Nicholas Fernandez and Natalia Blanco
BFA Sculpture 2016
The first half of our grant project is part of a much larger collaboration between Fundacion Amistad, The World Monument Fund, and Ennead to develop a “strategic vision” and advocacy program for el Vedado. Before leaving to Cuba, we attended several meetings with Fundacion Amistad and Ennead to develop preliminary steps and goals that would ultimately feed into a larger Planning Symposium in mid October.
El Vedado is a vital part of la Habana; what many consider to be “the capital of the capital”. Because el Vedado is not a primary tourist location, it lacks many of the necessary resources and funding to maintain its streets, architecture, housing, cultural centers, educational institutions, recreational and public spaces. The ultimate goal is to revitalize and activate what already exists in el Vedado and develop strategies for its preservation, future urbanism, and upward mobility.
Before any of these organizations can even begin to ideate and initate planning efforts, they need as much background information as possible. We were given the task of collecting said information through photo and video documentation, mapping and annotation, and recorded interviews with Vedado’s residents. Before arriving in Cuba, we worked with FA and Ennead to develop key themes that would serve to drive and guide our documentation and discussions. The key themes are as follows:
Transportation/Connectivity: Public transportation and mobility within the neighborhood and its connection to the rest of the city
Local Economics/Entrepreneurship: Established businesses, small business, and hotspots of economic activities
Open Areas/Public Space: Activated areas vs. Potential areas (parks, plazas, sidewalks, streets)
Institutional/Cultural Centers: Formal centers for arts and culture as well as informal or spontaneous gatherings of culture and community
Anchors: Key locations where several themes intersect
Underutilized Assets: Potential hubs or areas for growth
We were essentially working to get a general idea of how Vedado’s residents felt about each of these issues. We spent our first two weeks in Cuba collecting and organizning this information in order for it to be taken back to the U.S. to be utitlized by FA and Ennead. We focused on covering a specified region of el Vedado that was described as a “golden triangle” of sorts and eventually moved beyond that. Its perimeter was composed of three major streets: Avenida de los Presidentes (Calle G), La Rampa (Calle 23), and El Malecon. Because of Vedado’s gridded layout we were able to cover each street within the triangle, scanning the urban landscape, photographing and noting everything and anything from empty lots, to home-run businesses, active spaces and inactive ones.
It was challenging to prepare for our trip to Cuba because information about traveling and residing in Cuba is relatively limited and not easily found online; we relied heavily on word of mouth and problem solving. We went into our assignment with very little knowledge of the area and virtually no one to guide us other than the locals we encountered on a daily basis. Initially we were observers, but quickly found ourselves involved in many social interactions and gatherings.
We used Concepcion Otero’s book El Vedado, to cross reference maps and gather some general information about the area but found that most of our research and information was gained in conversation with Vedado’s residents. It was interesting to find that many of Vedado’s residents echoed each others thoughts and shared the same views on these particular issues.
Our interactions with locals were very casual and positive. We typically worked to develop somewhat of a relationship with a resident before requesting any sort of recorded interview. We were very much aware of our presence as outsiders and quickly noted that many residents were not comfortable with video footage during interviews and so we chose to only to use audio recordings or transcriptions. We made sure to avoid any topics that would encite discomfort or unease. Outside of our interviews, we found that most of our conversations with residents were actually highly political and opinionated. To our surprise, the Cuban people were extremely vocal and open about their personal thoughts on Cuba’s culture, economy, and policies.
In retrospect, our approach in terms of interacting with members of Vedado’s community was very generative and successful. We approached each interaction with sincerity and did not seek any immediate outcome from our exchanges with each indivdual. It was certainly a huge advantage to speak Spanish and at times we found ourselves acting as translators for FA. Even having Cuban accents seemed to encite a kind of excitement and curiosity among residents. In a matter of a week, we met a wide variety of locals that occuppied very different roles within thier community. We were able to discuss these issues with students, the owner of a small home run business, a fisherman, a professor, a photographer, the president of a Korean culture club, two prominent architects, a performer at a nightclub, a taxi driver, and a preist in addition to other residents. Most of the people we have met have been extremely helpful and generous with their thoughts on these issues as well as larger themes regarding Cuba’s past and present.
