November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Raul Villarreal/Artist Interview

Raul Villarreal at home, Foldes PhotoMike Foldes photo

Raul Villarreal at home. 


Cuban in America

 By Mike Foldes

Q) It has been a pleasure getting to know you through the We Are You Project and our introduction by Jose Rodeiro. The book you wrote with your father about growing up in and around the Hemingway household in Cuba, Hemingway’s Cuban Son, offers a unique perspective on the writer and his life, but more to the point, how your father’s and mother’s lives, and your family’s, were shaped by the relationship. How much of those times do you remember and how much of what you remember are your father’s or mother’s memories that they’ve shared with you?

A) Incredibly enough, I remember those days in late 1967 and 1968. I was three and four years old. My father would come home for lunch early in the afternoon and after lunch carry me on his shoulders for several blocks up to the Finca Vigía. I enjoyed that perspective of being on my father’s shoulders. He was not tall at just 5 ft 8 inches, but he was a strong man. My two older brothers would then join us after school. He allowed us to play and roam the Finca grounds freely but we were to be quiet whenever there were visitors and he had to give a tour. Then we watched as the visitors admiringly listened to his every word and how effortlessly the information flowed from his lips. My father relived every anecdote and detail that he told the visitors with great passion and they appreciated him for it.

At the Finca, I was always impressed with a bullfighter suit that was kept in a closet. My father would show it to me often. It had been Antonio Ordoñes’, who was a very famous bullfighter of the 1950s and one of the protagonists in Hemingway’s “A Dangerous Summer.” The Hemingway relationship with the Villarreals has really defined us as a family in the United States and in Cuba. We were very fortunate that Mary Hemingway, his fourth wife and widow was able to get my parents and the five children out of Cuba and into Madrid, Spain in 1972, and eventually the United States in 1974.

My family in Cuba still has visitors and journalists from all over the world visit and interview them. Several of my Hemingway scholar friends who have traveled to Cuba have visited my aunt’s house and met my father’s identical twin brother, who also knew Papa Hemingway. Though my father stopped giving interviews in Spain in 1973 and refused to speak to anyone about his 20 years next to Papa Hemingway, it was not until the spring of 1999, when a friend of mine told me that CBS Sunday Morning was interested in an interview with my father. By then we had started working on the book and my father agreed. He trusted my judgment and I have been his translator ever since.

Raul Villarreal in his studio, Foldes Photo

Raul Villarreal in his studio

We had a wonderful time in Cuba with CBS. They flew us to Havana for a week and Charles Osgood interviewed my father for four hours. They got along beautifully. Osgood was very interested in my father’s anecdotes and details about the house. He was a real gentleman and so was the rest of the CBS crew. “Papa’s Place” aired that June on CBS Sunday Morning with my father’s piece being the opening segment. I was given the opportunity to do the voiceover for my father. It was truly a wonderful experience.

Q) You have said you consider yourself Cuban, not Cuban American or American Cuban. Essentially, you are one of the exiles in the Cuban diaspora. What about your wife and children or the children of other exiles. How do you think they see themselves, and how should they (if “should” is the proper word to apply)?

A) I consider myself Cuban because I was born in Cuba and even though I left the island at a very young age, I feel that my roots will always be Cuban. I am very proud of my Taino, African and Spanish mix. I love my life in my adopted and beautiful country of the United States. I would consider myself a Cuban who enjoys being a world citizen.

I have been very fortunate to have traveled to many different countries and experienced diverse cultures. There is often something from those places that I try to adopt into my way of life. In doing so, I believe that the country, the essence and its people will stay with you always. I enjoy bringing back mementoes from my trips and having them all around the house in different niches, so when I walk by them, a memory would be triggered of the place and I can relive a certain moment.

My wife (Rita) and I have no children. She is Cuban also but arrived in the United States at six months. She considers herself American. Early on in our relationship, we made the choice not to have children. We were then studying a lot and started traveling. We do have many nieces and nephews from both sides born in the U.S. I know that they, my nieces and nephews, feel more American than anything else. They have a sense of where the family is from and speak Spanish (some better than others) and most enjoy the Cuban cuisine, and the Cuban family dynamic, which at times is funny, frantic and loud. Well, at least our family is.

