The old woman picked her way down the cobblestoned street, one more day in a life of hard work written large on her body. Suddenly the sounds of evening in Havana were shattered by the music of klaxon horns heralding the approach of a procession of vividly colored old cars. They were filled with laughing, singing people swaying to the salsa music filling the air. The passengers waved, blew kisses and exuberantly greeted all they saw with shouts of “Me quiero Havana!”
As we passed, the old woman stopped, straightened up and beamed; she waved in return and even swayed to the music. A young soldier in olive–green drab on duty before a guard-box smiled broadly as he deftly transformed his response from a wave to a smart salute. Balconies in decaying buildings held people of all ages enjoying conversation in the cool of the evening. They also greeted us and smiled at our passing noisy procession. It was clear that the hardworking people in this town could enjoy and share other people’s good times.
Later we talked with the owners of the brightly colored, carefully polished cars. One of them told us that his grandfather had owned his; it passed on to his father and in turn to him. It had not been possible to get spare parts during the decades of the US embargo but that did not deter them but instead challenged them to be creative. As for all the other owners, his car is his work of art a creative expression that also connects him to his ancestors. He is proud to carry on the tradition of polishing, preserving, modifying, repairing… He said it is an important focus for him and his friends. They regularly socialize and plan the next improvement project that will make his car unique, as he pointed out bright pink upholstery and the complicated musical horn system under the immaculate hood that they had installed.
I watched his reactions as we admired his car. He reminded me of an owner of a thoroughbred horse and his pleasure in our appreciation was palpable. I understood how the cars stand for so much more than we might imagine – icons of belonging to a tradition, of the connections between the generations, between groups of friends, and symbols of their communal creative work.
Coincidentally a few days ago I was strolling in a neighborhood on the North East Los Angeles Art Walk when I saw that a group of parked cars had drawn an admiring crowd. A group of “low-riders ” had brought a dozen of their cars out on show.
They obviously had greater resources than their Cuban counterparts to create each their own unique model. But the similarity of meaning was striking – cars as icons, as art forms, symbols of their culture, their community, and source of pride for the owners. Even though they were casually standing around, when a passerby admired or asked questions, their nonchalance transformed into pleasure.