It has been quite difficult to navigate our available means of communication. It is expensive to make calls from Cuba to the US and somewhat more affordable to communicate via internet. However, we are required to purchase time cards for internet use and can only access the internet at designated wifi spots. The connection is often quite unreliable and sometimes even inaccessible. It has proven to be costly and difficult to connect to family and friends back in the States, as well as communicating with FA and posting to our blog. We cannot download any applications or access our RISD gmail accounts. We are also required to show identification each time we want to purchase an internet card.
Budgeting our available grant money was also somewhat of a challenge for the first week or so in Cuba. We have no access to our bank accounts and so we had no choice but to bring our funds in cash, which became somewhat unnerving. We then converted our US dollars to CUC and eventually CUP (National currency). In Cuba, there is a dual currency system, one form of currency is used by Cuban cicitzens and the other is used by tourists or non Cuban residents. The value of 1 CUC is nominally $1 USD. However, US dollars are exchanged with a 10% tax imposed by the Cuban government along with a 3% exchange fee, rendering the exchange effectively .87 CUC to $1 USD. Fortunately, we no longer have as many concerns about our budget and available funds thanks to the hospitality of many family relatives that have offered to house us, transport us, and even feed us throughout the course of our stay in Cuba.
Although they have been few and far between, we have had some relatively challenging interactions and experiences in Cuba. Because both of our families are composed of Cuban refugees, it is somewhat complicated to navigate certain conversations about the relationship between Cuba and the US. Fortunately, the majority of the people we have met are extremely opnionated and insightful and have fostered an environment in which we could openly discuss issues that one would consider to be highly controversial for the Cuban citizen. We sometimes noticed that although we initiated an interaction with someone, we were either ignored or looked at in a way that was not welcoming. But we have since learned that for many Cubans it used to be a very dangerous thing to interact with a tourist, especially an American tourist. We have also had one or two individuals express relatively negative ideas about life in the US or the American citizen. But we have had many other individuals step in and take the time to explain why those misconceptions and feelings remain among some of the Cuban people.
The background information we collected is currently being used by FA and Ennead to develop presentations and discussion formats for their work sessions and Planning Symposium in Havana. FA is currently working to recieve authorization to host the event from the Cuban governement. We have left la Habana and are now exploring Matanzas, Limonar, and Varadero in order to collect material for more personal work as part of our own artistic practice. Most of our current material is composed of photography and audio recordings.
After two years getting by on just groundwater, 2016 finally brought Nate Ray some surface water. Ray, who manages the feed growing operation at DeJager Dairy, remembers feeling palpably lighter when he heard that the Chowchilla water district had surface water to allocate. Without surface water, he’d been cornered into pumping more water than his wells could take. Now he’d finally be able to give the aquifer a break.
But the surface water came with a catch. In years past, surface water offered a respite from the high electricity cost of pumping. This year, the cost of surface water exceeded that of pumping. Choosing to use the surface water would come at a financial loss.
“This was a choice we had to make as farmers, ranchers, owners, land stewards.” Ray said.
Ray also had to make the choice as a father. Buy the surface water and he’d cut into profit margins, but keep pumping and he’d further jeopardizes his children’s access to the safety net groundwater has offered his generation.
Ray is one of a dozen growers I’ve interviewed as a Maharam Fellow this summer. In these conversations, I’ve sought out growers’ emotional experience of groundwater use, past, present and particularly looking forward to the future as California implements its first statewide groundwater regulation.To put the growers’ and ranchers’ stories into context, I’ve also interviewed a dozen scientists, regulators, industry representatives and environmental justice advocates.
In my first blog post, I wrote about my own experience entering this technically complex, politically contentious arena, and my qualms about doing justice to the stories I’ve heard. In this post, I take a stab at a lay of the land.
During times of drought in California, groundwater turns from a crutch into a lifeline, swelling from 40% of the state’s total consumption to as much as 60%. Today, after five years of too little rain, many critical basins are in overdraft–meaning that the rate of pumping exceeds the rate of replenishment–and thousands of agricultural and domestic wells have gone dry.
Groundwater invisibility and the drawn out pace of its depletion make it difficult to keep in the public attention. Powerful lobbying efforts against regulation from agricultural interest groups further deterred legislature from addressing the issue.
