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A 20 year-long journey: From Michigan to Cuba and back

By Nardy Baeza Bickel

Medicinal Garden, University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens; Photo by Austin Thomason.

One of the first books Estévez published of Behar’s work.

Ruth Behar had just stepped outside the Havana Book Fair in Cuba when her eyes caught a glimpse of some colorful handmade “postales”—or postcards. She couldn’t help but strike up a conversation with the man carrying them, artist Rolando Estévez, who happened to be taking a cigarette break from working at the fair.

This scene played out back in 1994, at a time when Cuba was dealing with an economic cataclysm as a result of the fall of Soviet Union, and when Behar, whose parents had taken her from the island when she was young, was just re-discovering her native land.

The chance encounter would mark the beginning of a long-term friendship, a fruitful artistic exchange spanning two decades, and many trips from Michigan to Cuba and back.

Estévez is a stage designer, illustrator and performer who in 1985 co-founded Ediciones Vigía, a printing cooperative that produces a very limited run of unique, hand-crafted books. He was the main designer for the operation before branching off in 2014 to start his own printing enterprise, El Fortín.

Using a monograph to create the books with recycled and natural materials—including flowers, sand, shells, sticks and brown paper used in butcher shops—the artists painstakingly create each book by hand.

These book-making techniques provided the basis for Behar and Estévez’s artistic collaborations. Behar would write poems and stories, and Estévez would interpret them into unique book designs.

For example,  one of their early works that included a cardboard suitcase filled with sand, shells and a photo of Behar, serves as the main art on the cover of “Everything I Kept/Todo lo Guardé”.

The piece is now part of the Estévez Collection at University of Michigan, which boasts the most extensive collection of works by the Cuban artist in the United States. His work is collected privately and in cultural institutions throughout Europe and the U.S., including the British National Library, the Atlantic Art Museum, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the U.S. Library of Congress, among others.

As he introduced a group of U-M students to the art of bookmaking during a visit earlier this year, Estévez talked about the books’ rich content.

“These books are not only about the covers, they are also about the insides; they narrate poetry and stories about love. Each book is full of surprises and puzzles and attempts to interact with the reader,” said Estévez, who told students that the book-making idea started with a group of young artists that were trying to promote their events and plays by making their own posters.

Behar calls Estévez her island counterpart. She, as a child, had been taken away from Cuba by her parents at an age when she could hardly comprehend what it meant to lose a country. He, in the other hand, had been left behind by his parents who fled the island with his younger sister. At the time, Estévez was not allowed to leave because he was 15 and of military age.

Behar with a print of Estévez’s work in Matanzas, Cuba, 1996.

“When we met, I reminded him of the sister who’d left at the age of eight and never returned. As I told him about the tears I’d shed because my parents didn’t want me to travel to Cuba, Estévez nodded sympathetically,” Behar recalls. “He knew in his own flesh the meaning of diaspora—of loss, of how immigration cuts both ways—producing grief for those leaving and those waving goodbye. He had been left behind, I had been taken away—we were each other’s mirrors.”

“More than a colleague, more than a friend, Ruth has been a sister,” Estévez said. “Friendships are the most solid family acts because they are the ones you choose. I believe that we’ve never regretted this path of the poetry, of the suitcases, of the coming and going from the U.S. to Cuba and from Cuba to the U.S.”

Behar became a bridge between both countries, Estévez said, through the anthology she edited twenty years ago titled “Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba”. The landmark collection of the works of writers, poets and artists from Cuba and the diaspora will be published in the 20th anniversary edition this month as the U.S. and Cuba mark the first anniversary after President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would reestablish diplomatic relations after a half century of antagonism.

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