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Nestor Hernandez sees Cuba strictly in terms of black and white. “You would think color because of Cuba’s tropical setting,” argues Hernandez, a Mount Pleasant resident who works as chief photographer for the D.C. public school system. “In black and white, you see light, you see shadows. When I started shooting in black and white, I became much more excited about the images.”
Hernandez’s father fled Cuba in the ’30s, came to the United States, and eventually settled down in D.C. Most of his family stayed behind to become unwitting civilian soldiers in Fidel Castro’s revolution. “We didn’t grow up with a sense that we were Cuban,” Hernandez recalls. As a high school student in the late ’70s, Hernandez took his first trip to the island known as the “Pearl of the Antilles.” While the Cuban government promoted Castro’s victories, Hernandez decided to get a second opinion. He paid a visit to his family. “[They] didn’t know I was coming. I just showed up at the door,” Hernandez remembers. “I said, ‘I’m Nestor, your grandson.’”
He has since made seven more trips, the majority of which have occurred in the past three years, as Castro and the revolution have struggled to remain relevant in the post-Cold War landscape. Hernandez says that he borrowed from Depression-era photographic documentarians Walker Evans and Gordon Parks as he wandered through the streets of Havana, Holgiun, and Santiago de Cuba. Ninety black-and-white photographs from his sojourns are now on display at the Center for Collaborative Art and Visual Education (CAVE) in Dupont Circle.
With Afro-Cuban music vibrating through the speakers and pictures of Carnival on the walls, Hernandez’s work offers reminders that there’s more to the Cuban spirit than just political ideology. “The energy of the people is just amazing,” says Hernandez. “I don’t know if it’s the Caribbean or the beaches, but it’s infectious when you go there.”
But the hardship of the revolution can clearly be seen through the vacant, distant stares Hernandez captures on film. “They all love Cuba, but they’re tired of the revolution,” he notes. Though political idealism wanes among the masses, its signposts still remain. In Las Ideas Justas Viven (The just ideas will not die), Hernandez catches a man scrounging in trash cans beneath a billboard bearing the utopian slogan.—Elissa Silverman
“Inside Cuba” is on display from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, through Saturday, June 27, at CAVE, 1635 Connecticut Ave. NW.