Return to Havana

The Spanish word is anoranza, the romantic longing that creeps up on many Cuban exiles whenever they begin musing how nothing can compare with the Cuba of old. Those who enjoyed the island's glory days often close their age-of-innocence tales with a reminder that before 1959 there was no reason to leave behind the fatherland. Prerevolutionary Cuban coffee was the richest, the food was the tastiest, and the entertainment was the finest.

Typical scenes of the era before armed rebels descended from the Sierra Maestra mountains: cruising in a convertible along el Malecon, the famous Havana sea wall, with an infinite backdrop of blue sky; sultry cabaret nights spent smoking cigars, sipping Cuba libres (rum and colas), and slow dancing to live boleros.

With similar sentimentalism and a high dose of enterprise, two local businessmen have set out to re-create Cuba's magical past in CubaNostalgia. Leslie Pantin, Jr., one of the founders of the Calle Ocho street party, and Emilio Calleja organized this two-day event showcasing the glamor, folklore, and art of the island in 115,000 square feet of exhibitions, including Havana street scenes and mock-up buildings. "It's a celebration of Cubanness in a Cuba that no longer exists," Calleja says.

As time-travelers enter CubaNostalgia they will be greeted by one of the last cars to arrive from Cuba by ferry: a black, 1958 Cadillac displaying its original tag. Paper kites known as papalotes will hang from the ceiling and whirl to the music of guitar-playing troubadours.

Attendees will be able to experience a typical day in 1950s Havana. Books and magazine stands will occupy front porches of buildings. Shoeshiners will offer a quick polish. Street vendors will roam and hawk their products with a holler, and lottery dealers will attempt to sell a number or two for La Charada, a game of chance in which each number has a symbolic representation.

Art galleries will exhibit and sell original Cuban art from the likes of Wifredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez, and Cundo Bermudez. Other local Cuban artists such as the Scull Sisters, Agustin Gainza, and Laura Luna will be on hand to peddle work, ranging from three-dimensional paintings of Havana street scenes to ceramic statues of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint.

Sports enthusiasts can learn about legendary athletes and race-car drivers as beisbol and the Havana Grand Prix are united under one roof. A display of Almendares, Havana, Cienfuegos, and Marianao team uniforms and bats will pay tribute to players. Baseball cards for each of the 141 Cubans who participated in the major leagues from 1887 to the present will be sold. A painted mural of el Malecon, part of the Grand Prix route, will stand behind a 1956 Chevy Bel Aire that was driven in the race.

Memorabilia collectors can choose from old Cuban postcards, coins, maps, posters from the 1920s and 1930s, school yearbooks, Bohemia magazines, and vintage recordings by musicians such as Ernesto Lecuona and Benny More on sale in 25 booths. And for those in search of hard-to-find trinkets, a jewelry store will offer Cuban-themed machete cuff links and earrings in the shape of bohios, village huts.

The first event of its kind, CubaNostalgia is an exaltation of everything Cuban (except for Fidel and his revolution). According to Pantin the idea is for exiles to re-live their paradise, although those who missed out will have fun, too. Says Pantin: "It's for Cubans who remember, Cuban Americans who don't remember, and non-Cubans who've heard of what we've been talking about for the last 40 years." We'll drink to that -- with a Cuba libre, of course.

-- Lissette Corsa

CubaNostalgia takes place 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, May 15, and noon to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, May 16, at the Coconut Grove Convention Center, 2700 S Bayshore Dr, Coconut Grove. Admission is $10 and $5 for children age twelve and under. Call 305-358-7949.

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Lissette Corsa