National Geographic’s map of Cuba is labor of love for Cuban American mapmaker


An early version of the new National Geographic map of Cuba. Juan Valdes, 57, who is The Geographer for National Geographic and Director of Editorial and Research for National Geographic Maps was the project manager of the map. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Squint at this map just right, with a pair of wistful eyes — Juan Jose Valdes’s eyes — and it reveals more than shapes and symbols on a grid of latitude and longitude.

There is the warmth of the setting sun splashing gold over the sugar cane fields. The smell of coffee and the sea. The sound of the wind in the palms. Somewhere, also, is a little boy who loved maps in Havana, plotting the location of revolutionary battles on his Esso gas station road guide — until one day, the boy was put on a plane, alone, bound for colder places he knew only from maps.

“To a Cuban, there’s nothing more iconic than a map of the island,” Valdes says now, holding up his latest creation for inspection.

It’s a brand new map of Cuba, the National Geographic Society’s first comprehensive rendering of the Caribbean nation since 1906. It’s a classic wall map, 3 feet by 2 feet, 24 miles to the inch. The island stretches like a bony finger across the azure sea.

The map breaks cartographic news, which is not easy for a map to do anymore. Last year, Cuba created two new provinces on the western end of the island. Hello, Artemisa and Mayabeque.

Valdes’s coordinates this minute locate him at a drawing table in the maps division on the seventh floor of National Geographic’s headquarters on 17th Street NW. He is 57. It is almost exactly 50 years since his parents put him on a plane in August 1961, several months after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

He grew up to be a cartographer and geographer — the Geographer, in fact, at National Geographic, charged with helping direct map policies and projects. Last year, during a brainstorming session, he said to his colleagues, How about a map of Cuba?

It was his dream project, bringing his life full circle. He poured everything he had into it, as if the standard data on a conventional map could resonate with something more.

“When I was mapping the beach areas, I would remember the wind hitting the palm trees,” he says. “Every day, I would feel, ‘I’ve been there. That looks like that. That smells like this. This tastes like that.’ ”

His eyes moisten as he tells the story of the map.

During the six months of production, on his way from the elevator to his office, he would pass a wall plaque with words he often quotes, attributed to Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the first editor of National Geographic Magazine:

“A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.”

Goodbye to Cuba

The boy thought he and his parents were going to the airport to look at planes, as he sometimes did for fun with his father or uncle. He would be quizzed on the origins of different national airlines. His first geography lessons.

Instead, that day he had to say goodbye to his parents for nearly seven months. Goodbye to Cuba for much longer, maybe forever.

Jose and Juliana Valdes worked for Cuban Electric Power and Light. The family was middle class, living comfortably in a suburb of Havana, with a car and a housekeeper.

They were not politically active but were skeptical of the revolution, their only child recalls. “They just wanted to carry on with their lives.”

Juan had tracked Fidel Castro’s march on his Esso map. The day after a freighter from Belgium with munitions for Castro’s army exploded in the harbor in 1960, a teacher in his Catholic school made a geography lesson out of the ship’s route to Cuba.

After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Juan’s school was closed. His parents wanted no part of the new order, while other relatives supported the revolution.

The parents could get only one plane ticket, according to their son. Friends in Miami met Juan, then 7, at the airport.

“The plane was full of kids,” Valdes says. “It was just sad, very sad.”

In early 1962, his parents made it to Miami. His father got a job unloading bananas from Central America. One day he got lost coming home from the wharf, and he called his son. Juan ran to a nearby fire station, found a map and talked his father home.

“That a map could do that,” says the Geographer, tearing up at the memory.

After a year or so in Miami, one day his father came home and announced they were moving to Washington.

Which Washington? the boy wanted to know. On the plane, he kept a lookout for the Rockies. Instead he saw the Atlantic Ocean, and he knew they were moving to Washington, D.C.

Waiting for the family at National Airport were a dozen members of the Senior High Fellowship of Wheaton Presbyterian Church. As part of a Cuban refu­gee settlement program, the teens had raised $200 to help the Valdeses.

