To hear it from the viejos and the not-so-viejos, everything Cuban was (and is) unique. Sure, their brand of inflammatory politics is one point. And to the unschooled palate black beans can seem odd. But how different can things Cuban really be? Two exhibitions at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida provide a peek at the distinctive buildings, plants, and animals of the island.
According to "La Habana: Civic Architecture, 1902-1958," the Paris of the Caribbean began to get more Parisian following the establishment of the Republic in 1902. The display of black-and-white photos (from the collection of Carlos Alberto Fleitas) traces the creation of public spaces via the construction of landmarks such as the waterside drag known as the Malecon, the majestic Greek Revival-style University of Havana, monuments to the U.S.S. Maine and to freedom fighters José Martí and Antonio Maceo.
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What makes a plant or animal Cuban is the driving question behind the extensive "Illustrating Cuba's Flora & Fauna" (from the collection of Emilio Cueto). Ciboney and Taino Indians are responsible for introducing and cultivating an array of plants, fruits, and veggies. Surprisingly rice and sugarcane came via the Spanish. Opportunities to document anything and everything arose due to increased colonial activity in the Caribbean. Hence drawings of fruits like mamey and mango, painstaking renderings of butterflies, and depictions of animals such as the almiquí. But that doesn't even begin to cover it. Perhaps the cover of the sheet music to American composer Irving Berlin's 1920 song "I'll See You in C-U-B-A" -- combining a look at the Cuban natural world along with the requisite wistfulness -- might do it best. A smiling dark-haired woman stands invitingly before an octagonal window overlooking a sunny beach, where green and orange parrots roost in the trees. On the horizon, a cruise ship steams slowly away, maybe toward Miami.