Thursday, June 15, 2017
Cuba's street performers owe debt to Graciela

Long before Havana started looking like Orlando, complete with hoards of doughy, American, bus-riding tour groups, there was Graciela. In my humble opinion, she was the “mother of all street performers.” Technically, she didn’t really perform, per se, but for a buck or two, she would allow you to shoot one photo of her clamping down on a ridiculously large cigar with what was left of her decaying teeth.

I must have shot this woman at least five or six times over the years; I only wish I had done more as she died a few years ago. Without a doubt, countless others have tried to emulate this most unique Cubana, but they’ll never touch that classic look and attitude that included flowered headgear and her signature Coke bottle glasses.

As anyone will tell you, Graciela was tough, and the bigger the camera, the firmer the transaction. On one occasion, I had accidentally left my camera’s motor drive engaged. So when I hit the shutter button, several frames were fired off. The resulting sequence began with a sweet, if not scary smile, followed by a 90-something, small-framed woman lunging forward, waving her crooked finger at the lens and demanding more payment. It was a little startling at first, but I gladly paid.

As with any touristy spot, there have been street performers in Havana for many years, but with Americans pouring into Cuba, the number of “performers,” and sadly, panhandlers, has jumped significantly. Personally, I love seeing people doing something interesting or funny on the streets of any city and I always pay. I’ve mentioned this before, but to me, I find it pathetic to watch cheapskates go out of their way to shoot photos without coughing up a buck or two. First of all, the clandestinely-shot photo isn’t nearly as good, and more importantly, it’s their way to make a living.

Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of cigar-smoking characters, mimes, human statues, a Michael Jackson dancer, even a deaf mute Hemingway lookalike and that’s not to mention the canine acts like “Pillo Chocolate” about whom I’ve already written.

On Friday, the chance to photograph these folks may hang in the balance. Most well-versed Cuba watchers, far more wise than I, believe the only major change in Cuba policy will have to do with business and trade. I’ve always found our half-century long embargo quite interesting. If American businesses can’t sell goods to Cuba, how do you explain the $5 billion dollars worth of agricultural sales (poultry, grains, etc), we have sold to Cuba over the past 17 years? I guess it depends who is doing the selling, huh? Anyway, let’s just hope that’s all they do. There are far too many more photo ops waiting to be had a short 100 miles away ...