Friday, 9 April 2010

My first Cuban signs

One of the first things you notice shortly after landing in Cuba is the complete lack of commercial advertising. No poster for a bank, drink or hotel jumping at you when you step out of the plane and make your way towards the centre of Havana. Given the economic policies adopted by the government over the past fifty years, the regular shortages of basic products and the lack of choice in most shops (the exception being those in the centre of larger cities where foreign products can be bought using convertible pesos), it is easily understandable why there is no need for advertising. This means the very few painted ads that can still be spotted date from before the advent or the very first years of the Revolutionary regime. This is a very small group (I'll have to check the pictures I took but right now I can only think of two, including one for a typical US product...).
This absence is largely compensated by the huge amount of political propaganda pasted on billboards along the roads or painted on walls in towns and villages. These consitute the second largest group of painted signs in the country.
Since consumption isn't glamourised or even encouraged, there is no need for retail outlets to be clearly identified by the kind of large, colourful, would-like-to-be trendy signs that all too often pollute our high streets. True, there are a couple of shopping streets in cities but the shops there still display signs that were put up either before 1959 or in the 1960s or 1970s, when the economy was doing well thanks to Soviet aid. That includes a few electric signs that are no longer switched on when night falls. In a large number of cases the name is also displayed on the doorstep, with mosaics or 'inserted' into the floor. Yet for the immense majority of Cubans, going shopping means going to, and queueing in front of, the tiny premises in their neighbourhood where they can get basic food products and services. Since those outlets barely make any money, if any, all they are given is a bit of paint to write their name, opening hours, and sometimes to add a drawing. As a result these make the largest group of painted signs seen around the island.
Finally a fourth group could be called the 'historic signs' group. Over the past decade or so, huge efforts given the scarce resources and materials available have been made to preserve and restore the historic centres of Havana and other cities, and, wherever possible, what was written on the facades has been kept. Therefore the names and nature of some businesses from the nineteenth or early twentieth century are still with us today. Often these were painted using the same techniques (in most cases the a fresco one) as for the colonial-era murals that adorned the houses of Cuba's high society.

If I had photographed every single painted sign I came across in Cuba, I wouldn't have had time for much else. Indeed I must have seen more signs in three weeks on the Caribbean island than in three years in Britain! Still I came back with a respectable number of pictures and over the next few weeks and months I'll present some of them. Today are two of the first signs I saw in Havana: one for a political organisation, and one for a bakery.

Wherever you are in Cuba, you are never far away from some political propaganda, and when it comes to painted signs, the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (Youth Communist League) is only second to the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution).

Fieles a nuestra historia
[Faithful to our history]

This was painted over a sentence, parts of which can still be read, taken from a speech delivered by Fidel Castro on July 26, 2002 in Ciego de Ávila to mark the 49th anniversary of the failed assault on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes barracks in Santiago and Bayamo respectively:
¿Qué somos y qué seremos sino una sola historia, una sola idea, una sola voluntad para todos los tiempos?
[What are we and what will we be if not forever one history, one idea, one will?]

On the right is the emblem of the UJC, the youth organisation of the Communist Party of Cuba. It was designed in 1962 by Virgilio Martínez, who was then artistic director of the magazine Mella, the voice of the Asociación de Jóvenes Rebeldes (Association of Rebel Younth), the precusor of the UJC. Unveiled at the first congress of the UJC, it includes against a white, blue and green background the motto of the organisation: "Estudio, trabajo, fusil" ("Study, Work, Rifle"). These three words were taken from the speech given by Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, then president of Cuba, to the AJR in 1960: "The future of the Motherland belongs to you [...]. Study, work and rifle, young rebels of Cuba". The colours white and blue are part of the Cuban flag, while the green was chosen because of the olive green uniforms of the Rebel Army. The letters UJC are against a red background, the third colour of the flag, which here also symbolizes the ideological position of the organisation. In the central part, against the red star found on the Cuban flag are the figures of Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. Originally only the first two were represented, in opposite order. Mella (1903-1929) one of the founders of the Cuban Communist Party, was murdered while walking through the streets of Mexico City with photographer Tina Modotti (who escaped uninjured). As for Cienfuegos (1932-1959), one of the most popular figures of the Revolution, he died in a plane crash in 1959. According to Dorticós Torrado, the two symbolized the historic continuity in the revolutionary struggles of the Cuban youth. The figure of Che was added after his death in Bolivia in 1967.

On the left, the three revolutionary heroes have been painted from the front.

Location: San Lázaro, Havana / Pictures taken on: 20/03/2010

Then as one walks towards the Paseo Martí in Centro Havana, one can pass by the bakery El Faro (The Lighthouse), which, according to what is written by the entrance, is open 24 hours a day.

This is a typical shop where Cubans get their food: dark, with a very limited range of products (in that case, two sorts of bread), and with a small painted sign outside. In some shops a revolutionary slogan is also painted inside. On that Sunday morning, most people who queued had their ration book in hand. The ration book allows them to buy food at subsidized prices (here 5 cents of a peso moneda nacional for a small round bread. That's equivalent to 1 cent of a euro for five breads) but what can be bought this way is usually enough for eleven or twelve days only. For the rest of the month food must be purchased at a higher price (sometimes 20 times more). Since the majority of the population only earns the equivalent of between 10 and 25 euros a month, making ends meet is a constant worry for many.

Although the drawing of the lighthouse is quite childish, the lettering is pretty elaborate.

Location: Consulado, Havana / Pictures taken on: 21/03/2010

I am now uploading slightly larger pictures, so don't hesitate to click on them to get a better view!

1 comment:

helen said...

Great images of a very colorful place and people with an incredible history.