Miami Muralist Depicts Her Mom in the City She Left in 1957

Like many older Cubans in Miami, Vania Salgar doesn’t plan to return to her homeland. In the decades since she left Havana in 1957, the city she once considered the “Paris of the Americas” has changed and deteriorated, and she fears the sight of it today.

But Vania’s daughter Nicole has long sought to know more about Cuba. On a trip to Havana earlier this month, the 34-year-old artist found a way to take part of her mom there with her. On a vibrant blue and purple backdrop, she painted a black-and-white portrait of Vania as a child dressed in her school uniform and waiting for the bus. The street art now adorns a wall in the center of the Cuban capital.

“She always says she doesn’t want to go back,” Nicole says, “so this was my way of bringing her to the place she is from.”

Vania was only 15 when she left Havana on a Miami-bound plane in 1957. Fidel Castro’s revolt against the authoritarian government of President Fulgencio Batista was gaining strength, and Vania’s parents were fiercely divided. While her father Julio believed in the revolution, her mother Suevia was against it. So the pair divorced, and Suevia moved to Miami in 1956 to start anew. Though she spoke no English, she found a job as a seamstress and began to save money to bring her daughters to Miami. A year later, Vania and her sister Vilma joined their mother. Julio stayed behind in Cuba.

A painting in Central Havana by Miami muralist Nicole Salgar depicts her mother as a young girlEXPAND
A painting in Central Havana by Miami muralist Nicole Salgar depicts her mother as a young girl
Nicole Salgar

For the next two years, Vania traveled to Havana during the summers to see her father. But when the revolution triumphed in 1959, she was no longer able to visit.

“My whole life, Cuba has been this mystery country,” says Nicole, who grew up in Miami. “It’s not that my mom doesn’t miss it; she just doesn’t want to see the state it’s in now.”

Last month, when Nicole finalized plans to travel to Cuba with Amigo Skate, a Miami-based charity that donates skateboards to Cuban youth, the reaction from her family was mixed. Her mom didn’t want her to go. Other family members worried that her tourism dollars would end up in the government’s hands to support its socialist mission.

“I just explained that I was going to beautify the city and paint walls to help the community,” she says. “And they understood.”

In early January, she traveled to Havana with more than 20 artists, skaters, and creatives from Miami, New York, and California. Once there, she faced a number of challenges, like accessing supplies and walls. Most of the paint she found began as a powder; spray paint was expensive and hard to come by. It rained nearly every day.

But one afternoon, graffiti artist Meme, the founder of the female graffiti collective Few and Far Women, found a spot for herself and Nicole to paint in central Havana their last day in Cuba. On Calle Virtudes, near Old Havana, she spotted a large, dilapidated wall covered in faded graffiti. Someone from a nearby restaurant introduced her to Coqui, the woman in charge of a community center for kids and older people in the area, who gave the artists the green light to paint over the surface.

The wall before
The wall before
Maya Rodriguez

With plenty of space, Nicole knew exactly what to create. She’d secretly brought along a picture of her mom at age 7, when she lived in Havana. In the photo, Vania wears a black school jacket and a long white skirt; her hair is cut in a short bob, and a serious expression marks her face.

As soon as Meme and Nicole put their buckets of paint down in front of the wall, kids ran over and begged to help. The women taught them painting tricks and how to mix colors. At the end, Nicole encouraged the children to contribute their handprints around the image of her mom. “That way it’s not only my mural, but it becomes their mural too,” she says.

Miami Muralist Depicts Her Mom in the City She Left in 1957 (3)
Nicole Salgar

The mural also features Cuba’s national flower, the mariposa (or butterfly), which was used by Cuban women during the struggle for liberation from Spain to smuggle messages to the battlefield.

For the artist, who has completed murals in cities across the world, the experience of painting in Cuba was perhaps the most meaningful. Once unsure if she’d ever know the country where her mom was born, she’s already making plans to travel again to the island to continue painting.

“Actually being able to set foot in it and see where my mom grew up was… I don’t even know if I can find the right word,” she says. “It was surreal.”

Miami Muralist Depicts Her Mom in the City She Left in 1957 (4)
Nicole Salgar

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