Time is the teacher of death.
To my grandmother Rebeca, who taught me to draw.
I have packed my life in a suitcase on several occasions. At one time, I had a plane ticket from Havana to Mexico City, but my true destination was Miami. It was October 20, 2006 (Cuban Cultural Day). I was wearing a white guayabera and my face was breathing semi-hidden behind a dark beard. My luggage was light: a suitcase full of drawings, some pictures and the absolute certainty that a man should never stop before realizing his dreams, even when a knot is piercing his throat.
My name is Eduardo Sarmiento. I was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1980, and I don’t know exactly the day I am going to die. I am a plastic artist, illustrator and graphic designer.
At the age of eighteen I went to study in Havana at the Superior Institute of Design (ISDI). When I finished my career, I stayed in the capital living with friends or girlfriends.
My father lives with his wife and my two brothers; my mother with her girlfriend and their dog. My father is an orthopedic doctor and Mom is a gynecologist. Both of their salaries add up to $50 dollars a month. During the first years of my career when I visited Cienfuegos on the weekends, I used my mother’s car to provide taxi services. It was hard at times because I was only 20 years old, and my hormones were screaming for parties and sex. In order to help the family’s economy, I was illegally transporting bitches or tourists, running the risk of getting caught and being fined by the police. When I went home with money in my pocket, I could see my mother’s face light up. She knew that her only son was assuming the role as the man of the house. On the other hand, I also saw her sadness for seeing me sacrificing my time in illegal endeavors after she had studied so much, and always been opposed to illegal activities. The fact is that I would make the same amount of money in one night as a taxi driver as my mother would operating and delivering babies during a whole month. It was an enriching experience. I grew quickly (true growth is usually painful). I learned to survive on the street becoming street-wise. I also had a lot of problems and even had to fight on several occasions. Of course, I never told this to my mom.
When I started my third year at the university, I had the opportunity to work as a freelance designer and illustrator for magazines and publishing houses. It was difficult at first, and I was earning very little. However, after several months of tireless work and knocking on all possible doors, I started to earn more or less the same as I did as a taxi driver (still much more than my parents). Those years were exquisite professionally for I met many intellectuals. I was the co-founder of Camaleón, a group of artists who worked painting murals, posters, books, and illustrations. I worked and studied, and I was even hired to do designs for clients who had access to US dollars. My finances had taken a turn for the better.
I remember the day I was able to buy my mother her first plastic washing machine. I paid $160 dollars. This was a huge family celebration and my mother could not stop boasting to her friends about her son’s gift. I enjoyed the pride she showed, but her financial situation would sadden me (it still does). It was not that I wanted my mother to be a millionaire; I just wished that she was able to buy new tires for her car, with her own money. For the record, it is a pleasure for me to help her. She always offered me much more than she could, and she taught me about love and respect. I feel she gave me much more than I deserved.
While I was a student, I believed in the possibility of living in Cuba and doing things for my country, and I enjoyed it a lot until I graduated and the challenges began. Once I graduated I started to work at the Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book Institute) as Art Director and as an Illustrator, teaching illustration and poster design at ISDI and as Art Director for the National Cuban Ballet magazine Cuba en el Ballet. I also continued doing projects with Camaleón. We received several national and international awards.
Professionally I had a privileged life, but my living situation was impossible. While I was studying, I lived at the university or at my girlfriend Themis’ house, in Havana. When I graduated, I lived with a friend who offered me shelter in his apartment. Later, I went to live with Rocío, one of the loves of my life. My living situation was disconcerting. A Cuban who decided to live in Havana had no legal way to rent or buy a house or apartment. I arrived at the conclusion that in order to have a roof over my head, I either had to live with Rocío, or kill my grandmother so I could keep her house. Living with my girlfriend was great, while our love lasted; on the other hand, the idea of killing my grandma was only a literary argument!
In 2006 my friend, Carlos Zamora, invited me to La Rosa Gráfica (The graphic rose) a design event in Quito, Ecuador with all expenses paid. Besides participating in a poster exhibition, I was asked to give a few dissertations about young graphic artists in Cuba. I traveled with a couple who were designers. That was too good to be true. One of my deepest desires was to travel the world. I felt the call to discover other lands. Since I was a member of the Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC – National Union of Cuban Writers & Artists) and my work was cultural, it was not difficult to obtain the necessary papers to travel and represent Cuba in other countries. Quito opened the doors to the world and helped me prove that it was possible to make an honest and professional living off the island. I was tempted to try my luck, to stay in Quito and live there for a while, but I didn’t think it was the ideal place to develop my artistic career. By that time, art was starting to dictate my path, and the promise of an inconclusive love was waiting for me back in Cuba.
