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Borders & Heritage

A Cuban Childhood Colors Artist Juan Alonso-Rodríguez’s Work

The artist reconnects with his Cuban roots and reinvents his art.

March 6, 2018

Artist Juan Alonso-Rodríguez moved to Seattle from Miami more than 35 years ago. But much of the work he creates in his sunlit studio in Pioneer Square hearkens back to a more distant past. It is inspired by the memories of a childhood in Cuba, the country where he was born and which he had to flee at a young age.

Juan Alonso-Rodríguez at his studio in Pioneer Square, working on the latest painting for his series “Los Muñecones,”  inspired by the giant papier mâché dolls that he saw as a child at the annual Carnaval de La Habana.
“Cuba is always on my mind when I’m creating,” he says.

For most of his life, all Alonso-Rodríguez knew of Cuba was based on memories and what he read in books.

“When you have memories from your childhood, I think you tend to see things in a very glossy way,” he says.

That changed in 2011, when he returned for the first time to reconcile his relationship with the country of his birth.

Alonso-Rodríguez recalls fond memories of a childhood in Havana, where his father and uncles worked at a family-owned wrought-iron business, started by their father. He lived with his extended family. His mother passed away when he was a young boy, but the family remained close-knit.

“I was always surrounded by uncles, cousins, sisters.”

The sculpture at Chief Sealth High School was designed by Alonso-Rodríguez. It is inspired by the metal railing that his father designed for his childhood home in Cuba.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro, the new government began nationalizing private companies. His family lost their business.

“All of a sudden this place that was this family-grown business was no longer theirs,” he says. “People’s human rights and basic rights — like freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly — all those things were being taken away [under the new government of Fidel Castro].” 
So in 1966, when he was just 9 years old, Alonso-Rodríguez’s father put him aboard a Freedom Flight, part of a program that allowed Cubans to take refuge in America, provided they had family in the U.S. to receive them. He arrived in Miami with his uncle, who had a son there.

“I lost my mother at a very young age and then [I lost] my father,” he says.

Growing up in America, he had little contact with his father and sisters, who stayed in Havana. Telephone calls to Cuba were expensive and difficult to make. His father died in 1991, before Alonso-Rodríguez had a chance to return to see him.

With family. From left to right: Juan Alonso-Rodríguez’s mother, Juan as a child in Cuba, Juan's two sisters, and his father.  Photo Courtesy: Juan Alonso-Rodriguez.

Those memories of his lost childhood both sustained and haunted him, later manifesting in his art.

“I think I held on to the feeling that I need to remember everything that happened to me” he says of his childhood in Cuba, “because I will never have that again.”

An undated pictures shows Alonso-Rodríguez in Cuba with his mother, who passed away when he was a young boy.

For most of his life in America, the volatile relationship between his birth country and his adopted country meant visiting Cuba wasn’t an option. But in 2011, shortly after President Obama eased restrictions for Cuban-Americans to travel back to Cuba, Alonso-Rodríguez returned to Havana.

Visiting the family home in Cuba for the first time since he was age 9. Photo Courtesy: Juan Alonso-Rodríguez.

That fresh, unvarnished perspective of his homeland transformed his artwork. 

“It was very cathartic to go back and see these places in person,” says Alonso-Rodríguez. “For a long time all my work had a gloss finish on it. After I came back I didn’t feel compelled to necessarily have that glossy finish.”

If our origins are traumatic, it tends to make a bigger impact.

Today, he no longer paints from memory alone, but also draws on his more recent experiences.

“I’ve been making work based on patterns, some of it inspired by architecture I saw [there],“ he says.

Juan Alonso-Rodríguez works on the latest painting in his series “Los Muñecones.”

He says that he feels freer to be more exploratory in his work after visiting Cuba.

“Before, I was trying to create work that really resembled something I had seen. And now, these are just from my imagination,” he says, gesturing to a painting.

It is the latest in his series Los Muñecones, inspired by the giant papier mâché dolls that he saw as a child at the Carnaval de La Habana — the annual carnival in Havana.

“I think it’s pretty natural for immigrants to hang on to memories of their childhood,” he says. “Part of it is who we are.”


Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

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