It started last April when Emily Pate made one of her routine shopping trips to Packards Antiques on South Memorial Parkway, as Paul Gattis reports in this article for The Huntsville Times.
It culminated when Jose Betancourt, Pate’s photography professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, laid eyes on the pictures.
“You have Cuba — before Castro,” Betancourt, a native of Cuba, recalled saying. “So yeah, I was excited. It was great.”
Imagine you’re Pate. She merely thought she was buying a couple of bags of old film canisters – fascinated in a digital age with film photography.
“I kind of was interested in old cameras and in one of the booths, there were two bags of these little film canisters,” said Pate, a Huntsville native who will be graduating in May with a degree in marketing. “I’ve never seen that in person before.”
In those dozens of canisters, however, Pate found a handful of film rolls. And in those canisters with film, a couple had a small piece of paper that simply said “Cuba.”
“I didn’t know for sure where it was until I brought it to school to show Jose,” she said.
Betancourt knew immediately he was looking at a window through time of his homeland. The pictures apparently were taken in the mid-1950s by a couple on vacation in Cuba, based on other photos found in the canisters as well as the cars in the Cuba photos.
But filling in the details is nothing more than guesswork.
“She’s like my little investigator,” Betancourt said. “She loves figuring all this out.”
Said Pate, “It’s mysterious but it’s definitely piqued by curiosity.”
Of course, Cuba has been a sort of mystery since its borders were closed when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and brought communism to America’s doorstep.
“All the old family pictures we had before Castro, that’s what it reminded me of,” UAH associate professor and Cuba native Jose Betancourt said.
Betancourt said he left Cuba in the 1970s when he was a child and his memories of Cuba are largely the product of family pictures.
“My memories of Cuba are of things in ruins,” he said. “It was already in ruins pretty much. So for me to see it (before Castro’s regime), what it reminds me of are pictures I would see from my parents. All the old family pictures we had before Castro, that’s what it reminded me of.”
It’s also a reminder that Cuba was once a vacation destination for Americans. Pate found a flier on the internet of a cruise to Havana from Miami for $42 in the 1950s.
According to the website historyofcuba.com, “Havana had become the Latin Las Vegas, with the expected increase in tourism and nightlife.”
“If anything, you could think of it that Cuba was a very popular destination that people would go to travel, to have their vacation,” Betancourt said of looking at the photos some 60 years later. “It was a free society that no longer exists.”
The glimpse into pre-Castro Cuba has only made Pate want to know more.
“It’s intriguing to me because it looks like a colorful place,” she said. “There’s a lot of rich history there and I like history so I think it would be interesting to know more about it. There are only certain things you hear about constantly and just seeing everyday life (in the photos), what is it like for normal people there?”
And when the borders open again to tourists, Pate is ready to go.
“After looking at it, I want to go down those roads and see what’s there,” she said. “I think it would cool to get to see.”
But, as Betancourt said, Cuba “wasn’t perfect.” He remembers tales from family of corruption in the Cuban government that paved the way for Castro to come to power as well as an underground society that operated quietly alongside vacationers.
“That part of Cuba is something that people need to understand,” he said.
At the same time, American companies – such as Shell and Texaco – were a part of the Cuban economy.
“You could get pretty much anything you could get here,” Betancourt said.
The photos were from long ago from a time that’s long past. But for Betancourt, “It looked like Havana at its best.”
For the original report go to http://blog.al.com/breaking/2013/03/cuba_before_castro_uah_student.html