Alumnus's art captures the Cuban experience

From the University of Miami to Miami Art Week, Cesar Santalo infuses his art with the Cuban spirit to bring its history to a broader audience.
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“I always knew that I wanted to be an artist; there was never any doubt in my mind,” Cesar Santalo, M.F.A. ’06 and dean of Lynn University’s College of Communication and Design, said.

From early drawings on napkins to large-scale installations featured during Miami Art Week, the renowned international contemporary art fair held each year in Miami Beach and its surrounding areas, Santalo’s evolution as an artist has been influenced by Cuba’s history, his parents’ exile from their homeland, and his own experience as a first-generation Cuban American living in Miami.

He uses art to bear witness and testimony to the struggles of people in Cuba and those living in exile. 

“My parents left Cuba in the early 60s, vowing they would never go back to the island ever again because going back meant giving money to the Communist regime,” Santalo said. “Every day of my life, all I would hear about is what's going on in Cuba.”

When Santalo was eight years old, his family moved from Baltimore to Miami. Overnight, he went from being one of the only Hispanic children in his elementary school to being surrounded by Cuban culture. The experience, he said, was a culture shock.

“Miami helped me to reconnect with my Cuban heritage,” he said. “I could go to the corner to get my cafecito, my croqueta, and my pastelito for lunch, overhearing the conversations of exiled refugees talking about what's going on in Cuba.”

The Cuban community and their stories became formative to Santalo, and his art became a means for him to honor their experiences.

“It may be surprising that a person like me is so Cuban, having never stepped foot in Cuba,” he said. “I mean, my Spanish is kind of broken and I speak with an accent, but I was raised hearing about the suffering and torment that my parents went through coming here—leaving family members behind, coming with no money—and I live with that, it's a part of me. My art allows me to honor them, to honor my history, and to talk about the reality of Cubans in Cuba.”

He made a breakthrough during an installation course taught by Tim Curtis in the University of Miami’s MFA program. Curtis challenged students to bring personal elements into their sculptures.

“The first thing that popped into my head was the cafetera, the Cuban coffee maker,” Santalo said.

He realized that the top of the cafetera, when separated from the base, resembled a megaphone, and the base resembled a speaker. He created an installation consisting of 65 cafeteras, representing each year that Castro was in power, the tops separated from the bottoms and mounted on opposing walls. The tops of the cafeteras, rusted and broken, broadcast Fidel Castro speeches while the bases, shiny and new, streamed Cuban American radio.

“It was about my experience living as a Cuban American—I would always hear updates about Cuba coming from the island and then I would hear about it from the exile community in Miami,” he said. “When you stand in the middle, you hear both sides and it just creates this overwhelming noise.”

When Santalo showed the class, Curtis told him: “If you continue doing sculptures like this, you're going to make a name for yourself.”

Although he uses Cuban history and imagery, his art is intended for everyone because it reflects universal themes, like the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression.

In 2022, director Beatriz Luengo commissioned Santalo to create a mural to be featured in her documentary “Patria y Vida, The Power of Music.” The documentary tells the story of one of the few significant resistance movements in the history of oppression in Cuba by the artist group San Isidro. The Cuban government pursued the group for protesting increased censorship and the government’s controversial Decree 349, which requires artists to seek permission from the government before creating new works.

Cuban hip-hop musicians living in exile recorded the protest song, “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) as a direct challenge to the official patriotic slogan “patria o muerte“ (“homeland or death”). Luengo tasked Santalo with creating a mural to encapsulate this fight for artistic freedom and expression in Cuba.  

Santalo collaborated with Yotuel Romero, one of the creators of the song “Patria y Vida” and Luengo’s husband, when creating the installation to ensure it authentically captured the movement.

“Yotuel and Beatriz showed me a new reality that I never knew existed,” Santalo said. “I feel it is my job and responsibility to tell people what is going on right now in Cuba and share the struggles of a new generation of Cubans.”

Santalo’s mural is a deconstructed image of musician Maykel Osorbo, one of the song's authors, after his arrest in San Isidro, Cuba, in 2021. With the help of friends from the neighborhood, he escaped imprisonment and held his handcuffed arm in protest.

The mural includes articles from news outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, BBC News, and El País, which Santalo uses deliberately to give the piece journalistic credibility. The mural installation features Santalo’s signature cafetera-megaphones, hardwired around the mural to play a low, rhythmic Santería percussion from the bases and the song “Patria y Vida” overlaid with people chanting Libertad, or liberty, from the tops of the cafeteras.

For Santalo, creating the mural, debuting it in the documentary, and exhibiting the mural at the Pérez Art Museum during Miami Art Week are among his proudest moments as an artist.

“I think of my parents, how difficult and challenging it was for them in Cuba, what they went through, and now helping people to learn about the struggles of people in Cuba—something that my parents always taught me to do—it feels like an honor,” he said. “It makes me proud that even after my mother's death, I can still continue with her voice.”

Santalo credits the University of Miami with helping him to discover his own voice as an artist.

“The faculty really made me think about who I was and what I was doing as an artist, which required a lot of self-reflection,” he said. “The professors made a huge difference in my career by believing in me, supporting me, empowering me, and developing me as an artist.”

The University of Miami helped him realize that his proudest moments as an artist are when he pays tribute to his parents, their struggle in Cuba, and their shared Cuban heritage through his artwork. His studies helped him to create his own style, improve his technique, and find a greater purpose through his art. 

“If it wasn't for the U, I wouldn't be where I am today,” he said.