The Bottomless Ache of the Revolution

by Michael Mason


When I first saw him, Jose Antonio Pantoja Hernández was standing behind a display of several of his paintings. Just like several of the other artists lining the promenade in Havana, he had set up a makeshift booth for his work, leaning large canvases against a small folding table. At the time, he looked like a Cuban trying his best to look European: faded German clothes, a fanny pack, casual black lace-ups, and a ballcap. The clothes were from elsewhere, but his emaciated arms and bony cheeks were completely Cuban. In that sense, he looked like the rest of the artists lining the Paseo del Prado, each of whom the government had given special permission to sell their work on the street. Pantoja’s artwork, however, was nothing like the standard rainbow of tourist- friendly artwork lining the sidewalk. His paintings shocked the gait out of most passersby.

I had heard Pantoja’s name before, a week earlier during a carnival in Cienfuegos. I’d asked several graduate students from a nearby university who they thought was Cuba’s most important living artist, and they all immediately answered “Pantoja.” They explained that he was a street artist whose paintings were highly critical of the government. They guessed he would be dead or “carried off” soon. Then they told me how to find him.

Hear This Land Radio talk with artist Jose Antonio Pantoja Hernandez:

At the time, August of 2008, I was in Cuba doing research for a book I planned to write. I had already broken free from the standard Cuban tourist track by booking rooms at various casa particulars, and was trying my best to blend into the culture by wearing old clothes and flip-flops.

The ruse didn’t work. Pantoja called me out right away. “You from America?” he asked me in English, as I eyed his paintings.

I smiled flatly. “Claro, chico,” I admitted. “Pero que estas haciendo aqui con estes cuadros?” I didn’t ask him “what’s up.” I asked him what he was doing with his paintings. But my tone was concerned, as in, “What the hell do you think you’re doing with these paintings?” He laughed a little and glanced at a nearby corner, where a policeman stood watching us chat.

Sientate,” he said, offering me a seat beside him on the bench. “I will tell you.”

The policeman scratched a note on his pad.

From 2003 to 2005, the Cuban government allowed the Proyecto Cultural de Comunitario to thrive along Prado. The country’s most revered visual artists—those with the coveted Licensia de las Artes Plasticas—were allowed to sell their artwork along El Prado on Saturday mornings. At the time, it was the only real opportunity Cuban artists had to sell paintings directly to tourists without having to take a large cut at the few local (and heavily censored) galleries. Pantoja thrived in those early days—selling nearly a painting a week for up to $500. For a brief period of time, he rented a place in one of Havana’s better boroughs, Vedado.

Unlike the sidewalk art displays in most cities, the artwork on Prado had a much higher quality of craftsmanship; there were a number of gallery-quality works on the street, many of them either surreal or abstract. Of course, there were several tourist-oriented displays full of brightly colored images of landmarks, giving you the impression that Cuba looks like Santa Fe or San Antonio. It’s the Cuba that Cuba wants you to see.

By the time I met Pantoja, however, I had traded much of my tourist currency for moneda nacional, the currency of Cuban citizens. I had been spending about 70 cents a day on pulled pork sandwiches and orange soda, and zipping across Havana for quarters, using the unofficial taxi system. Although I had managed to dip my toe into the real Cuba, I hadn’t been able to fully cross the divide. Save for the frequent propositions of jineteras, most Cubans in Havana wouldn’t talk to me; the Cuban government discourages them from approaching tourists.

“I only paint my life,” Pantoja told me, waving his hands at the paintings. His largest work, painted on burlap, depicted three brown and honey-hued skeletons surrounding a dimly lit table. At the center of the table lay three items instantly recognizable to Cubans: an empty bowl, a libretto (their ration book), and an egg. It was a nightmarish scene of starvation, the visual equivalence of a painful howl. Another painting showed a near-skeleton in repose, its fingers sprouting parched limbs.

Pantoja explained that he had lived through Cuba’s “special period,” a particularly brutal time during the early 90’s when the entire island dealt with severe shortages. For about six months, Pantoja had subsisted on just one egg a day, every day. He told me that for most Cubans, hunger has become a way of life—so common that they refer to their refrigerators as “cocos,” short for coconuts, because when you crack them open, there’s nothing but water inside.

“You want to see the real Cuba?” Pantoja asked me. “I show you Cuba. Tonight, you come to stay with me.”

As a small storm formed overhead, Pantoja rolled up his paintings. We waited under a nearby awning for his girlfriend Daileni to show up. Together, we hailed a series of cabs and buses until we reached the village of Bejucal, which is known for its community of carpenters (Pantoja is also a skilled woodworker). As we walked toward Pantoja’s apartment, we saw a man on the street brushing his dog with a shiny black liquid. Pantoja explained that the man was coating his dog in motor oil to kills its fleas. When we arrived at the apartment, a withered, older woman—a girlfriend of Pantoja’s father—was sitting alone at the small dinette table in the kitchen, staring into space.

