When I was a kid, I loved collecting Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels. I would “drive” them up railing highways and turn carpets into parking lots. My favorites were the classic cars with big fins and chrome eyeliner. As I got older, I went to antique car shows. Once when I was about 12, I got to see a Tucker ’58 in person, and it was one of the highlights of my year. I couldn’t tell you the basic mechanics of how a car operates, but I could stare longingly at a classic car all day. I drew a lot of cars in my childhood. Little did I know that one day I’d get to illustrate my favorite friends on four wheels.
Today is the release of All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle . Stating that it was an honor to work on this book seems inadequate. To illustrate something written by such a distinguished poet (now our Young People’s Poet Laureate) made me a little nervous. The book is the brainchild of our editor, Laura Godwin, who has also edited all of my Little Elliot books. (Little Elliot, Fall Friends also comes out today, and I will be writing a separate post about the making of that book, because I want to give each of my “children” their due). She has never steered me wrong, so I had to trust that she trusted me.
Margarita wrote a beautifully simple text. A boy and his family take a road trip from the Cuban countryside to the busy streets of Havana. They have a bit of car trouble before they hit the road, but after some time under the hood, father and son soon get things rolling. We get to see a lot of classic American cars along the way, and the family arrives at a cousin’s birthday party by sundown. It’s just another day in Cuba. But in this brief, seemingly ordinary tale lies the story of an entire people. I was excited to be a part of this, and also overwhelmed. But Laura said I could draw cars and cool buildings, so I thought, why not?
I was born and raised in the States. I honestly knew very little about Cuba aside from it being an island off the coast of Florida. Cubans are communists and cigar smokers. In history class I learned about the Bay of Pigs, and there’s that scene in Godfather II that takes place in Havana. That summed up my expertise. So, what gave me the right to illustrate this story about everyday Cuban life? There seemed to be only one option, which was to go there and experience it for myself. Granted, one week in a place isn’t enough to become an expert, but it beats a Google image search.
I took several years of Spanish in middle school and high school. Guess how much of it I retained? No mucho. I messaged an old college friend and fellow artist, Erick Ledesma. Would he like to go to Cuba with me and act as a translator? He said yes, and I am eternally grateful. I would not have had the successful trip I did without him (and there would have been a lot fewer laughs. and less beer). I dedicated this book to Erick, “mi hermano viajero.” We’ll always have Cuba, friend.
We travelled to Cuba in September, 2015. I took a few thousand photos, and have barely shown any of them. Stay tuned for a barrage of pics from the trip on my Instagram account. We took a cab from the airport to Havana. It was a Russian car from the 80s. Erick and I were silent for a while. We peered out through rolled down windows (no AC), while the diesel infused wind whipped across our faces and reminded us “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Right away, we saw the old American dinosaurs: Chevy, Ford, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Mercury, Pontiac. Some sparkled as if they just drove out of 1956. Others were jalopy frankensteins, rusted and altered beyond recognition. Every now and then, a swayback horse trotted past pulling a crude buggy with truck tires while Castro looked down from a billboard that read ¡Viva la Revolución! Erick struck up a conversation with the driver. His son was able to leave the country as a professional musician. He boasted like any proud father, but admitted that he wished his son was back home. “I’d rather be poor and eating with my family than rich and eating alone.” The statement set the tone for our trip.
We stayed with Margarita’s cousins, Julio and Isabel, at their casa particular (a state sanctioned B&B) in Habana Centro. They are both doctors, but struggle to make ends meet. The casa particular is a new enterprise for them. Julio works at the hospital, and used to also deliver pizza in his off time. Everyone does what they need to do to supplement the spare rations. Centro is mostly residential with the occasional storefront or restaurant. The crumbling buildings stand in stark contrast to the polished tourist center of Habana Vieja. Cracked paint, a makeshift door, the outline of what was once probably an ornate cornice show us the ravages of time and economic hardship, yet these buildings stand proud. They’re still standing. They’re still homes to proud people who also press on in the face of adversity.
We spent the first few days of the week walking around Havana taking reference shots. Between the classic cars, old architecture, and street vendors singing about their wares, Cuba really does feel like a time capsule. Then without warning you’re pulled back into present tense. In one plaza, a hoard of people squeeze in tightly to try to get cell service. Across the street, a giant tour bus squeezes through traffic.
Julio helped us find a driver to take us on a road trip. I wanted to experience the journey that the family in the book makes. His friend Rey arrived with his wife, Marbelis, and their 1954 Chevy 210 Series, AKA the Delray. Yes, he shares a name with the car model. She’s in good shape, if not a little rough around the edges. The Chevy has been in Marbelis’ family for over 30 years. Though the old American engine still works, they took it out to preserve it and installed a Mercades engine. This is no small feat, considering that in 2015 the average Cuban earned less than $100/month. Parts are rare, and those you can buy are pricey. As part of my research back at home, I watched Cuban Chrome, which I recommend watching if you want to get an idea of the pitfalls and triumphs of car repair in Cuba.
We headed out of the city on a highway. The decaying pastel structures gave way to a lush green landscape. Every few miles a crowd waited for a bus to Havana. Some piled into almendrones (communal taxis)—more than one would think imaginable. We stopped at several farms. Erick and Rey explained what we were doing. Everyone was very welcoming while I traipsed around with my giant camera. A woman hung laundry on a line while men tinkered with farm equipment. A small boy insisted that I meet his guinea pig. We drove south, passed through the beautiful French architecture of Cienfuegos, and stopped in Trinidad, a small colonial village on the southern coast where Margarita’s parents met. Unfortunately, Trinidad is not featured in this book, simply because 40 pages wasn’t enough visual space to cram it in. However, it meant something to visit a town that Margarita has ties to, and that we were traveling on roads she and her forbearers once traversed.
The next day, we drove all the way to Havana. I tried to take in the whole scene. Palm trees and Plymouths. An old friend, and two new ones. And this big blue hunk of metal, a symbol of past and perseverance, the most incredible automobile I have ever had the honor to ride in. “Does the car have a name?” I asked. Rey and Marbelis were puzzled. “In the US, sometimes people name their cars,” Erick translated for me. They smiled at the novelty of this. “What is the name of the car in the book?” they asked. “Cara Cara,” I said. “Well, then that is her name now!” This remains one of my favorite moments.
There’s so much more about making this book that I want to share. And there’s so much more of Cuba that I wanted to show in this book. All I can do is hope it’s enough. Margarita said this book is about peace, about bringing two neighbors together: the Cubans in the book, and the Americans reading it. Neighbors should be friends. While some of this book may seem very foreign to some, I hope that they can also see the universal themes of family and the roads we take, some bumpy and others smooth. If one neighbor can see the road the other is traveling on and discover a familiar feeling, then maybe that is enough for me.
Read these art notes to learn more about the process of illustrating this book. To read the four starred reviews or to order online, please visit my site. To hear even more about this book, listen to this podcast interview with Matthew Winner of All the Wonders. ¡Gracias!