New Faces in Old Havana

Havana is reinventing itself as a hipster city. Its deep cultural and artistic roots are<br />
becoming more abstract, modern, vibrant. So are its faces. Classic images of the old<br />
woman puffing on a cigar in the Plaza Vieja or the driver of an American car are fast being replaced by the faces of influencers, promoters and alternative artists. As Havana’s cultural scene evolves beyond its classic ‘time warp’ stereotype, new startups, art collectives and social projects are emerging in new and exciting ways.

By KT Watson (photos) & Aliénor Salmon (words)


  • Havana is reinventing itself as a hipster city. Its deep cultural and artistic roots are becoming more abstract, modern, vibrant. So are its faces. Classic images of the old woman puffing on a cigar in the Plaza Vieja or the driver of an American car are fast being replaced by the faces of influencers, promoters and alternative artists. As Havana’s cultural scene evolves beyond its classic ‘time warp’ stereotype, new startups, art collectives and social projects are emerging in new and exciting ways.

  • Rosmery Sanabria, Artist

    I graduated from Bellas Artes de San Alejandro in 2011 and I’ve been working as an artist and visual painter for 8 years. My specialization is expressionism in large formats and oil on canvas. I was commissioned to paint this door to bring colour to the building and improve its appearance. For me, colours give form to your imagination, to something abandoned, damaged or in ruins. One day I want to create a piece that captures my spirituality so that when someone sees it, they feel impacted and inspired. This would mean much more to me than becoming famous.

  • Cindy, 31 Fashion Stylist

    I studied archiving through an annual quota set by the government. Because of limited internet access we still need to keep everything on paper here. Then I lived in London for 5 years and came back less than a year ago. I met the owner of this store and learnt about her project to open a fashion boutique with her own designs. I didn’t know how to sew, but I was looking for work and loved the idea of managing a shop and styling clients. I love the colours, the contact with people, and to be able to help, dress and see them in these clothes. I love seeing people’s faces when they come up the stairs and see this shop full of bright colours. I hope that Cuba opens up so that I can keep living here, and to see new businesses and projects start up. My dream is to open my own café. It would be a small place with a library full of books so that people can read, and photography exhibition. People from around the world would come together– not just be on their phones – to share and to chat.

  • Ahron, 21, WIFI Dealer

    I sell WIFI on a corner of Old Havana. I want to help people communicate with their family outside the country. Many of our parents have left Cuba to work abroad, and it’s only with WIFI that we can talk to them. I’m actually a dancer, and I need Wifi to promote myself and my dance group. My dream is to be a great dance choreographer and become known outside of Cuba. I’ve been dancing since I was 9 years old. The only thing I have in my mind is to have my own dance company.

  • Isachy Chang, 22, Artist

    I’ve lived in Old Havana all my life, and I’ve been painting since I was 6 years old. Painting doesn’t really bring me much income, but it gives me enormous personal satisfaction. Five years ago I discovered the engraving technique – with wood, paper, linoleum or metal— through a project called Imagen 3 in the Prado boulevard. It allows me to transmit my emotions through art. I’m not able to sell or exhibit my paintings because I haven’t graduated in art and don’t belong to a formal institution as an artist. One day I dream of being able to live from my passion and have my very own exhibition in a big gallery.

  • Mercedes, 36, Domestic Worker

    I work serving breakfast in a casa particular – a local homestay – in Old Havana. The reforms that allowed people to work freelance led to a huge increase in these casas. It was a more affordable option for travelers. I was looking for work in a cafeteria or restaurant and realized that there were lots of options in casas. I love interacting with guests and making new friends. Most of my what’s app contacts are people who rented a room here. I’ve got photos of me with people from half the world! My dream is to have my own café. It would be quite simple and would have drinks, biscuits and cakes. I don’t want to be rich or be a millionaire, I just want to live well an make my daughter’s dream come true to travel outside of Cuba.

  • Exhu Burgos, 30, Promoter

    For the last two years I’ve been working as a promoter for a bar that hosts alternative parties for an art collective. I was attracted to the idea of promoting their parties because I get to socialize and meet new people – it’s the true magic of this job. The concept of the parties is kind of crazy – but in a good way. They are really underground, with no inhibitions and with the audience and energy constantly changing. It’s not the traditional setting or typical music you might expect where you sit and watch others. When you enter this bar, you become part of it. I’m actually a jazz singer and multidisciplinary musician. My dream is to be able to sing jazz with a symphony orchestra and to be discovered by a record label.

  • Gilberto Vaya aka Papito, 50 Hairdresser

    I started working as a hairdresser in 1986. It was my destiny. I was a bad student and didn’t like school, and when I was about to start my military service, someone told me that hairdressers were exempt. So I ended up training to become a hairdresser by accident and it became my passion. I wanted to give back to society and created a social project for youth with special needs who are socially excluded and don’t often get to study. I started my hairdressing school, which is free and taught by volunteers, and my hairdressing studio became a museum. This alleyway became known as the alleyway of hairdressers and even has its own monument. The philosophy of the project is that everyone can give something to society – whether its your money, hands, time or knowledge. My dream is for this project to spread to other neighbourhoods so that they can have their bring transformation – whether social, cultural or economic – to their communities. Any transformation depends on people – we are our future.

  • Yosmel Abreu, 39, Dance Instructor

    I’ve danced my whole life. It was when I was a kid and saw Michael Jackson’s dance moves that I just knew I had to become a dancer. I’ve been working at different dance schools here in Old Havana, but I live quite far outside the city. In my community I have my own youth group where I teach dance to young people – especially young men who have lost their way. Many have problems with their behaviour and discipline and dance really helps them feel part of something important. My dream is for my community project to become a foundation to help more young people fulfill their full potential.

  • Jennifer, 24, Nail Technician

    I trained as a professional dancer from the age of six in Havana’s best dance schools and performed with different groups. When nail art became fashionable here a few years ago, I started my own nail salon because it was a comfortable job that I could do from my own home. I was curious to learn how a machine, a powder and a varnish could create something so pretty. I love seeing the joy on women's’ faces when they see her nails, and seeing them leave my salon happy because they feel more confident, attractive and unique. Each nail technician finds their own style, but mine is more natural because I want to transmit elegance. My dream is to pursue my career as a dancer and start my own school. When you dance you feel different. You don’t think about anything else except that very moment and creating something meaningful through your movement. It makes me feel pride, satisfaction and excitement. When the audience applauds – I feel complete. I am myself.

  • Yen Cordero, 40, Photographer

    I started getting serious about photography ten years ago after graduating in library science and archiving. I started to see photography as a way of documenting information, as a form of expression and as a way of having a voice. I like to capture daily life in Havana as seen through my own eyes. Most of my shots are candid – I rarely take posed photos. I like to photograph Havana and its people without influencing or changing the scene – It’s a characteristic of my photos. My dream is to exhibit more, in a bigger gallery and to a bigger audience so that I can be more visible and become better known.

Havana has the mystifying ability to combine ancestral traditions with a new wave of modernity. A new generation is leading a social transformation with their cameras, paintbrushes and Instagram accounts, taking inspiration from its past in order to shape its future. There’s a lot that we can learn from the Cuban way of life, where necessity and hardship has led to levels of creativity, solidarity and human connection which is rarely found elsewhere. As access to the internet begins to expand, there is the opportunity to share this creativity with the world.

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