The Other Havana

Young people play dominoes at a house party, in a backyard in Santo Suarez, Havana. This particular group and neighborhood are made up of Cuba’s “upper-middle class,” who have access to funds from abroad, and often items like Ray Bans and Yankees hats. As in most places, clothing is a way Cubans identify each other’s economic status. Lisette Poole

Havana is home to many contradictions. When I first visited in 2010, I arrived to see family and explore my Cuban roots. Like many Americans, I imagined the capital city would be full of old cars, broken buildings and downtrodden people.

All of those things exist in Havana, but there is much more to the island than poverty and time capsules. Appearances can been deceiving and Cuba's constant change is perhaps most evident in its fashion. In Havana, unlike in Brooklyn, no one steps out for coffee in their pajamas. Being primped and pressed is important at all times. Men often wear tight-fitting shirts, along with jeans or capri pants. Most are always clean shaven and their hair is always neatly groomed. Women tend to favor short skirts and spandex in the Havana heat, and everywhere you look, someone sparkles with gold: earrings, necklaces, teeth. Looking good "is just as important as eating," says Kiriam Gutierrez, a transgender stage performer whose income depends on her appearance.

In Focus

Photos: The Style on the Street in Cuba's Capital

The Cuban capital is a city committed to preserving appearances and homes.
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José Miguel Sánchez, a science fiction writer known as Yoss, agrees. "Cubans like to have 'swing' [the Cuban word for swag], even though their house is falling down," he says. His room is adorned with anime posters and Samurai accoutrements, which usually aren't available in Cuban stores. Yoss is often seen near his home and the University of Havana, jogging in shorts and combat boots. Locals know him as the guy with the unusual metal style, long hair and headbands, an outfit that looks more at home in Seattle than it does in Cuba.

José Miguel Sánchez collects Anime and swords in his home in Havana. He is the island’s most celebrated science fiction writer. Lisette Poole

In Havana, common household items such as toilet paper are difficult to attain. Advertisements basically don't exist and stores often have empty shelves. So as I walked the streets I was struck by everyone's preoccupation with appearance. I was surprised by how the real Cuba differed from the one I saw on television. Sure, there were grim-faced men and women sitting on stoops, colorful Castro propaganda posters lining the highways and drab Soviet-era concrete apartments on every block. But inside those apartments, it's clear how much time and effort Cuban families put toward preserving their homes—from the collages of family photos lining the walls to the meticulously dusted porcelain figures resting on their shelves.

Even for those Cubans who care little about popular fads, looking good and keeping a clean home is important. "All the neighbors know each other," says Maidy Machado, a Cuban woman who has returned to Havana after living in Europe for 11 years. In the U.S. "someone will call you before they come over," she adds. "That doesn't happen here, so you always keep your house clean."

Neighbors wait outside to watch a quinceañera procession in Centro Habana. Despite the economic hardships on the island, being able to provide a lavish birthday party is a rite of passage and a source of pride for families. Lisette Poole

Having traveled to Cuba several more times since my initial visit, I've grown to understand why Cubans care so much about how they look; it doesn't stem from mere vanity; it has more to do with their resilience, their incredible ability to find a sense of pride despite their bleak surroundings. To be Cuban is to control what you can, even if it means spending half your weekly salary on fake nails or a new shirt. Some Cubans may not be able to remodel their homes, but they can buy a new pair of shoes and feel a bit better about their lives.

Lisette Poole is a Cuban-American photojournalist based in Havana. Her work focuses on youth culture, among other topics.