Q)  You say in the book that your parents saw your creative side early on, and allowed it to develop independently of any other direction you might have taken in life. How did having that kind of freedom to pursue your dream differ from what you might have experienced had your family remained in Cuba? I know this is entirely hypothetical, but there are others in Cuba who were unable to leave, who would answer this question in a much different way.

A) Yes, I am very thankful to my parents for recognizing that I was an artist from an early age. I started to draw horses frantically at the age of three. Most of the time, I could be found under a table with pencil and paper at hand drawing a horse. My father’s younger brother Oscar is an artist. He would draw a horse for me and then asked me to copy it. I tried and tried to get as close to his as possible. I drew only horses until I was 10 years old. I love horses and still do to this day, however I have not painted or drawn a horse since 1986. They are too sacred for me at the moment.

I believe that my father’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway gave him a unique insight into an artist’s persona. My parents allowed me to grow as a person and as an artist simultaneously. They encouraged me. For my fifteenth birthday my parents bought me a drawing table. I sill have that table in my studio and it will be there until the day I die. I will forever be grateful to them for their support and understanding. I think that if we had stayed in Cuba, I would have still pursued the artist’s life. It has been my calling ever since I can remember. I really can’t see myself doing anything else.

Q) Do you anticipate with the changing times and relationship between Cuba and the U.S. that you would be able to go back and live a “normal life”, or is the “normal life,” as it were, here in the States?

A) I am always hopeful for a better relationship between the United States and Cuba. I still have lots of family in the island and wish that travel would be easier between the two countries. As far a “normal life” that is always up to the individual and how they want to live their life.  The situation in Cuba right now is not the same as in the U.S. and for that matter, many countries around the world do not have the same standard of living that the U.S. enjoys. There are a lot of things that need to change in Cuba. It will take years but the process has started and I hope that both countries will work with open minds to better their relationships. I have my life and career here in the United States. The U.S. is a great base to travel and explore the world.

Q) From your perspective, what will it take to bring the U.S. and Cuban experiments closer together?

A) From my perspective I think that perhaps more cultural and academic exchanges will help to forge a strong bridge between the two countries. I also believe that the younger generation (those born in the 1980s) from both sides is eager for this cultural bridge and change. With technology the world has become a smaller place and communication is faster than ever before. We live in an immediate society and in order to be a part of that society a country and a system must evolve. China is one of several examples of that change. The Chinese are welcoming and encouraging cultural exchanges. Their society had to evolve to something different in order to survive.

Q) Where did you attend university/study art? What instructor(s) do you remember most and why?

A) I received a BFA from Jersey City State College in Jersey City, New Jersey back in 1988, with a concentration in graphic design and illustration. After graduation I worked as a graphic designer in New York City for 15 years. I worked all for the same company right after college. The owner treated me well and I worked hard and eventually became the art director/office manager. I made really good money but always kept up with my fine art and exhibits.  The reality was that I had two professions which took a lot of time and effort but I did it because I loved it. The undergraduate professor who has had a significant impact in my life has been the internationally renowned artist, Ben Jones, who to this day is a very dear friend and I consider him my mentor. The other professor was Dorothy Dierks Hourihan. I consider her my guiding angel and Godmother. She has always been very supportive and a guiding light. I decided to go back to school for my MFA in 2003. Jersey City State College had become New Jersey City University. I had started teaching a graphic design course there and loved the experience.

Then the following semester I left my job in NYC and matriculated as a full-time graduate student. Ben Jones was still teaching and welcomed me with open arms. During the day I would teach a graphic design course, then, in the evening, switch hats and became a graduate student. It was during my graduate studies when I met Dr. José Rodeiro. I immediately liked him and knew that he would be a friend and great influence.


Raul Villarreal/Artist


Q) Who were your major historical art influences? What styles did you experiment with as you developed your own voice and vision?

A) During my undergraduate years, I looked at the work of several surrealists such as Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Dalí, and also several Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. I was fascinated by Renaissance drawing. At that time, I also looked at the work of Cuban artist Juan Gonzalez, and Puerto Rican artist Juan Sánchez. I liked what they were doing with issues of identity and displacement. As a graduate student, I studied the work of hundreds of artists. Dr. Rodeiro was and probably still is very demanding in his graduate art history courses. I was exposed to hundreds of artists from diverse disciplines and even more diverse backgrounds. In the latter part of my graduate studies I started to concentrate more on the philosophical and theoretical artistic approaches, and started to read Homi K. Bhaba’s postcolonial theories, as well as anthologies written and edited by Gerardo Mosquera, a Cuban curator and theorist.

