“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.”