But the duration of the current drought has exposed the degree of our reliance and brought groundwater to a greater public stage. Lay people started to hear about it. Scientists who had been working on the issue for years in relative anonymity, started getting an audience. Growers like Ray weighed financial loss against further imperiling aquifers.
After running through a few budgets, Ray decided to take the surface water and bear the losses. He knows some of his neighbors made the opposite choice. Driving around the area, he sees their pumps running.
A wet five year old in navy swim trunks wanders into Ray’s office. Holden climbs onto Ray’s lap and leans his head against his dad’s chest.
“These aquifers that are underneath us, they don’t have property boundaries” Ray said. He shifts Holden’s weight, exposes a damp spot on his shirt from the child’s hair. “If we don’t somehow regulate ourselves, monitor ourselves, then we’re gonna pump ourselves dry and there won’t be nothing left for the next generation.”
California’s groundwater reckoning has led to a rethinking of one of the state’s most fiercely guarded assumptions about water ownership: that groundwater belongs to whomever owns the land above it.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed by Jerry Brown in 2014, is the first statewide law attempting to monitor and manage groundwater as the interconnect system it is. The legislation calls for the formation of regional Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) agencies across the state. Each will have to devise and implement plans to monitor and manage groundwater withdrawals in a way that achieves sustainability within a quarter century. With the June 2017 deadline to form GSAs nearly here; the most profound shift in California water rights in a century is underway.
A huge part of the burden will be on growers. Not only will they be the ones organizing the GSAs in many cases, they must also adjust to a new relationship to groundwater. Formerly treated as private property, this crucial resource is now recast as common pool resource that the government has the right to tell them how to handle. This is a profound transition and it would be helpful to have public understanding and support.
But as the public comes to understand the magnitude of the state’s groundwater problem, those resisting regulation have increasingly come under fire. From an urban perch, it’s hard to understand why growers would want their representatives fighting groundwater regulation. Such a stand seems shortsighted at best and selfish at worst. Groundwater may have emerged from obscurity, but the choices facing agricultural groundwater users have remained largely invisible.
Ray is conflicted about SGMA. “As bad as you want to look at it from a land owner’s rights standpoint, there is some good to it” he said. “Right now it’s about 50-60% of growers who are really worried. When SGMA kicks in it will be 100%.”
What scares Ray is the way regulations will interact with what he perceives to be the ever shrinking share of surface water allocated to farmers. “Every year they take more and more water for environmental uses,” Ray said. “If you’re going to take away our surface water and our groundwater, then we don’t have a means to make a living.”
My apologies for the stretch of time since my third blog post. I ended my Maharam project, turned around, and promptly started the Pre-Orientation Service Experience (POSE) as a leader for the third time. Once that ended, I applied for another grant (I’ve graduated from the Maharam now) and started my final year in college. Needless to say, things have been busy. I am sad to see the Maharam end, but it turned out to be the perfect stepping stone to the next point in my growth as an artist, activist, and leader.
The last class; a bittersweet day. I had planned on doing one final art activity, paper marbling, because paper marbling produces very intricate colorful patterns and is fairly easy to do. But, instead, the women just wanted to finish up the projects they had started in the previous classes, especially the pillows. As it turned out, many of the women had previous experience embroidering, and had set out to make elaborate designs. Sadia designed a tree with blooming blue leaves, and Mariam embroidered a whole slew of utensils in her depiction of chef and his kitchen. Yomely is planning on keeping her pillow in her office at DIIRI.
So, the final class was spent embroidering, chatting, and henna-ing. I bought henna specifically for Soukaina, because she has used more than one class to draw spiraling designs on paper. She was delighted, and then proceeded to adorn every single person in the room. I myself received a henna sleeve, starting at the tip of my right shoulder and ending at the nail on my middle finger (and I received many compliments on it in the week following). The class also included questions about if the class was going to continue and if I was going to stay at DIIRI. Unfortunately, because I am choosing to spend my senior year focusing on my Apparel Design Thesis Collection, I will not be the one continuing the class. Fortunately, the class will be continued by a RISD student! More on that to come — one by one, the women finished up their work and turned them in to me, so we said our goodbyes.