“It’s a moment very emotional for us,” Juliana Valdes said at the airport, according to a story at the time in The Washington Post. The article continued:

“ ‘Tell them you’re happy, too,’ she said in Spanish to her nine-year-old son, Juan — who speaks better English than his parents. But Juan was too shy and merely smiled.”

The father got a job in data processing at the Washington Star, then at IBM, while the son graduated from Wheaton High School and became an American citizen. (Juliana died in 1983; Jose is retired and living in Gaithersburg.)

Juan majored in geography and minored in cartography at the University of Maryland. He was hired by National Geographic in 1976.

He married his high school sweetheart, Kathleen Wessells, and they have two adult daughters and two granddaughters.

“Although this is home, you never really feel that it’s home,” he says. “But although my roots might be in Cuba, my trunk and my branches are here, and that trunk and those branches are my family.”

Layers of information

Maps are made in layers, Valdes says, paging through the many drafts of the Cuba map.

Each layer is a different set of information: Transportation networks. Major cities, provincial seats, important towns. Rivers, canals and reservoirs. Significant mountains, plains and wetlands. Oil fields and pipelines. Ocean depths and coastal bays, gulfs, channels and archipelagos.

Modern cartographers are aggregators. The information resides in various federal and international databases. The job of Valdes and his team of four researchers and editors was to put it together in an elegant, authoritative way.

Valdes says he lavishes as much attention on all his maps, yet “my relationship to this map is very close.”

He drew on a lifetime of buried longing to make this map special. Some towns seemed isolated on an early draft, so he had his researchers find the highways that he knew must be there. He had them consult the latest passenger train schedules, adding and removing railroad track symbols to show, as of press time, where a traveler can go by train. The Cuban Interests Section in the District provided details of the new provinces.

“It is pleasant to have an international organization like National Geographic showing concern about new districts in your country,” says Cuban Interests spokesman Juan Jacomino, who was born in what is now Mayabeque. “National Geographic is well credited in Cuba.”

The maps division chooses subjects not only for their reference value but also for their market appeal. Changes in Cuba, including Raul Castro succeeding brother Fidel in power and tentative moves to more private employment, are in the news. President Obama has loosened restrictions on some types of travel to the island.

Valdes can imagine his map someday being the basis for a National Geographic travelers map of Cuba.

He made that trip once. It was 10 years ago. National Geographic asked him to lead an educational excursion around the island, as permitted under the travel restrictions. He conducted an 11-day tour.

“There were several times I just sat down and cried,” he says. “It just brought back too many memories.”

He made two discoveries. He had had a strange and elusive recollection that in Cuba there were “maps on the streets and on the floors.” Could that be true?

Sure enough, on the patio of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, and in the Parque Marti in Cienfuegos, he found old tile maps worked into the paving. Once upon a time, these designs underfoot had made an impression on a map-loving boy.

Also during the tour, it dawned on him that he was leading the group on the same route that his parents had taken him on before they put him on the plane. They had wanted to implant memories of the island.

They visited the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre — Our Lady of Cobre, also known as Our Lady of Charity of Cobre — a shrine in the town of El Cobre considered sacred by many Cubans.

They also stopped at the Valle de los Ingenios, or the Valley of the Sugar Mills, outside the town of Trinidad. Some of the cane fields still flourish.

There’s a hint of faraway in the Geographer’s voice when he says, “If you get there at just the right time, when the sun hits those leaves, everything turns golden green.”

The basilica and the sugar mill valley aren’t the sort of features that normally appear on a classic reference wall map.

But if you squint at the southeastern coast of Cuba on the new map, the location of the basilica is noted in tiny type. And there, on the south-central coast, is the sugar mill valley.

“That was my imprint on the map,” Valdes says. “Those are my marks.”

The Geographer plans to give each family member a copy of the new map on Aug. 10, the 50th anniversary of the day he left the island.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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