For most people the Bay of Pigs, the infamous CIA-backed attempt to oust Castro in 1961 that left close to 120 men dead (4 Americans), 60 wounded, and nearly 1200 imprisoned, is a faint blip on the radar screen of history. To artist George Sanchez it was an epic screwup that spurred an extraordinary chain of events, from the consolidation of communism in Cuba to the Cuban Missile Crisis, about which many people harbor misconceptions or, worse, are ignorant.
Born to Cuban parents in New York and raised in Miami, Sanchez can't claim any relatives who participated in the invasion. Like most children of Cuban exiles, he learned about it from the adults around him. "I don't remember being taught about it in school," he says. "All I remember is hearing, 'Bay of Pigs, Kennedy's a bad guy, and they were left at the beach.'" Once he grew up, however, he became curious. "I began to question whether they were really abandoned, who was at fault, and whether they were exaggerating," Sanchez explains. "They weren't. I didn't realize the scale of the event. They spent over $40 million training the men, buying equipment. That's like half a billion dollars now! These guys were stranded by the American government. President Kennedy didn't want to give them the air support that they understood they were going to receive. They were doomed. It was the first time Americans saw their country as having failed concerning foreign policy."
Determined to discover even more about the Bay of Pigs, Sanchez, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, immersed himself in reading books, talking to veterans, and watching documentaries. His conclusion: The Bay of Pigs is largely misconstrued and forgotten. Lest that happen permanently, the 31-year-old artist spent the past year and a half creating the enormous installation, monumento, which goes on display April 17, the 38th anniversary of the invasion.
The exhibition will be housed in a 35,000-square-foot airplane hangar in Coconut Grove, original home to the Pan Am Clipper (which made the first transatlantic flights to Havana), and the place where many released Cuban veterans were reunited with their families. Its components will include more than 250 photos; sixteen styrofoam B-26 bombers hanging from the ceiling; display cases featuring models of every plane used in the operation; 1200 bottles of baby food with a tiny plastic soldier inside each one representing the prisoners; and a bevy of brigade members who will reminisce. Oh, and a 30-foot-long helium-filled floating pig. On opening night a string quartet will perform danzones and boleros. In honor of the installation the downtown NationsBank building will glow in a piglike pink light.
According to Sanchez "a few passionate Cubans" objected to him mounting the project, but no one he approached (including 2506 brigade members and the Cuban American National Foundation) accused him of trivializing an important historical event. "I'm not trying to create controversy," he affirms. "I'm just tying to raise the level of awareness, particularly here."
As an artist Sanchez thinks he also has a "certain responsibility to help take the truth to Cuba one day." But out of respect for the pain his family endured by being "kicked out of the country," he won't be going there before Castro is deposed. Instead he'll stay in the United States, making sure the Bay of Pigs is remembered by all.
"What those young guys did was really courageous," Sanchez says. "They put their lives on the line to try to liberate their country. They didn't do it for their houses. They didn't do it for their businesses. They did it because they were oppressed and they wanted to help free Cuba. They did it because they liked living there better than any place in the world. I don't want them to be forgotten."
"monumento" will be on view from 7:00 p.m. to midnight April 17 and noon to midnight April 18 through 27 at the Coconut Grove Marina Complex, 2640 S Bayshore Dr, Coconut Grove. Admission is free. Call 305-576-5181.