A professor's reflections on her complicated, illustrious, and unsavory family history in Cuba, Mexico, Europe, and the United States
On her recent sabbatical, professor Vivian Poey undertook research on her family history, to “thread back through generations a family history of migration and exile due to political upheaval.” She used her talents as a photographer to create graphic representations of her research, “connections and dislocations in relation to home, family, and history.” Dr. Poey is an associate professor in the Creative Arts in Learning programs and the director of the M.Ed. in Community Arts program. She relates her story below.
I am a naturalized US citizen, born in Mexico of Cuban parents. My US citizenship is due to my grandfather’s birth in Tampa, Florida, while my great-grandfather was in exile during the Cuban War of Independence (also known as the Spanish American War).
This is a difficult story to tell. The work is both historical and personal. The history of Cuba is complex, and my family's place within it is both illustrious and unsavory. History has consequences, and while we can't be blamed for what someone did in the past, we must understand how we benefit from that history and take responsibility to act on that knowledge. The history of slavery in Cuba is deeply intertwined with the history of sugar and revolution in Haiti. My parents came to the US from Cuba; my husband's from Haiti.
This research led me to a wide range of sources, from family stories and personal communication with academics doing Cuban research, to books, letters, journals, online articles, transcripts of speeches, a trip to the Museum of Natural History, historical maps, and a DNA test. I also went with my family to Cuba shortly after President Obama's visit. We stayed with family that we hardly knew in a trip that collapsed stories from the past with a difficult but hopeful present.
This work is still very much in progress and is based on an investigation that zigzagged through the past and the present. This work is the beginning of a body of artwork that will be fleshed out and expanded to also include the extensive research that has fueled it—research that took me to the Haitian Revolution and by default to the French Revolution and, of course, Cuba.
My research began with a photographic family biography. What follows are some of the biographies and photographs that are layered to include images from the past and the present. Every map matches the date of each exile, and is from the time frame of the event it represents.
Felipe Poey (b. 1789) is a significant figure both in my family and in the history of Cuba. He was a famous naturalist in Cuba who discovered species of fish and helped establish the Museum of Natural History. His letters and specimens are archived at the Smithsonian and he has hundreds of specimens at the Museum of Natural History here in Cambridge. This is the ancestor whose story is told and retold in my family: a boy who spent hours looking at ants in the back yard, who found God in fireflies, and who was later known by every fisherman in Havana as he spent every dawn at the docks. Ironically, he is one that I still don’t have a photograph for.I had planned to start with Felipe, but knowing rumors that we had an ancestor who was a slave trader, I began to search for that other Poey whom nobody talked about. It turned out to be his father, Juan Andres Poey Lacasse, who died in France five short years after Felipe’s birth.
Juan Andres Poey Lacasse, b. Orleans, France, date unknown - died in Pau, France, 1804.I have very little information on Juan Andres, except that he and his brother married into the Hernandez family, an established family in Cuba, and that the two families were part of the Sociedad Poey-Hernadez-Frias, a trade company dealing in human beings established at the turn of the century. Juan Andres Poey Lacasse died before the trade in Cuba multiplied during the Haitian Revolution, when the sugar industry largely shifted to Cuba.
Federico Poey Aguirre, born 1834, Havana, Cuba, died 1902. This Federico is my favorite. He was also a scientist, a dentist who quit his studies to work at a railroad station. In 1869, at the very start of the 10-year war, an unsuccessful war for independence that was also abolitionist, he was arrested and deported to the island of Fernando Poo (now Bioko) off the coast of Africa. While many deportees died, Federico escaped and finished dental school and lived for 10 years in France, returning to Cuba at the end of the war.
I have his journal and expect to work on a larger series about him and his trajectory through 65 days of grueling travel with 249 other deportees, many of them fellow dentists. I will also track his trajectory north to Europe. Twenty years after Federico’s return to Cuba, when the war of independence broke out, he went into exile in Tampa, Florida, where he met my Mexican great-grandmother and where my grandfather was born. Shortly after the end of the war in 1899, they returned to Cuba.
Federico Raul Poey Diago, born 1933, Camaguey, Cuba, living in Mazatlan, Mexico. My father’s trajectory blends with my own as we moved from Mexico to Guatemala to Colombia and finally to Miami, where we again parted ways. His trajectory is drawn in pencil in this image, which is of my daughter and her Cuban cousin in the ocean at Varadero, a beach that appears in stories throughout my life. "The water is so clear you can see the dirt under your toenails" and "the sand was like powdered sugar" are bits that come to mind.
My father was a supporter of the revolution and celebrated Fidel’s victory. His support shifted as time progressed and he finally left Cuba in 1963 and arrived in Mexico to join my grandfather and other family members.
Cuba is an island and as such one can only leave by water or air. There is a long history of political upheaval that I hope to interject more concretely into my body of images. But for now, the images are more abstract, they don’t quite tell a story but they are all connected to our attachment to the island. (below, Return, 2016 )
All images © 2017 by Vivian Poey Original images have been cropped for this article.
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