“Don’t give her money,” Pantoja told me. “She only wants rum.”

Pantoja’s studio in Bejucal, Cuba.

Pantoja gave me a brief tour. Even though the place was clean, it looked as though it had a permanent coat of gray grime. There was a small electric stove, and a fridge. The bathroom, Pantoja explained, was the open drain in the floor, where a toilet used to be. Small, busy bugs crawled in and around the hole.

If I wanted to shower, the single spigot sprayed only cold water. Daileni offered to make us coffee. When she opened the fridge, I saw a two-liter bottle of water and half-soured jug of milk and nothing else.

As Daileni prepared the coffee, Pantoja showed me his bedroom, which functioned as a studio. It might’ve been a hundred square feet, but felt much larger owing to the dozen or so oil paintings on the gray-blue walls. It was a gallery of the macabre: a skeletal pig rowing a pan in one picture, a farmer’s head propped up by sticks in another. I stared at one particularly elaborate painting: a tortoise with a human head, made even more nightmarish by the sunken cheeks and eyes, and vines sprouting where hair should grow. The face looked vaguely familiar.

“This is Fidel Castro,” Pantoja said. “The Cuban people, they see it immediately. When I put this painting in the park, it made many police to surround me.”

Many of the portraits on the wall featured his father, the village alcoholic. In another painting, I noticed the woman from the kitchen, frozen at the empty table. He only paints his life. When I glanced at his bookshelf, Pantoja pointed out his four teachers, a set of art books featuring reproductions of Rembrandt, Goya, Dali and Repin. I asked him if he’d ever heard of or seen Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, or Jean Michel Basquiat, and he just looked at me puzzled. Earlier, I learned that he’d never heard of Elvis Presley, either. I stopped asking such questions.

Pantoja’s four teachers are evident in his work. He borrows the light from Rembrandt, and turns Dali’s dreamscape images into starvation nightmares. His texture and color come from Repin, and the rage is all Goya. Looking at his paintings, you get the distinct impression that you’re peering into a bottomless ache, one in which the past indicts the present. Pantoja made his own brushes and formulated his own paint. The coats are sparing and thin by necessity, and the colors are sad and anemic. “You see that I am in a prison,” he told me. “This island is killing me.”

“Do you want me to get you out?” I asked.

The Proyecto Cultural came to a screeching halt in 2005, when its director, Cecilio Aviles, shut the program down because it was becoming too “capitalistic” for artists. Pantoja—its most successful artist—was selling nearly a painting a week for around $500, the equivalent of an annual salary for successful Cubans. When police asked Pantoja about the increasingly strong images in his painting, he simply told them that they were reproductions of the Dutch renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch.

“The police in Cuba are idiots,” Pantoja said. “Thank god for that.”

For nearly two years, the artists of Prado gathered each weekend to silently protest the shut-down. Each weekend, policemen dispersed the crowd. Seeing an abrupt end to his income, Pantoja scrambled to find a market for his work. He eventually met a friend who sold black-market goods to the wealthy Cubans of Miramar (most of whom are upper-level bureaucrats). “Mr. Hyde,” as he was known, began hawking Pantoja’s paintings to the Cuban elite.

“Many of the rich people of Cuba have my paintings,” said Pantoja, “But they are not stupid. They hide the paintings.”

Finally, at the end of 2007, Aviles agreed to resume the Proyecto Cultural. But this time, he explained, there would be many new regulations. All works would be subject to approval by Aviles, and each artist must have a personal evaluation of his work reviewed prior to displaying it on Prado. Pantoja was determined to return to the Proyecto, so when he arrived for his meeting with Aviles, he brought several still-life paintings of fruit, and a portrait of a famous homeless man in Cuba named the Caballero de Paris. Pleased that Pantoja’s work had finally been subjugated, Aviles cleared the way for Pantoja to return to Prado.

After a few months of playing it safe, and enduring a downturn in sales, Pantoja began to reintroduce his more subversive works, this time painting them with even greater ferocity. Some paintings openly depicted the government playing marionettes with its citizens; others catalogued the terrifying hunger that continued to plague Cuba. He sold one painting—a hydrocephalic, monstrous portrait of the Caballero—to a Russian official for $1,500, his largest purchase off the street. It was during this period—during Pantoja’s re-emergence on Prado—that I met him, and traveled to his home in Bejucal. By then, he had already sold about two hundred paintings over a five-year period, and was using the money to support himself, his parents, his girlfriend, and her family. Almost all of it went to food, he said.

After returning from three weeks in Cuba, you get shocked by the cold air that comes rushing out of American doors. The brightly-lit grocery store aisles make you squint. Then the shocks fade, and you began to embrace the quick comfort and overstimulation the U.S. always offers. I waited a couple of months before trying to call Pantoja, and when I did, he was overjoyed to hear my voice.

