Emilio Cueto hails a bicycle taxi, the principal means of transportation here in Camaguey, Cuba’s third-largest city, if you don’t have a horse. As for those colorful 1950s Chevys you see in pictures of the suddenly trendy forbidden island, they’re back in the tourist section of Havana, 335 miles away. This is the real Cuba.
A handsome colonial square called Workers’ Plaza is filled with pedestrians watched over by large portraits of Che Guevara and several poets, who are almost as revered as the revolutionary hero in this city of poets.
“Emilio!” cries a man in the crowd. “You’re early!”
“It’s always nice to be recognized in your own country,” Cueto says, as the bicitaxista starts pedaling.
Havana-born Cueto’s permanent domicile is two connected apartments in Northwest Washington that he has transformed into a private museum and archive of all things Cuban. Visiting scholars and diplomats come away stunned by one of the most significant personal collections of Cuban culture in the world. They refer to it as the “Emilioteca,” a play on the Spanish word “biblioteca,” meaning library.
When Cueto was 17, in April 1961, a week after the Bay of Pigs landing, his mother sent him to the United States. He was one of thousands of uprooted Cuban “Peter Pans.” Then, in the mid-1970s, he was one of the first exiles to return for a visit. And he kept visiting.
Now, at 71, Cueto carries two passports — American and Cuban — and considers both nations essential to his identity. In this season of wary rapprochement between old geopolitical foes, Cueto’s story is emblematic. The diplomats in Washington and Havana are feeling their way across a bridge that Cueto and a few others have been building in obscurity for many years.
“I change Cuba one Cuban at a time,” Cueto says.
Have pity on the panting bicitaxista, for loaded in back are 15 copies of Cueto’s new book, a 560-page illustrated coffee-table edition that weighs in at seven pounds. The subject is the long, strange trip of a little statue of the Virgin of Charity that was found floating offshore 400 years ago.
Nicknamed “Cachita,” this expression of the mother of Christ became the Catholic patroness of Cuba and was adapted by Santería followers. Cachita grew into a national symbol, crossed into pop culture, went underground during the revolution and recently made a triumphant return to public life. She transcends politics as well as religion and is as cherished in Miami as in Havana. Which is why Cueto considers his quixotic mission so vital.
The bicitaxi ride is but one leg in this month-long, 1,500-mile odyssey he is undertaking from one end of the island to the other and back. He is donating 2,000 copies of his book on the Virgin to Cuba. Of those, the Cuban Catholic Church is disseminating 1,500. Cueto himself is delivering the remaining 500 to the central libraries in the 15 provinces of Cuba and to historians and scholars.
The logistics are loco. In Cuba, “nada es fácil,” Cueto says. “Nothing is easy.” Traveling between cities in rented or borrowed Russian and Chinese roadsters — bookmobiles of dubious reliability — or on public buses, he plans to show up at each provincial library wobbling under the weight of enough copies to be distributed to the dozen or so municipal libraries in each province.
In practically pre-digital Cuba, the road trip is the simplest way Cueto knows to ensure that as many Cubans as possible will have access to the book. Few, if any, new works by exiled writers enjoy such wide diffusion. Cueto must give it away because local libraries couldn’t afford to buy this cultural encyclopedia that he sells for $80 outside Cuba — more than three times the average monthly salary here.
Just as the Virgin in Cueto’s book is an emblem of common ground between the exile community and Cubans who never left, his quest is an elaborate gesture of personal diplomacy. Along the way, he will have to rely on the kindness of strangers as well as old friends. But it’s never simple when an exile returns.
Cross the threshold of Cueto’s Washington home and step into centuries of Cuba. It’s an oasis of erudition and kitsch: powder horns dating to the taking of Havana by the British in 1762; 19th-century porcelain plates depicting Cuban scenes; rare colonial lithographs; ceramic Dutch jars to keep Cuban tobacco fresh; newspaper coverage of the 1898 war for independence against Spain; bound revolutionary decrees that established the new government in 1959; a bottle of José Martí American porter beer; original artwork by Antonio Prohías, the Cuban exile who transformed his popular Cuban cartoon, “The Sinister Man,” into “Spy vs. Spy” for Mad magazine.