The more I read about post-colonialism in the context of postmodernism, the more I became interested in issues of identity, multiculturalism and transculturalism. Having grown up in Cuba, I experienced multiculturalism and transculturalism at an early age. The issues of identity were a common everyday reality. At some point, I remembered my father telling me how Papa Hemingway would advise him that if he ever wanted to take up writing, he should write about experiences that he knew and actually lived. Hemingway said “because then the work will flow easier and be honest and true.”

I took the advice Hemingway passed on to my father and my graduate work became more personal and focused on my personal experiences as a Cuban, who left his homeland, lived in Madrid, Spain, and settled with his family in Union City, New Jersey in 1974. And since 1996 has enjoyed traveling and experiencing other countries around this wonderful world that according to Hemingway “… is worth fighting for.”

Q)  I understand the We Are You Project as an attempt to bring the Latino population in the U.S. more into the mainstream of American life, including giving them the recognition that comes with it.   That and immigration reform to change the defensive posture of non-Latino populations in the U.S. against losing their ability to marginalize what has been until recently the Latino minority. Would you say this is an accurate view? If not, why not?

A) The “We Are You Project International” is a project that hopes to present Latino life in the United States and the positive contributions Latinos have made and continue to make in the United States for centuries. The goal of the project is also to have lawmakers rethink immigration reform and the anti-Latino backlash currently being experienced in certain states across this great nation. There is an incredible phenomenon happening worldwide, which I call Reverse Colonization. As in the United States and throughout Europe, people from different countries are emigrating legally or illegally, crossing borders in search for a better way of life. Immigrants are leaving their countries, which were once colonized by force and at times denuded of their natural resources, and heading to the lands of their former colonizers. However, the We Are You Project International is more interested in a culturally positive statement by Latinos for Latinos, the United States and the rest of the world.

Q) What is your relationship now with the We Are You Project International

A) I am one of the sub-committee members, which are the core of the project, and also the Special Projects Coordinator. I was able to procure the first two exhibit for the We Are You Project International traveling exhibit, which first took place in this spring at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba in New York City. The second will take place during Hispanic Heritage month in The Arts Guild of New Jersey in Rahway.

Q) Do you see or anticipate a power struggle of sorts among the various Latino sub-cultures represented within the Latino population at large and the We Are You, to control the political, social and cultural direction of the movement? Or do you anticipate respect for and an attempt to preserve the distinct elements of the group?

A) That is a very good question and one that is difficult to respond to. From my experience, it has been difficult to get ALL Latinos to unite for a cause. However, the artist members of our group are hard working professional artists and a large percentage are university professors. I think that because of this, we should be able to accomplish numerous objectives. We have art on our side and art is a magnificent agent in bringing people together for a worthy cause.


Hemingway's Photo Collection


Q) I understand your family has quite a number of Hemingway artifacts, including photos, letters, and so on, that were secretly brought out of Cuba when you came over. What kinds of things are included in this collection and can you share any of these with us?

A) We have around 120 photographs of Ernest Hemingway with my father from the early 1940s up to the late 1950’s. There are some postcards as well from their trips to Spain and Italy, and some items of clothing such as a sweater and a beanie hat that Hemingway took with him on safari in 1953.

Q) What advice do you give your younger students when they come into your class as aspiring artists or even as ‘accidental tourists’?

A) I will try my best to follow the advice of my friend and mentor Ben Jones. I will tell my students to work hard and get their technique down but it is the idea, the concept that counts, and be true to your art, and to be honest and true. I believe that there is a place for everything and everyone in life. “Show up to your life and you will be successful.” That is somewhat of a Woody Allen quote.

Q) Is there anything you’d like to add for this interview that we may hot have touched upon?

A) You have asked very meaningful questions and I thank you for that. It has been a real pleasure. I would add that WE just have to live LIFE, and live it to the fullest, because OUR LIFE and the LOVE we know are the constants that will be truly ours from the time we are born and even after we die.


For more about Raul Villarreal, see:

This interview was conducted in person and by e-mail from April thru June 2012.