I returned to Cuba to teach at the university and continued living in my girlfriend’s apartment. I even had a room to do my art, but I was not just thinking about the present, I was thinking about the future of my art, the actual possibilities of development on the island and in all my parents’ honest hard work, and how little they had to show for it. Days became a torment for me. Everything seemed cloudy, false. I slept with my jaws tightened; I started finding walls instead of bridges. I realized that the majority of the population did not want to do anything to avoid a compromising situation (they were going to earn the same anyway, and in the name of the Revolution, you could be destroyed). In Cuba, the inconsequential can become something notorious just for being tangent to the word “revolution.” Even the revolutionaries are afraid of the word since it is a state in itself, a pretext for many and an excuse for others. I became disillusioned. I was exhausted from working and seeing a great part of my design projects collecting dust in a drawer while other projects were being assigned to the most brilliant of mediocre. It was then when I reaffirmed to myself that the most important thing in life was to be true to ourselves, and that each man has the right to decide his own path.
I meditated well and decided that Miami would be my best option. I had uncles and cousins that would support me at the beginning of my journey. I traveled to Mexico with an invitation to participate in a design event that October 20th, knowing that I was going to cross the USA border. I didn’t like the idea of doing something so risky and illegal, but my desire to live conquered my fears. After an eight-hour interview on the Mexican border, I entered the United States by Matamoros and the first night, I slept on the floor of the bus station, covered with a cardboard box waiting for the bus to depart for Miami. That was the first night of my second life.
When I arrived in Miami, I discovered that nothing was the way I imagined (too many myths and misinformation). It was not better nor worse, simply a city where those who work are respected and where each individual goes as far as his/her limits allow. It was here that I met Uncle Pepe, the one who left Cuba in 61, the one that changed his name when he was seven years old so he could be called José, like José Martí. He is a good man, and he loves his land more than anyone but did not agree with the revolutionary government, so he said good bye to his island for good.
When someone leaves Cuba, it is as if that person had never existed. It is not even like a death. Here, I have met many poets, artists and professionals that did a lot for their country and who have a shadow covering their names in their homeland just because they decided to live in another country. It is a shame that someone is punished just for exercising his right to choose a city where to live. We at both shores are affected because the bridges are weak and many roots are cut off. I don’t care that thousands of Cubans decide to continue living in Cuba. Why is it that some Cubans are bothered because others decide to live outside the island? What gives them that right to criticize?
My paternal grandfather, Eulogio Sarmiento, is the typical story of an honest and hardworking man in love with his wife until the end of his days. He started as a cook and ended up being the owner of the little hotel where he worked. The Revolution took it away from him in 1965. My grandfather always remembered that day with profound sadness. He always said, “They didn’t let me take anything, not even the money I had in the cash register.” The worst part was that the hotel was not only his business, it was also my grandfather’s home where he lived with his wife and children.
On the other hand, my maternal grandfather, Fausto Portero, worked for the Batista police and won the respect of his neighbors because he did not mistreat anyone, and he would even let the revolutionaries know when he knew that they were going to be imprisoned. After the triumph of the Revolution, he became a forklift operator and a drunk par-excellence. He sent his two daughters to study at the university and never allowed them to work until they finished their careers. I am sorry for not being able to finish a bottle of rum with my grandfather along with a big Cuban cigar, but I find solace in the fact of having done it several times in his name, celebrating his existence. I could not have more pride of the blood that gives impulse to these words.
Now I live in Miami, this damned city that opened her legs to receive me and offered me its warmth. I work as an Art Director in a design studio. I do illustrations and I obsessively paint to the point of exhaustion.
Three years have gone by since that October 20th of 2006. I still keep that white guayabera, even if I hardly wear it. The beard is still there insistent like grass in springtime. I am hunted by questions more complex and contradictory than those that propelled me to leave Havana, but I am enjoying my journey through life using my time in my own way and sharing those questions that might be the answers for others.