author: George Ancona
photographer: George Ancona
Marshall Cavendish, 2000
While reading Cuban Kids, I remembered a documentary I saw several years ago about life in Cuba. In it, the filmmaker walked the streets, visited schools and factories, and interviewed everyday Cuban people. His questions seem to have been designed to portray Cubans as oppressed by the revolutionary government. He asked an ethnically mixed group of schoolchildren, for instance, if any of them had had any experiences with racism in their country. “Oh, yes,” they all said, excitedly, and an African-Cuban child answered for the group: “We read all about it in our textbooks.” Undeterred, this filmmaker asked a factory worker if there was any favoritism in Cuba. “Oh, yes,” she responded, and quoted the great revolutionary, José Martí: “Nada hay más importante que el niño.” Probably not what the filmmaker wanted to hear, but it was a telling documentary nonetheless.
Cuban Kids is an amazing photo-essay by a talented photographer who visited the small island country to see what life was like 40 years after his first trip in 1957. Then, a small band of rebels was fighting in the mountains, the revolution was underway, and Havana was an armed camp. In 2000, when this book was published, the revolution was strong, the Cuban people were in charge of their destinies, education and medicine were free for everyone, kids came first—and the US embargo was still in place.
In vibrant, full-color photos, taken in both rural and urban parts of the country, we get to meet Cuba’s kids. Here are children celebrating the birth of José Martí, studying in school, visiting the town doctor, helping harvest sugar cane, working in an organic garden for extra school credit, playing soccer with a beat-up basketball, learning how to make books out of recycled materials, studying whatever courses interest them in the Palacio de los Pioneros, swimming in one of the Palacio’s three pools, practicing ballet, modern dance, Spanish Flamenco, and circus arts, and hanging out with their families.
Culturally rich and materially not so much, Cuba’s kids are strong, happy, healthy children who are loved and who know who they are. “Despite the hardships, the shortages, and the embargo,” Ancona writes, “Cuban kids are growing up with a love of their country, traditions, and culture. Their many skills will contribute to making a better future for Cuba and the world.” Cuban Kids is a treasure. Highly recommended.