Photographing Cuba: Part Three / by Soy Cuba

Brett Robert,  El Perro y La Coppelia/Dog and Coppelia.  2018, digital photography.

Brett Robert, El Perro y La Coppelia/Dog and Coppelia. 2018, digital photography.

by Brett Robert

This last photo combines two of my favorite things: dogs and ice cream. I saw so many happy dogs in Cuba, both on the streets and in family homes that I passed by. There was even a loud chihuahua on the way to Roger’s studio who was an absolute sweetheart if you stopped to say hello and offer a scratch behind the ear. I didn’t bother disturbing this dog’s comfort.

Coppelia is sometimes called “Castro’s ice cream,” and this shot is from the Havana flagship location of featured in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate film, which he co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabío, 1994’s Fresa y chocolate (English: Strawberry and Chocolate). The Cubans I talked to about Coppelia all praised it as the best ice cream in the world. People queue up for lines that themselves are as legendary as its quality, so given my brief stay I did not want to spend time waiting in line. This was as close as I got to the ice cream.

The picture doesn’t really capture the incredibly fun modernist architecture of the building, which is out of frame to the right, but it feels unmistakably Cuban to me for three reasons. First the bright blue color is so typical of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I can imagine a house in Managua, Ponce, or Mérida painted this exact color, next to a red or pink or green one just as bright. The unmistakable Cuban-ness of the photo, that marks it a scene that could only be in Havana and not in the Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican, and Mexican cities I mentioned before, comes from the classic Coppelia font, and to a lesser extent the dog. I’ve met street dogs everywhere I’ve gone in Latin America. They are always wise enough to mind the traffic that surround them, but sometimes they are wary of people. I’ve met a couple that flinched when I raised a hand to pet them, and several who never stopped barking aggressively and baring their teeth until I left the area. Both of those reactions came from dogs in areas with high crime, where often the dog’s job was to serve as a burglar alarm and deterrent to would-be thieves. The dogs I met in Cuba were free from such burdens. They were indifferent to passersby, but would tolerate pets. These dogs weren’t working dogs, nor were they hungry. They were happy, well fed, and expected to be treated with kindness, even from strange humans. I asked one man if Cubans thought of their dogs as family members like most yanquis and Puerto Ricans I’ve met do, in contrast to many Europeans who see pets as animals distinct from pets. His answer was a smile, a nod, and what seemed to be a bit of amused confusion at why I would ask such a silly question: of course dogs are family.

This photo was the last of 6 I took of this dog. The f-stop was 6.4 and the shutter speed was 1/250th of a second, with the same trusty, cheap 18-55 mm kit lens.

Incidentally, I passed by the same spot three days later and peeked in to see the dog was there again, napping his day away in comfort and peace.