Every square foot of the dozen rooms — including one with his bed squeezed in like an afterthought — is dedicated to the Emilioteca. Chambers and corridors are lined with bookshelves and displays, or subdivided into labyrinthine aisles of vertical files. A closet holds the secrets of Cuban maps. Another, Cuban sports. The cabinets in the extra kitchen are filled with Cuban cookbooks. Cueto has a database of 5,500 songs and hundreds of pieces of sheet music composed by foreigners and inspired by Cuba. He uses them to organize concerts in Cuba of music most Cubans probably have never heard.
A certain air of chaos is illusory, for everything is organized according to a mysterious system that allows Cueto to locate anything instantly.
“There’s no topic on which I have nothing,” says Cueto, a retired lawyer for the Inter-American Development Bank. He never married, lives frugally and does not own a car. For more than 40 years, he has dedicated all his extra time and money to his search for Cuba.
“The echo of Cuba is so enormous, in so many places, in so many forms, in so many countries and in so many epochs,” he says. “You can measure the power of Cuban culture through that. You don’t come from a quiet place; you come from a place that makes waves.”
Cueto inherited that audacious spirit. In the early 1970s, his mother, still in Havana, was grievously ill, and he wanted to see her. The Cuban government wouldn’t give him a visa. After a four-year letter-writing campaign and the threat of chaining himself to a Cuban flag at a UNESCO meeting, he was allowed to visit her in 1977, for the first time in 16 years.
He realized that the United States had given him political freedom and economic opportunity, but Cuba had bestowed his language and culture, and he wanted a more meaningful relationship with that part of his being.
“I was willing to put aside my pain to work with people who had nothing to do with my pain,” he says. “I didn’t go and meet with Fidel and the generals. I met with ordinary people doing research in the library, going to museums. ... We realized we had a lot in common.”
The collector has opinions, but his collection is impartial. Satirical Fidel Castro masks and books on human rights coexist with the complete works of Castro and Guevara, not just in Spanish, but also English, Italian, German and Turkish.
“My house is a metaphor for what Cuba should be,” he says. “We should be able to live together with opposite views.”
And for that, the Emilioteca has become a place where people with sharp disagreements over Cuba feel welcome.
“It’s the greatest private temple of Cuban culture outside Cuba,” says José Ramón Cabañas , chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Rafael Peñalver, an outspoken Cuban-born lawyer and preservationist in Miami who has never returned because he thinks most trips only fill the coffers of the regime, applauds Cueto’s efforts.
“History will say that Emilio played a significant role in the preservation of Cuban culture during these years when the country was completely impoverished in every way,” Peñalver says. “He is motivated by the principle that we cannot allow the divisions of the present to obliterate our vision of the eternal Cuba that we all share.”
Rosa Miriam Elizalde , editor of the Havana-based, pro-Cuban online news service Cubadebate, recently covered the diplomatic talks in Washington and took the opportunity to visit the Emilioteca.
“You can touch the first moments of when the Cuban identity was being forged in the 18th century,” she says. “We all studied this in school, but we never saw the originals. I had to go to Washington to see it.”
Cueto highlights facets of his collection in books and monographs. His book on the Virgin, in collaboration with Cuban photographer Julio Larramendi and Cuban designer Yamilet Moya Silva, is his fifth. Four more are in production, including one about Cuban culture in the United States.
His 2010 study of 19th-century French artist Frederic Mialhe, whose images introduced the island to the wider world, won the Cuban Catauro Prize for best cultural work. Presenting the award, the president of the Cuban writers and artists union saluted Cueto as “a rare bird, full of curiosity and love for his country. Although he may not live in his country, he lives within it, and for it.”
