Muraleando - Community Arts in a Havana Barrio
Henri Ewaskio, July 2004 (abridged)
When local artists Manuel (Manolo) Díaz Baldrich and Ernesto Quirch Paz began teaching art workshops in the neighborhood school in 2001, they had no thoughts of starting a community development project. But their classes conflicted with the schedule of the state-run computer program so they moved the workshops into the streets, and there the seeds of Muraleando (literally “muraling” or mural-making) were sown.
The murals that started springing up all along Mercedes Muñoz and around the corner on Aguilera were a natural outgrowth of the art classes. The murals depict fanciful celebrations of Cuban life. In a country where nothing is disposable and everything is useful, broken typewriters, old telephones, tire rims, wrought-iron chair parts - all were fair game to weld and paint and turn into sculpture.
Less obvious than the long-unpainted walls were deeper issues of community cohesion. According to Baldrich, problems were exacerbated during the “special period,” the Cuban euphemism for the years of extreme economic hardship in the early 1990s, immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the U.S. embargo. The scarcity of these years pushed many Cubans to adopt an every-man-for-himself philosophy. Muraleando’s answer to this community fragmentation is the Peña Comunitaria, a block party that the project organizes every six weeks, when streets are blocked off, tables and chairs are set up, and young and old arrive to share in the festivities. Invited artists include musicians, dancers, singers, actors and poets from local, national and international realms. The Peña also gives emerging and aspiring artists from the neighborhood a venue to demonstrate their talents. Food is served, of course, and neighbors come together in a cultural celebration.
Muraleando classes and events are held in the street or, if the gate is not locked, in a nearby park where there is some protection from the sun.
When a visiting artist asks Manolo what he thinks the greatest accomplishments of the project have been, he says, “In two-and-a-half years of existence, the project has managed to physically transform our community, converting it into a People’s Art Gallery. In fact, the changes are spiritual as well as physical. A sense of belonging has developed in the barrio where people get involved and concern themselves more and more with solving problems with our own efforts.”
In December of 2002, I was sitting in a hotel room in Havana, speaking with Manuel Díaz Baldrich, general coordinator of Muraleando Community Project. “How many children do you think there will be?” I asked.