“Everyone tells me they will call, but nobody calls,” he told me. “This is a surprise.”

Pantoja’s studio in Bejucal, Cuba.

I explained that I had been studying the various ways in which a Cuban artist might be able to get out of the country safely, and was meeting with a lot of challenges. Although I could get him an invitation to exhibit his work in the U.S., I was worried that it might undermine his ability to actually get a visa cleared by Cuba. If Cuban officials knew he was bound for the states, they would suspect a defection in the works.

While I was hunting for the right strategy and calling the occasional immigration attorney, Pantoja began reporting back on the pressures he was facing on the Paseo del Prado, saying that he was worried about Aviles. During one phone call, he explained that he had befriended a German engineer who was staying in Cuba, and the man commissioned several works from him, including a portrait in which Pantoja substituted the man’s head for that of a bulldog. The patron, he said, was crazy about it.

A year passed by quickly, with Pantoja suggesting a number of desperate alternatives to the visa route. I could bring him a bogus Mexican passport. I could rent a boat in the Bahamas and he could stowaway. I called him each month, frustrated that I couldn’t seem to find a good, safe escape for him. During the winter of 2009, Pantoja reported that he had finally been kicked out of the Proyecto.

“I told Aviles he could shove the licensia up his ass,” Pantoja said. “Then I told him I was going to start my own project, and that I would sell my paintings wherever I wanted.”

He guessed it would be a matter of time before they put him in jail. That winter, 26 Cubans died from hypothermia during one particularly cold bout of weather.

After a few frustrating attempts at negotiating various art exhibits for Pantoja in other countries, I gave up on him. I couldn’t seem to find a way around the obstacles that Cuba created. Even when the famed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez won an invitation to speak abroad, the Cuban government denied her visa. They weren’t going to let a known dissident painter out of their grasp, I thought. Still, I called Pantoja and listened to him. He endured episodes of starvation and sickness and deep despair. But each time we talked, he thanked me and told me that our talks gave him hope.

The miracle, when it finally happened, came fast. I had befriended a Mexican fiction writer named Liliana Blum, who asked me how I knew Spanish. I explained my Cuban roots, and soon enough, we were discussing Pantoja.

“We will get your friend free,” she told me. “I will help.”

Liliana contacted a friend of hers who operated a small gallery in Queretaro, Mexico, and sent him photos of Pantoja’s work. He recognized the brilliance immediately, and extended him an invitation to show his paintings. The invitation was sent by email, and I called Pantoja to tell him to check his account. He was giddy on the line, but my voice remained flat. I thought his odds were still around zero.

Aviles and the Proyecto had no bearing, nor any communication with the office that handled Pantoja’s visa application. Cuba’s National Council for Visual Arts accepted the paperwork—but it was Pantoja who greased the process along with heavy bribes to office workers.

“Everyone expects un regalito,” he told me. A little gift, they call it.

Word spread among the art patrons of Cuba that Pantoja had received an exhibition to show his work abroad. One wealthy government insider, a man I’ll call Pablo Perez, insisted that Pantoja sell him his most prized painting: a large portrait of the Caballero de Paris that had been five years in the making. He paid Pantoja ten thousand dollars in cash for the piece, and Pantoja gave him three other paintings in gratitude. When I spoke to Perez on the phone, he was understandably evasive about what those paintings depicted.

“They were somehow related to my own life,” Perez told me. “They each had very strong messages.”

During this time, I called Pantoja and he told me there was one final step he must take before he could get his visa approved. He had to take his paintings before José Antonio Menéndez Viera, director of the National Registry of Cultural Property. Every Cuban artist who aspires to exhibit abroad must receive Viera’s approval, and Viera’s job is to make sure that every cultural property complies with the interest of the state.

On Monday, May 30, of 2011, Pantoja walked into the Officina Patrimonio for his appointment with Viera. He brought a tube containing each painting he planned to exhibit in Mexico, eight oil-on-canvas works, the remainder of what he called his “Vegetation” series. A group of administrators asked him to lay the paintings out on a large drafting table for the inspection. Pantoja opened up the tube and unrolled the canvases.

“This guy has lost his mind,” one woman said, “Take a look at what he’s brought.”

Another woman peered at the paintings.

“You can’t do this,” the woman exclaimed. “You can’t paint the libretta, you can’t put the head of Fidel on a tortoise—you must be a lunatic to draw these kinds of things!”

“They were trying their best to shame me,” Pantoja said.

The women told Pantoja to take a seat. They rolled his paintings up and hauled them upstairs to the director’s office. And they left Pantoja alone. With each passing minute, Pantoja became more and more convinced that his hopes of leaving Cuba were dashed. He wasn’t bound for freedom, he thought, but either a Cuban prison or a sanatorium. The administrators didn’t return for an hour. By that point, Pantoja had already accepted his fate. He had written down an attorney’s number that he planned to call when the police arrived. Eventually, one of the administrators returned.

