In the world of maps Emilio Cueto is sort of the modern-day version of a sixteenth-century conquistador. Only he's not reclaiming the New World for Spain, he's taking over the blueprints once used to colonize Cuba, the pearl of the Greater Antilles. Twenty-five years ago, a friend of Cueto gave him his first map of the island nation. The gift passed for a 1595 Mercator original. Elated, Cueto went hunting for information on more rare draws at the public library. In the process he discovered that his map's cartographer was not the prominent Gerardus Mercator but the equally esteemed Jodocus Hondius. It was also a bit younger than he thought: The date was off by eleven years. "That really caught my attention," recalls Cueto, "and I soon found myself investigating the history of Cuban cartography."
Cueto's curiosity evolved into a mad map quest, taking him to fairs, engraving houses, and dealers all over the world. In Paris he acquired a 1692 engraving of Cuba known as Isola Cuba. In Gijon, Spain, he obtained the first topographical map of the island, dated 1835. Just recently he placed a bid in Holland via an Internet auction, allowing him (after seventeen years of searching) to get his hands on a 1733 map of Cuba, part of a twenty-sheet puzzle called A Map of the British Empire in America. Among European map merchants, Cueto is a preferred customer. "Recently a friend of mine asked a map dealer in Brussels what he had in maps of Cuba," Cueto recounts. "The dealer told him that until I took a look at them he had nothing to offer."
For many years Cueto's collection was confined to protective covers in his Washington, D.C., apartment. Now it is on display at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. Consisting of more than 300 images spanning four centuries, Cuba in Old Maps is the first exhibition of its kind in the United States detailing Cuba's evolution. From maps of highways and railroad tracks to diagrams showing street-cleaning and garbage collection, Cueto's medley provides many windows from which to view the nation.
Also on the museum walls: numerous, late-nineteenth-century caricatures of Cuba and a hounding Uncle Sam. In Map of United States: The Trouble in Cuba, from 1895, the Florida Panhandle is depicted as the mythical Uncle Sam's witchlike nose, with beady eyes located on the Northern states looking down on Cuba. An accompanying quote reads, "I've had my eye on that morsel for a long time; guess I'll have to take it in." Other curious artifacts include The Game of Naval War, an 1898 board game of Spanish-American war battles in Cuba; Cuba en el Bolsillo, a pocket-size map from 1877; and a sixteenth-century sheepskin Cuban manuscript.
In August Cueto will hold a book-signing and lead a tour of the exhibition, for which he served as guest curator. It was a bit of extra work for him, but he admits the results were a sight to behold: "To view them in their totality was a unique experience for me," he says. "I felt a profound emotion seeing them all on walls for the first time."