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Connolly Library Commemorates Cuban Culture

The month-long celebration continues at the branch in Hyde Square, where a sizeable Cuban community once thrived.

The of the Boston Public Library is celebrating all things Cuban. During the month of January, the library, located in Hyde Square, is hosting a photographic exhibition by JP artist Kerri Schmidt entitled “. Other upcoming events (all of which are free and open to the public) include:

  • Monday, January 23 at 6:30 p.m. -
  • Monday, January 23 at 7 p.m. – by Carlos Eire
  • Monday, January 30 at 6:30 p.m. –
  • Monday, February 6 at 6 p.m. – , a documentary about the Cuban healthcare system

Amy Manson, adult librarian at the Connolly Library, said that the themed series of programs “just kind of came together serendipitously,” beginning with the art exhibition.

The show “Cuban Moments” documents Schmidt’s trip to Cuba. Via telephone, the photographer, who works in the field of childhood literacy, stated that she was able to visit Cuba on an educator’s visa last year after President Obama loosed travel restrictions to the country. 

"I’ve always been fascinated by Cuba,” she said. “Why is it a taboo place?”

With her pictures of everyday life, including Cuba's famous vintage cars, outdoor markets and examples of some of the political signage that she saw on the island, Schmidt’s photos provide multiple perspectives of the country whose relations with its nearby superpower neighbor to the north have long been strained.

"I cannot make a blanket statement,” she remarked about her travels. "I wanted to get beyond politics and meet the people.”

Schmidt described a society where the government guarantees its citizens the rights to such basic necessities as healthcare, housing, food and education, but are also denied the ability to speak and travel freely.

“I would like for the Cuban people to be allowed to have the power to make their own decisions,” she noted, “without the interference of the U.S. and other countries." 

When asked what she like best about the country, Schmidt unhesitatingly answered, “The people and the music. We could learn something from the way that the people there live in the moment. I danced my way across the island.”

"I encourage people to realize our similarities are greater than our differences,” concluded Schmidt.

Located almost directly across from the Connolly Library, the restaurant has long been a cornerstone of the Cuban community. 

El Oriental owner Nobel Garcia estimated that the vicinity was once home to some 10,000 Cubans back in the 1970s. 

"But it’s lessening every year,” he noted. “They began dispersing back in the 1980s.” 

Garcia’s observations are supported by the 2010 census. Although figures for national origin are not available, a racial and ethnic distribution of population using a mix of Jamaica Plain’s zip code and zoning boundaries found a decline during the past ten years of nearly 10 percent in the population of those who listed their race or ethnicity as "Hispanic or Latino alone."

"I don’t know whether they spread out or just left,” said Elsi (last name not disclosed) a former JP resident of Cuban descent who now lives in West Roxbury.

“It’s a shame,” she explained. “My father was the original owner of El Oriental. I like JP but it’s become too expensive. I used to come to JP to go to Hi-Lo but it has changed the community. Now I shop along Hyde Park Avenue or got to El Platanero in Roxbury. That’s what happens when you have the money. The Cubans in JP are surviving at best. But they are not thriving.”

"A lot of Spanish people came to Hi-Lo,” agreed El Oriental’s Garcia. “A piece of pork that I can buy for $1.99 down the street costs $9.99 there. It’s gentrification. Whole Foods could be anywhere in the world."

Concerning Cuba’s political situation, Garcia painted an unflattering portrait of his homeland, whose main industries he said are “tobacco, prostitution and rum.”

“I wouldn’t go there or spend a penny,” he added. “I have hope for the future but not under the present regime.”

A few doors down the block from El Oriental, the windows of are decorated with Cuban memorabilia, flags and anti-Castro
posters. Havana-born Aida Lopez, who has operated the shop for 40 years, likewise noted the decline of the neighborhood’s Cuban population. 

"Things have changed a lot,” she explained in Spanish. This neighborhood used to be Italian and Irish."

Switching briefly to English, she laughed, "But when the Spanish come, the gringos run." 

"Now there are many students," continued Lopez. "There’s good transportation. They don’t need a car. Many Cubans came to JP, made their money and then went to Miami where they are more at home with the culture and climate. A lot of them have started import and export businesses there." 

Despite the documented downward demographic trend of JP's long-established Latino population, Connolly librarian Manson stated that she has not noticed a decline in Spanish-speaking patrons, who are drawn to the branch for its substantial collection of Spanish materials and the assistance of its bilingual staff.

"Everyday people come who speak Spanish," she observed.

The Centro Cultural Cubano is active in the Boston area, and is holding a birthday celebration for Cuban national hero José Martí on Sunday, Jan. 29 in Newton. For more information and reservations, please call 617-254-2595, 781-647-2678 or 508-877-6157.

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