Monday, September 24, 2012

Nicole Di Rocco's "PastPort to Cuba: The search for Nicolita"

I screened the documentary recently and all I can say is that it is absolutely amazing.

Growing up in Miami, Florida in the 1970s, a great number of my friends were Cuban. Our best friends across the street from us, the Guillen family, were from Cuba. Most of my childhood friends had either fled Cuba themselves or descended from others who did.  As a child I’d hear horror stories about the things Castro’s police would do to people who disagreed with his policies. Whether or not those stories were children’s exaggerations of the truth (as is common when we’re kids) or whether they were actually true, I never forgot them. As I got older I learned more about Castro’s atrocities when I served in the US Coast Guard and our boat crews rescued Cuban refugees stranded out on the ocean, at least once a week. These people fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their back. They tied inner tubes or homemade wooden rafts together to brave the journey from Cuba to the United States. For these reasons and more, I hold a special affection in my heart for the Cuban people.

This journey was as much about Nicole’s need to find herself--a journey of self-exploration as it was to find the face of "Nicolita" her swimwear line. It was also very important for her parents too as they received a once-in-a-lifetime gift to return to their homeland and recapture old memories and the joy of their youth. (Isn't that something we all want?)

When their plane descended into Havana, I could feel the tension and relief felt by Nicole’s mother, Thais. Imagine having to flee your home, the place of your birth, your parents and grandparents birth, and then returning half a century later?  Nobody wants to leave their home, but they had no choice, it was the only way to have a better life. I felt the same as the family strolled down the street to the house where Thais grew up. I’ve been there, felt that moment, when I reappeared on the doorstep of my childhood home and all at once it looked both the same and different and evoked incredible emotions in me. Of course, my experience doesn’t compare to Thais returning to the country of her birth fifty years after fleeing it, but nevertheless it reminded me of that ever-present need, as I get older, to reconnect to my childhood, just as she did. 

Another emotional moment was when Xavier returned to his family farm. It was a very touching moment when Xavier and his cousin reconnected.  Growing up on that farm, riding the horses, working the plantation, swimming in the lake, playing ball were an important part of his life and it made him who he is today. Returning to that farm, Xavier, no doubt felt that all his sacrifices for a better life were not in vain. I just felt it was important to him, as the man, the head of the family, to be able to go back to the place where he began his journey into manhood and reflect how far he'd come since then.

Interesting to note (and not at all surprising) is the great humility of the Cuban people. They are so willing to share what little they have with family, friends and even strangers. We saw this many times as Nicole and her family paid visits to Thais and Xavier’s childhood homes, meeting people they hadn’t seen in half a century and these people fed them huge feasts and welcomed them into their homes. I’ve always said that in the Hispanic culture, family is the most important thing and that is very evident here. It just made me feel good to see Thais and Xavier’s cousins welcome Nicole and her sister into the family as if they’d known them all their lives.

Especially interesting was Nicole’s search for “Nicolita”. She said she wanted the face of Nicolita to look like her—Cuban. However, when she arrived in Cuba, it was apparent that Cuban women come in all “colors”. Especially interesting was the contrast between the final three competitors for the title of "Nicolita": a black-skinned beautiful young woman with an afro, the dark-skinned beauty with the long straight hair and  the blondish lighter-skinned model. All three were completely different in skin and hair color and facial structure and yet they were all most definitely Cuban. I am reminded again of Cuba’s diversity. Cubans come in all colors and they are proud of it.  It is not their skin color that defines them, it is their heritage.

I particularly enjoyed Nicole's idea to show the vintage Cuba in all its glory in the photo shoots.  It seems a country stuck in time while American cities and towns have long moved forward. Despite all the political and economic turmoil, Cuba is still a beautiful country populated by equally beautiful people. Many people, me included, romanticize Cuba, enjoying the stories of the heyday of Cuba in the 1930’s through 1950’s which were decades full of prosperity and wealth.  During that time, Cuba was extremely well off with hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting every year—enjoying its beaches, nightclubs, hotels, and casinos. My mom traveled to Cuba with her parents in 1957 and many things on that island have barely changed since then.  

I love how Nicole pays homage to her ancestry by utilizing photos from the family album to help recreate the authentic backdrops for the photo shoots. I also loved the way she integrated the image of “Nicolita” into everyday life, with the old antique cars, the guys on the street playing dominoes, the baseball bat and hat, and with the cigars, all of those things being important parts of Cuban culture.  The way the backgrounds were staged, the model’s makeup and hair, were absolutely perfect and reflect the nostalgia and love Nicole feels for the people and her heritage  I’ll also add that I thought the photo shoots were sexy and tasteful. Very respectful!

This film is so amazing; it makes me more appreciative of what I have, the country I was born in, and my own family history. More than that, it has given me a renewed love and appreciation for my Cuban friends for all the hardships their families and fellow countrymen have endured over the years. They have been through so much but they are a truly remarkable and resilient people whose spirit and culture will forever be strong.

Finally, on a personal note, I can completely relate to Nicole’s search for her roots. There comes a time in our lives when we need to know more about ourselves, when who we are is defined by more than our education, our friends, and our job and the everyday life we lead. Sometimes we need more; we seek to reconnect with our past, our heritage to find out who we truly are and how we came to be. I understand and admire Nicole’s desire to find her past and reconnect with her roots. Being Cuban is an important part of who she is and there is no doubt that her journey has changed her life forever.

To Nicole, who is an absolutely lovely woman and amazing person, I say a heartfelt thank you for sharing your story with us.  ¡Gracias Nicole, es una mujer asombrosa!

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, those memories, those facts and moments so well interrelated with the Cuban Spirit show that Cuba is alive and well. It will awake from its bad dream with all the strength, diversity and Latinity Cubans have hold in their souls, no matter what. The humbleness, the love for family, the consciousness of being a nation, although devastated for more than half century of dictatorship, Cuba will be a free country, again, like an Ibis reborn from its own aches!Congratulations, Nicolita!!!