Cuba rebuilt Matanzas, a famous ancient city. The city had been abandoned, decayed, and suspended animation.
Matanzas has the nickname Venice of Cuba and Athens of Cuba. The city is also the birthplace of the dance and rumba music and dance genres.
Founded in 1693 by order of the Spanish king Charles II, Matanzas quickly established itself as a wealthy port and vast sugar plantation.
By the 1860s, the city had turned into the second largest city in the country after Havana. Enticed local authorities christened it the “Athens of Cuba” in honor of its elegant cultural life and many local poets and writers.
The nickname deserves to be given to Matanzas. During the glorious years of the 19th century, classical theater was built and local writer José Jacinto Milanés established himself as Cuba’s best playwright.
The city hosted the Universal Exhibition in 1881 which promoted arts and technology which attracted delegates from the US and Spain.
In the decades that followed, Matanzas spawned a whole range of musical genres, including the danzón, a slow syncopated partner dance first performed by Cuban bandleader Miguel Faílde; and mambo, the upbeat version of danzón that sparked a craze for short but intense American dance in the 1940s.
Matanzas in Cuba Photo: Brendan Sainsbury/BBC
With a large black population, freed from the shackles of slavery in 1886, Matanzas was, and still is, the cradle of African religion and traditions.
However, that atmosphere was not traced after the Cuban revolution of 1959, with the new regime implementing strict socialist values. Matanzas are no longer considered a cultural center.
The problems got worse after Cuban Soviet philanthropists went bankrupt in ’91, sending the economy into free fall and further compounded by the decline of the sugar industry in the 2000s.
The heart of Matanzas is on Calle Narváez on the banks of the San Juan River. The city resembles the wrecked Titanic whose fortunes have been hidden by decades of neglect.
At that time, foreign tourists were taken from the airport to the swanky new resort in the nearby town of Varadero, which Cubans are barred from entering the resort.
Foreign tourists are also directed to other Cuban cities as Cienfuegos and Camagüey are on the prestigious UNESCO list, the sinking wealth of Matanzas being neglected.
The Cuban government seems to want to restore the former glory of Matanzas. The area was restored.
In 2018, Cuban authorities, supported in part by Eusebio Leal, the architect of the successful Old Havana rehabilitation projects in the 1990s and 2000s, decided to honor Matanzas’ 325th birthday with a recognition and restoration program.
Damaged buildings were repaired, three beautiful hotels, in and around the centrally located Parque Libertad, opened.
The iconic Sauto Theater – once one of Cuba’s finest – was restored to its highest peak in the 1860s after decades of doldrums.
“Matanzas was revived and declared a patrimonial city,” Adrian Socorro, owner of his art studio on Calle Narváez on the San Juan River, told BBC.
Matanzas in Cuba Photo: Brendan Sainsbury/BBC
“The visual changes are evident throughout the city,” he added.
Much bigger changes are also underway. In 2019, Cuba’s largest arts festival, the Biennial de la Habana, focused on Matanzas for the first time, thanks to the influence and initiative of María Magdalena Campos Pons, a Matanzas-born artist now living in the United States (US).
The festival is the largest event the city has seen since the 1881 Universal Exhibition.
“Over the years, I’ve been talking to people in Havana about bringing the Biennial to Matanzas,” says Campos Pons, whose work is internationally acclaimed, in collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“So, when I was invited to be an exhibition artist in 2019, I used that invitation to create a project for this city,” he said.
The project, called Ríos Intermitentes (Intermittent River), seeks to highlight the creative community of Matanzas by exhibiting their work to visiting local and international artists.
“Matanzas is geographically and culturally full of untold drama and narrative,” said Campos Pons.
“But the city was abandoned and regarded as a sleeping beauty. The abandonment of Matanzas and its history was the point of my departure for the Ríos Intermitentes.”
It wasn’t just art that pushed Matanzas back into the limelight. Entire spheres of culture flourished, from architecture to music. Driven by positive change, the city lives on with a buzz and joy not seen for generations.
Young people flock to artistically curated cafes; murals and art installations attract attention in town squares; and there is talk of a new tour bus connecting Matanzas to Varadero.
More importantly, after the success of 2019, the Biennale is slated to return to Matanzas this year under the expert guidance of Campos Pons.
“The Matanza you will see in 2030 will be very different to what we started in 2019,” said Campos Pons.
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