When the director of the provincial library in Camaguey, Carmen Diego Fonseca, heard that Cueto planned to swing by with books, she insisted that he attend the annual two-day writers symposium and present a lecture.
“That is what I was not expecting,” Cueto says later. “It’s the provincial library of a communist country!”
But the Cubans are delighted to welcome the exile home and play a role in this celebration of shared culture.
The bicitaxi pulls up to a whitewashed former mansion. Diego and local scholars gather in the foyer to embrace him.
Cueto abhors the intolerance of dissent and the control over people’s lives on the island, yet his appreciation for Cuba’s virtues earns him the space to remark on its defects without causing offense. This becomes clear in the Camaguey library when he greets his old friend Soledad Cruz, a writer and former Cuban ambassador to UNESCO. They begin discussing the diplomatic talks. Cruz knocks the so-called land of the free for prohibiting most citizens from traveling to Cuba. Cueto agrees and calls the American travel policy “unacceptable.” But Cruz goes too far when she suggests that Cuba has been a paragon of free travel.
“No, no, no, mi amor,” Cueto says, his voice rising. “I lived this story. I lived it.” Flooding his mind are the memories of desperately trying to visit his mother.
Their voices rise again over which country is most to blame for starting the 50-year freeze in relations. Cueto appreciates Cuban resentment of the long history of American intervention. But Cruz paints Castro as a victim of unprovoked American hostility.
“No, excuse me, mi amor. I’ve spent 50 years studying the subject,” says Cueto.
Cruz smiles at Cueto’s indignant self-certainty, equal to her own. She touches his arm and says, “I love you because you are a true Cuban.”
They watch scores of people streaming into the library for the symposium, which will focus on local history and literature.
“This is the best Cuba has to offer,” Cueto says, struck by the turnout. “Culture. Look at that! My heart throbs. These are the people I work for.”
“This is the work of Fidel Castro,” Cruz says, alluding to the nation’s largely successful effort to banish illiteracy and make education free and universal.
Cueto winces at giving Castro all the credit but chooses not to argue the point.
To start the symposium, a jazz band plays classic Cuban ballads. Cueto, in the front row, sings along. He gasps when he hears the opening bars of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” by Osvaldo Farrés — “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.”
Farrés left Cuba for New Jersey after the revolution, another exile whose motives were questioned in his native land and whose music was spurned for a time.
“She’s singing a song from someone who was banned,” Cueto says under his breath.
Another brick in the bridge?
The road from Camaguey to Las Tunas is straight and flat past dry cattle country and the occasional sugar mill puffing smoke. Today’s bookmobile, a tiny 1986 Moskvitch, crawls and whines on barely perceptible inclines. The Virgin of Charity medal stuck to the dashboard and the Virgin of Charity picture hanging from the rear-view mirror are for luck, protection and tips, says driver Carlos Alberto de los Rios Otaño.
Despite the talismans, the Moskvitch gives out. While de los Rios disappears under the hood to change a part, a farmer in a horse-drawn cart hauling a single giant green gourd ambles by.
Sweating in the sun, Cueto is cheerful. “Nada es fácil,” he says.
During the pause, he takes stock of his mission. Unlike his other books, this latest one has the potential for much broader appeal. Translated into English, the title is: “The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre in the Soul of the Cuban People.” El Cobre is the former copper-mining village in southeastern Cuba where a statue of the Virgin holding baby Jesus is on display in a basilica, four centuries after the statue was seen floating upright and pulled from the sea by three peasants, its clothes miraculously dry, according to sacred legend.
For decades after the revolution, activities of the Catholic Church were curtailed, but by the early 1990s, the church and the Virgin were recovering their place in society. At a special Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square in 2012, a giant image of the Virgin was displayed on the facade of the National Library, not far from the iconic portraits of revolutionary heroes.
