A Denver Visit To The Heart of Cuba, More Than Cafecito, Cigars and Classic Cars

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Article & Photos by Rhonda Castaneda, Latin Life Denver MediaRhonda castenda

cuba_9Cuba is one of the region’s most ecologically diverse countries and home of the healthiest coral reefs and largest rainforest in the Caribbean with a Cuban literacy rate of 99% compared to 84% worldwide. Cuba is also an archipelago of more than 4,000 islands and keys and home to 11 million people.

That’s just part of what I learned last week when I got an early peek of the new ¡CUBA! exhibit which is on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). For this tour, I had the privilege of hanging with ¡CUBA! Exhibition Educator Hugo Valdez.

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I was running a few minutes late the day of our interview and was expecting an ordinary discussion about Cuban culture and fare. Hugo kindly escorted me to the Museum’s second floor to where the ¡CUBA! exhibition is located and I could immediately see that I was in for something special.

cuba_1The exhibition welcomes you with life-sized portraits of warm, friendly faces from modern Cubans living in their everyday element. The vibrant life-sized portraits combined with short excerpts provide a variety of voices from different walks of Cuban life, whether urban, rural, young or old. You genuinely feel like you’re in good company. Alongside the portraits, fast facts are cleverly highlighted. For example, did you know the Cuban literacy rate is 99% compared to 84% worldwide? We also learn that Cuba is an archipelago of more than 4,000 islands and keys and home to 11 million people.

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Valdez mentioned that DMNS received 3D printed collections from the Smithsonian which were added to display artifacts that could not otherwise be made available for the show. “We really like to show off collections our guests can interact with and touch instead of being behind the glass.” He added, “This feature is specific to Denver. They’re fascinating (artifacts) and you get to touch stuff!”

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From there, Valdez was excited to point out that Cuba is one of the region’s most ecologically diverse countries and home of the healthiest coral reefs and largest rainforest in the Caribbean. He advised, “In this exhibition we have an opportunity to see what a truly healthy coral reef looks like, possibly in part to Cuba’s limitations in tourism and pet trade.” He then mentioned Cuba’s rich biodiversity.

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“The bio- what?” I thought to myself. After a quick google search, I gathered that biodiversity is defined as the variety of all living things; the different plants, animals and micro organisms, the genetic information they contain and the ecosystems they form. I also learned that nearly 50 percent of its plants and 32 percent of its vertebrate animals are endemic, meaning they are found only on the island. Also featured are live little green lizards called anoles, a snippet about the hummingbird bee – the world’s smallest bird (smaller than most bees) and a recreation of the Zapata wetlands which is home to the endangered Cuban crocodile.

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In the middle of the exhibit is a big open plaza and nearby boulevard, showcasing a shiny, beautiful 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. Today Cuba essentially all of the cars on the road could be considered classic cars. Stop by this part of the exhibit to learn why so many vintage cars still decorate Cuban streets, you may surprised by the answer. There’s lots to do as you wander around the plaza. You’re also treated to sights and smells of a typical day in a Cuban community where you can try your hand at Cuban dominos, peek inside a tobacco shed, catch a bicitaxi, see an altar from the Afro-Cuban religious faith called orisha (or Santeria), gush over the creative poster art or have a seat to enjoy the aroma of Cuban coffee.
cuba_3 I asked why the museum chose this specific exhibit for Denver and Maura O’Neal, DMNS Communications and Media Relations explained, “We ask the Denver community and we do a lot of listening. We try to bring the world to Denver and this exhibit gives glimpses of life as it’s happening in Cuba. In fact, our team of employees and volunteers are briefed on Cuba’s current events for even more awareness.”

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¡Cuba! closes with life-sized portraits of Cuban-Americans who live in Denver along with their perspective on what they envision for Cuba’s future and touching artifacts each of them shared. I especially enjoyed that Elaine Berman, past member of the Colorado State Board of Education shared a photo of her grandfather with Albert Einstein in Havana. Wow! The DMNS team did an amazing job of adding small, thoughtful details to specifically serve the Denver community.

The ¡Cuba! exhibition is on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science now through January 20th. With so many unique and exciting features, this is a stunning exhibit you absolutely won’t want to miss!
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