Got a Question About Cuban Snails? Take a Peek in Mr. Cueto’s Hall


Havana Émigré Builds One-Man Smithsonian to Homeland in a Washington Apartment, as Nicholas Casey reports in this article for The Wall Street Journal. Follow the link below for an interesting interactive graphic.

In this collection of Cuban artifacts, the porcelain is from Holland and Spain, the antique books from colonial Havana. Ignore the toothbrush though—that’s from the corner store just down the street.

This is the home of Havana-born Emilio Cueto, a retired lawyer who once wrote (and starred in) a one-man play on Cuban history. For decades, he has been setting his sights on another project: Becoming a one-man Smithsonian of the island—albeit one in exile.

No one, not even Mr. Cueto, 69 years old, can put a figure on how many newspapers, biographies, musical scores, maps, menus, coins, school yearbooks, slang lexicons, tobacco tins, perfume bottles and gunpowder holders made of animal horns inhabit this apartment—and the adjoining one that he took over in the 1990s in order to expand. The place is known as the Emilioteca, the name a late friend of Mr. Cueto’s gave it to honor its curator.

A dozen rooms have shelves looking much like ordinary library stacks. There is a digitized card catalog. There is a closet containing sizable holdings on Cuban law. A kitchen cabinet lacks food but has just about every cookbook that can be found on Cuban cuisine.

“I am fully aware that it is not easy to describe my collection or assign it a generic name. What is ‘it’?” asks Mr. Cueto. “I am not sure there is any good answer.”

The bedroom is filled with histories of Cuba, manila folders of files on Cuban Catholic clergy going back centuries—and a very small bed. Mr. Cueto sleeps there; few traces that this is a home exist elsewhere.

It isn’t clear just where Mr. Cueto’s obsession comes from. In some ways, he is trying to capture a kind of Cuban essence that his island can’t anymore. Poverty has left many treasures up for sale on the streets. Aging revolutionaries proclaim that Cuban history really began in 1959. “There are five centuries of history in Cuba,” Mr. Cueto says.

Mr. Cueto is tied up a bit in that history, too. He was born in Cuba, but was spirited away to Miami under the Central Intelligence Agency’s Operation Peter Pan, when parents sent 14,000 Cuban children away to the U.S. fearing life under Fidel Castro. “There were years in Cuba when the officials would go into the art museums and take away all the paintings of those who left Cuba. So I decided I would do the opposite—everything is welcome here and nothing is not.”

Snails are welcome. He gestures to a jar of colorful shells in a hallway from an endangered gastropod found only in the hills around the isolated Cuban coastal town of Baracoa and whose scientific name is Polymita picta. These snails were first described by a Transylvanian scientist named Ignaz Edler von Born in the 1780s. Mr. Cueto proudly notes a recent article he published about their mysterious appearance in nine still-life paintings by Dutch masters a century before that.

“My article was, for sure, the best thing that was written on that particular topic,” he says.

If Mr. Cueto wants an object for the Emilioteca, he usually gets it. When Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuban economist who lives much of the time in Pittsburgh, tried to get his hands on an old map of the island at a print shop in Brussels, it went roughly like this: “I asked the seller how much he wanted for it,” Mr. Mesa-Lago recalls. “And he said he was sorry, but the map was reserved for the Cueto Museum in Washington.”

Mr. Mesa-Lago, a friend of Mr. Cueto’s for decades, didn’t mind though. “Emilio deserved the map,” he said. “He is an obsessive man, but he is a humanist.”

Mr. Cueto, who started collecting in his teens, never married or had children to carry on his project. He says his goal for posterity is to bring his collection back to the island if one day it is possible to return there with it.

“So people will know what an impact this little island has had on the world outside in the arts, in music, in literature. Little things no one thought to see. But I saw them,” he says. “Back to Cuba, that is my next move.”

While it is many things, the Emilioteca isn’t open to the public. Most neighbors have never been inside and the attendant in the front lobby only has a vague notion that “there’s some kind of library up in there, I hope he’s insured.” Asked if he would open his doors to a reporter and photographer, Mr. Cueto initially declined, saying he feared being deluged by “requests from all over.”

But after some more prodding, Mr. Cueto changed his mind, and on a chilly Thursday, he put on his best tropical shirt with a Cuban print on it, drank a cafe cubano—essentially a sweet espresso—and headed to work at a small computer sitting by his collection of Cuban menus.

“Dear Señor Cueto,” began an email from an art history professor in Florida. The scholar was looking for the dimensions of a lithograph by Pierre Toussaint Fréderic Mialhe, a 19th-century Frenchman who traveled around the island to create scenes of daily Cuban life.

The professor was in luck. Mr. Cueto has authored a catalog of Mialhe lithographs and has a wide-ranging collection of prints. In fact, he owns perhaps the largest collection of Mialhe’s sketches transferred onto porcelain dishware, which occupy shelves on two walls of his dining room.

Later, he remembers the day an antiquarian in Barcelona called him to say there was an orphaned box of Cuban miscellanea that was available. An intended original buyer had run out of money and the seller wanted to know if Mr. Cueto wished to claim the items for himself. “My God, I thought…My God, oh my God, you would not believe this!”

Was the collection valuable? Mr. Cueto shrugs.

“Not really. But I didn’t know it existed. The universe was X. Now it was X + 1.”

For the original report go to

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