It took an outsider-insider like Cueto to show, with 1,058 pictures, how extensively the Virgin has been transformed in art, music, literature, dance, television, radio, movies and marketing — both on the island and by Cubans in exile. In “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, the fisherman Santiago promises to visit the Virgin’s shrine at El Cobre if he catches a fish. (Hemingway later had his Nobel Prize medal deposited at the shrine.) In the Oscar-nominated Cuban film “Strawberry and Chocolate” (1993) about the friendship between a gay man and a revolutionary, the characters address statues of the Virgin for help with their love lives. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History owns a Barbie dressed as Cachita by an exiled artist.
“Emilio is an example of the type of person one hopes is emerging now,” says Joel Jover, a painter and sculptor in Cuba. His portrait of the Virgin, made of flattened beer cans and bottle caps — a commentary on Cachita’s closeness to the people — is included in Cueto’s book. “Cuba needs people who can extend a bridge to achieve normal relations not just with the United States, but with the exile community.”
At every stop on Cueto’s trek, affection for the Virgin and incredulity at his undertaking prompt people to make a big deal of the book tour.
“This is not a book,” says historian Víctor Marrero in the Las Tunas library. “This is a cultural event.”
In Matanzas, Cueto’s presentation is graced by a choir singing songs to the Virgin. In Santa Clara, he is interviewed on regional television, and a clip goes national.
Cueto always makes a point of introducing himself as an exile in Washington, then adopts the first-person plural to insist on a bond with his audiences — “our culture,” “our country.”
Finally, he arrives at the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, just outside the city of Santiago. He enters an alcove where pilgrims leave gifts of thanks to Cachita and solemnly sets down a copy of his book.
Almost immediately, a tour guide opens it and starts reading, absorbed. He just finished explaining to his group that the Virgin is something that all Cubans have in common. This book, he says, is “another step, by way of the story of the Virgin of Charity, to reunite Cubans — Cubans here and Cubans there.”
Out of 80 or so students in Cueto’s graduating class of 1960 at the prestigious Belén prep school in Havana — where Castro graduated in 1945 — about 90 percent moved into exile, by Cueto’s count. One recent afternoon at Catholic University in Washington — where Cueto graduated as valedictorian in 1965 — a dozen Belén classmates and relatives of classmates join an audience of 70 to hear Cueto talk about his book.
He’s trying to change the exile community, too, one exile at a time. “I keep a record of a slow resurrection” of Cuba, he says. “Something to inform my compatriots in the U.S. that it’s not what they think, and they should give it a chance.”
After dinner with old friends, Cueto returns to the Emilioteca and his constant search for a more intimate understanding of the repercussions of a past that is never past.
He moves down a narrow book-lined aisle, past pictures of Guevara, independence hero José Martí and Cachita, and turns to the section of 19th-century porcelain. He recently acquired a French plate printed with an image of a Cuban sugar planter beside a woman with a parasol.
“This is an image that has been haunting me for 25 years,” Cueto says.
He goes into another room and pulls down a decades-old binder labeled “Dudas” — Doubts. He sits on a couch adorned with twin antimacassars showing Havana landmarks. Behind him is a piece with a quote from Martí: “The motherland is an altar, not a pedestal.”
He flips through the binder and stops on a photocopy: the same picture as the one on the French plate.
“I have now found another country whose porcelain industry included an image of Cuba,” he says with quiet triumph. “Prior to this discovery, France was not in the picture. That is to me a source of joy, to know that my little country, in addition to all the echoes it has left behind, also left an imprint here.”
The hour is approaching midnight, but Cueto goes into another room where his computer sits beneath a poster advertising the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus appearing in Havana in 1950. He checks pending online auctions and discovers that tonight, for $3.50, he bought a vintage matchbox.
“Delightful Dining in Madison” is printed on the matchbox. “Poole’s Cuba Club.”
“So now I have a piece that documents that in Madison, Wisconsin, there was a Cuba Club,” the exile says happily. “See, it never ends.”
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story,
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