“The director wants to see you upstairs,” one woman said.

When Pantoja arrived in Viera’s office, the paintings were laid out across a conference table.

“Compadre,” Viera said. “We have a very grave situation here. Do you understand what you have done?”

You can’t take anything from a man who has nothing to lose, Pantoja reckoned. He decided that for the first time in his life, he would speak his mind instead of letting his paintings speak for him.

“Yes, I know what I’m doing,” he said. “And I will not allow you or anyone else to criticize my work. This is all my thinking, my inspiration and my life and I will do it the same way every time and everywhere. These paintings will open the doors of Cuba. Raul Castro said that the people must criticize the government to rectify any mistakes, and my paintings are proof of the Revolution’s mistakes.”

The room went silent. Viera demanded to know how Pantoja received the invitation from Mexico.

“From the Internet,” he replied.

“And how did you get Internet access?” Viera asked.

“At the National Council for Visual Arts.”

“And how did these people find you?”

“On the Facebook, of course,” replied Pantoja. “I have many friends on Facebook who are all over the world, and many of them are journalists. They are very interested in what you will tell me today.”

At the mention of journalists, Viera’s countenance changed. He smiled and told Pantoja to relax, that he wasn’t being interrogated.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Viera said. He signed off on Pantoja’s paintings and handed them back to him. He was free to go to the airport.

The paranoia that plagued Pantoja for his whole life followed him all the way to Mexico. He found his first plane ride terrifying and exhilarating, but still felt uneasy when he landed in Mexico City. He had a princely amount of cash on him, which he declared at customs, and they waved him through the gate. His eyes scanned the airport to see if any Cuban agents had followed him.

Pantoja grabbed the first available bus to Queretaro, where he planned to meet the gallery owner to arrange the exhibit. He stayed in the quaint town square for two nights, and called me on the second day, letting me know he was safe.

“This is unbelievable,” he said. “This is the most beautiful city I have ever seen.” In his forty years, he had only seen Havana and its suburbs; until recently, most Cubans were not permitted to travel, even within their own country.

The gallery owner never showed up, and Pantoja felt restless. All along he had planned to defect to the states, so he abandoned the idea of his exhibition and took a northbound bus to the border town of Laredo. When he arrived at the bus station, he paid a taxi driver to take him straight to the border crossing. At the border, he declared political asylum and asked for the protection of the United States.

He was detained for nearly two days in a small room with ten other Cubans who were defecting, two of whom were young teenage girls who had been seated behind him on the plane ride from Havana. After an early-morning asylum interview, the border patrol released Pantoja into the United States, and one of the guards directed him to a nearby hotel.

“I was finally out of the shit,” Pantoja recalled. “In this moment, the fear finally left me. I started to feel human.”

Within forty-eight hours, I was housing a Cuban refugee in a spare room at my office. I introduced him to all my friends, who were taken by Pantoja’s charm and unbridled enthusiasm for life. My family watched as he tasted his first blueberries and strawberries (“These are world-famous,” he said). In the two weeks he stayed with us, Pantoja visited the Golden Pawnshop twice each day, explaining that it made him cry for joy to see so many things he had wanted his whole life. He told us that Mazzio’s was the greatest restaurant in the world, and he asked us to buy him a bottle of ranch dressing because he wanted to put it on everything. He did put it on everything, including his rice. One day, he spent twenty minutes watching his clothes spin in our washing machine. I don’t recall having a conversation with him that didn’t include the words “unbelievable” and “crazy.”

He complained that Oklahoma was too hot for him, but he seemed to adjust well. Pantoja insisted on painting a portrait of me in exchange for helping him; he turned my hands into talons because I “fight the bad,” he said. Even though he was glowing with excitement over all the new friends and experiences he made in Oklahoma, he began to pine for the family and friends he had left behind. In the first few days, he spent $50 calling his fiancé and family in Cuba, and quickly understood why so few people can afford to maintain contact with relatives in Cuba.

“We always say that the people who leave Cuba drink the Coca-Cola of Forgetting,” he said. “But now I know this is not true—I can never forget my country.”

After two weeks in Tulsa, Pantoja decided he should go to Miami, where an elderly uncle had a room waiting for him. I helped him book an airline ticket and also shipped a chainsaw and a guitar from the pawnshop to his new address. Before he left, my wife and I took him to an Irish bar downtown.

“I can’t believe I am in a bar in America,” he said, grinning and holding a pint. “This is unbelievable. It’s crazy that this freedom is happening to me.”

Michael Mason’s writings have appeared in Discover, the New York Times, the Believer, and many other publications. He is the founding editor of This Land Press.