedestal, sequined dresses from some of the most popular performers punctuate the ritz of the time, including the bright red dress from Olga Guillot. Top-notch entertainment, says Lowinger, was now crucial to the success of a club.
That, along with gambling. One wall is covered with pictures U.S. gangsters who were populating the clubs. They were not unwelcome, explains Lowinger — in fact, they were invited. She says Cuban establishments liked hosting the likes of Meyer Lansky and “Lucky” Luciano, because mobsters were seen as cool and had cache. In addition, they were literally good for business; Cuban gambling had become so rigged that the American mobsters were asked to “clean it up.” People did not want to gamble if they thought it was corrupt.
In another room, visitors can sit and watch clips of how Hollywood depicted this world, with actors with frilly dresses and puffy shirts including Ricky Ricardo and Carmen Miranda with her elaborate fruit hat (She was actually Brazilian).
It all came crashing down when Castro entered Havana in 1959. Almost overnight, the place shut up shop. But Miamians will recognize where much of it migrated: to Miami. We would get the dominoes and jai alai, salsa, the glamorous hotels, the image of the center of sun and fun in a tropical paradise.
But as Lowinger points out, we will again be seeing those home videos from tourists climbing off the cruise ships; and in the glare Havana itself will reshape its own identity.
This story was updated to reflect the correct previously ownership of a dress in the exhibit.
If you go
What: “Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction”
Where: Wolfsonian FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
When: Through Aug. 21
Info: $10; www.wolfsonian.org.