The final step in the Maharam was the “Gifts of Diversity” exhibit. This exhibit was arranged by Brandon, my supervisor at DIIRI, and was held at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. The women in my class submitted work to be part of this exhibit that also featured “local artists who represent a range of visible and nonvisible diversity”. That’s why they were all working so hard during the last class — because it was to be presented to the public! Janet, a student from Armenia, even brought in other work that she had done, like an acrylic painting of a sunset. Our table at the event was stocked to the brim. The event itself was very cool as well. I managed to snag about ten fellow POSE leaders from RISD to come along, and we all browsed the artwork and enjoyed the dance performances. It was a lovely way to end the project.
Since then, I’ve met with both Brandon, my supervisor, and Sagitta, my unofficial supervisor. Sagitta and I discussed how effective my project was and how it could continue in the future. She told me that she would be interested in having the class continue for the population of unaccompanied minors, which is unfortunately an ever-growing population at DIIRI. These minors are about 14-17 years old and oftentimes arrive in this country to meet family that they have never met before. Sagitta told me how hard it was to communicate with them at first, but once she gave them crayons and paper they were able to share what they needed. This class could be a crucial part of their resettlement process. Hearing this made my resolve to focus on my studio work waver, but I am very happy to hear that my model could feasibly continue and be adapted within DIIRI.
Brandon and I discussed my project continuing in the form of another fellowship out of RISD’s Center for Student Involvement (CSI) Office: the Leadership and Community Engagement (LACE) Fellowship. I am also involved in this program, as I practically live in the CSI offices, but I use my fellowship to intern at Sojourner House, a local domestic violence agency. DIIRI is a Community Partner with the CSI Office (specifically the Office of Community Service), which means that two RISD students will be stationed at DIIRI acting as liaisons between the two communities. These two RISD students also happen to be my friends and fellow Global Initiative members: Sophie, a sophomore in Architecture, and Paridhi, a junior in Illustration. They are responsible for a number of tasks, but are now also responsible for my project (sorry). I don’t want to impose this project on them, but I’m very adamant about the fact that it needs to be continued by a RISD student. It brings together the two communities in a way that is mutually beneficial. This is still yet to be finalized, but there is clearly a need for it — I mean, I even received a gold-embossed folder with this inside:
I could have used more reflection time after my project officially ended, but I had other community obligations calling me. Such is life. After a summer spent mostly with people not from my generation, coming back to school is a little startling. I notice a change in myself; I am more serious about my work and more realistic about my capabilities. This sounds sobering, and maybe it’s just senioritis talking, but I’m glad for it. This, coupled with my new and improved work schedule, will greatly benefit my Senior Thesis.
Speaking of my Senior Thesis, I have realized that my final collection perhaps will benefit the most from my Maharam. I speak about it a bit in my first blog post, but my summer at DIIRI and the IDPP have reminded me about my own identity. Although my internship was not directly related to my major, I think it spoke to my broader artistic practice in an interesting way. Because I was working with refugee and immigrant women who come from a variety of backgrounds and speak varying levels of English, I grew to depend more on visuals to express myself — “show, not tell”. Because I could no longer count on my voice to convey exactly what I mean, I had to focus on honing my art, body language, and hand motions to be as expressive as possible. It was, if you will, a returning to my roots as an artist.
Over the past year my Apparel work grew increasingly academic as I wrote long conceptual essays about how, exactly, my garment advocated for a certain issue within the realm of feminism. But in doing so, I drifted further away from my roots as an artist who makes visual products. I guess that it’s not that odd that I was tugged back into the arts by spending time outside of the art world, but I was not expecting this revelation. I of course did learn an incredible amount about effective service, flexibility, the realities of refugees in Providence, and so much more, but this lesson was the most striking. It comes at a crucial point in my career: when I decide how to spend my last year at RISD, what I do after graduation, and whether or not I will dabble in the governmental sector.
I’m not saying that I have the answers to those questions, but rather that I now have a more clear path to finding the solutions. I honestly could go on and on about what I’ve learned and how it changed me, but this blog post is getting a little long, and I bet your attention span is waning by now. I’ll end by thanking the wonderful people at DIIRI, RISD Career Services, and RISD CSI — without you, none of this would have been possible!
This is my last blog post; if you are interested in contacting me, please visit my website.