MODESTO — This is just an uneducated guess, but I suspect there are few countries in the Western Hemisphere folks here in the valley know less about than Cuba.
Since the late 1950s, the place has been under Fidel Castro's socialist grip. The bungled Bay of Pigs invasion became an embarrassment to the United States, and a standoff with the Soviet Union over Cuba nearly led to nuclear war.
Our government only in recent years began loosening restrictions that discourage if not prohibit American citizens from traveling to the island nation.
That didn't stop resourceful people from visiting the island nation 90 miles south of Florida. You could always join the military and be assigned to the American base now a prison for terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay. Or you could fly into Havana from Central or South American countries at the risk of perturbing U.S. authorities.
Getting out of Cuba wasn't much easier. Remember the Mariel Boatlift? Didn't think so. In 1980, 125,000 Cubans bolted for the United States after Castro proclaimed "Anyone who wants to leave Cuba can do so," calling those who seized upon the opportunity "escoria" (scum).
Modesto photographers David Schroeder and Jon Sousa, along with arts promoter John Griswold, would like to show you Havana while raising some cash for the fledgling Boys & Girls Club of Stanislaus County, and Community Liaison for Arts in Stanislaus Schools. Schroeder, Sousa and Griswold recently formed a nonprofit called "FocusOn " to help fill the void left by the now-defunct Stanislaus Arts Council.
Able to secure professional licenses, Schroeder and Sousa traveled to Cuba last year. They spent a week photographing the people, architecture, culture and conditions of the old Cuban capital city. They'll exhibit roughly 30 of their photos at the Mistlin Gallery in August. And Saturday night, they're teaming with Griswold to bring the Cuban culture to downtown Modesto by hosting "The Romance of Old Habana" benefit at the Martin Petersen Center.
The event will include musicians from Cuba and Cuban street food. Guests will enter through an archway that is an enlargement of one of Sousa's photos, and inside they'll find a 50-foot-long panoramic photo of Havana.
"People won't get to see that at the (Mistlin Gallery)," Sousa said.
Among the events sponsors are local attorneys Juan Carlos Rancaño & David Caudra Rancaño, both of whom were born in Cuba.
Schroeder and Sousa photographed a city that ceased to be maintained when Castro took over.
"It's almost like they stopped doing anything in 1960," Schroeder said. "Homes haven't been repaired in 30 years. Places where people live fall down."
At the same time, they learned, Cubans wasted nothing.
"They are a green country," Sousa said. "Those cheap plastic chairs we'd throw away when a leg breaks? They'll take rebar and bend it into a new leg and get it going again."
The majority of the vehicles are 1950s vintage, including a heavy 1957 Ford Fairlane with a small Mitsubishi motor.
"It struggled to get up the driveway," Schroeder said.
Art and medicine provide a chunk of the country's income. Its pharmaceutical industry is growing, and the Cubans literally rent their doctors to other Spanish-speaking nations, profiting from the free education they provided while paying the doctors more than they would earn in Cuba, the photographers said.
The nation also is becoming a force in the urban organic vegetables industry, converting vacant plots in the cities into organic gardens.
"It's one example of free enterprise," Sousa said. "The government doesn't run them."
Thus, Cuba a country Americans really know little about is there for the viewing and the tasting. It's a learning opportunity they hope to replicate with another exhibit and benefit event next year.
So what do you know about Ireland?
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.
The Romance of Old Habana event begins at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Martin Peterson Center, 720 12th Street, Modesto. Tickets are priced at $75 (VIP) and $60 (general) with proceeds benefitting the Boys and Girls Club of Stanislaus County and the CLASS program. Tickets are available by visiting havanafocus.org or calling John Griswold at (209) 543-4261 or David Schroeder at (209) 402-6092.
The Cuba photographic exhibit will run from July 29 through Aug. 30 at the Mistlin Gallery, 1015 J Street in downtown Modesto.