A report by Eva Rendle for Mission Local.
Radio Habana Social Club sits tucked away on 1109 Valencia St., its blue awning faded and its windows covered with flyers and posters. Except for a small neon “open” sign, you might miss it. But on a Friday night, it is standing room only in the tiny café.
If you weren’t paying attention, you might also miss Victor Navarrete. Navarrete leans in close to the bar, speaking in animated Spanish to a friend. At 70, he’s a slight man, wearing a denim jacket and a beanie with his signature gray ponytail peeking out from underneath.
Navarrete is the owner of Radio Habana Social Club, a Cuban cafe he bought from a friend about 15 years ago, intending and succeeding in making it a gathering place for artists and immigrants. It’s maintained its character after all these years, standing in quiet defiance of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, much like Navarrete himself.
“I had no idea how to run a restaurant,” he says, “the [original owner] taught me how to make Cuban coffee.”
Navarette was born near the American military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1947, and grew up outside of Santiago de Cuba. He began studying art at 15 and moved to Havana a few years later to continue his studies at the prestigious Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. He spent his early years studying sculpture, but at 19 started university for graphic design. He didn’t complete his studies, but joined an influential group of young artists and began making book covers and propaganda posters for the Castro government. Navarrete says he was paid well, like a doctor, and he enjoyed the work. “Here, propaganda is negative,” he says, “but [in Cuba] it’s a way to educate the public.”
But the Cuban government was suspicious of Navarrete’s group of friends. He didn’t have the freedom to create the art he wanted to. One of his friends was sentenced to nine years in prison for pasting a photo of Fidel Castro’s face on a ballerina’s body. “Politically, I wasn’t very good,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t very revolutionary. That may have worked against me.”
Navarrete has a tattoo of Che Guevara on his shoulder because he was “more of a romantic” Cuban revolutionary than his friend Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for decades. But Navarrete speaks of the Cuban revolution with disappointment. “Until the 90s, there was a hope that the system would change; that it would be more democratic; that the economy would get better. But this didn’t happen.”
The last straw came when Navarrete was invited to go to Italy for an art exhibit. He was excited, but since only those Cubans who were “politically perfect” were allowed to leave the country, he wasn’t allowed to go. Shortly after that, government agents raided his neighborhood and he was sent without trial to a work camp for a year on charges of “ideological diversion.”
“Other countries have borders. But Cuba is an island, so you have claustrophobia of being trapped by the ocean,” he says. “It gets to you, mentally,” Navarrete says his wife, Judith Justiz, was the first to tell him to leave Cuba. In 1980, he and two fellow artists traveled 80 miles through the night in a small boat.
Navarrete had spent weeks reading about ocean currents and maritime travel but said he wasn’t prepared for the moment when they lost sight of land. Being surrounded by darkness and water was terrifying. After almost 14 hours at sea, they reached Key West, Florida.
Navarrete had an uncle in Miami named Manuel Lopez. “Guess how many Manuel Lopezes there were in Miami?” he asks. He called 20 different names from the phone book before he found the right one. He went to live with his uncle, and after a year, Justiz joined him. The couple moved to San Francisco a year later.
He has been in the United States for more than 30 years now. He never learned more than basic English, he doesn’t drive, and he rarely uses email, stubbornly committed to doing things on his own terms. He spent the first half of his time in San Francisco working as a photographer for Spanish-speaking newspapers in the Mission. He and Justiz divorced after a few years in California, and he met his current wife, Leila Mansur, while working for El Tiempo Latino. He bought Radio Habana Social Club just before the newspaper closed. The cafe and his art have been his full-time occupation ever since.
Several years ago, Navarrete was visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when he found some of his work featured in a book of Cuban posters. Instead of including a biography, the caption simply read, “Victor Navarrete, immigrated in 1980.” “I felt a connection,” he said, “but it was historical. I made [those posters] years ago.”
Though he had been somewhat of a celebrity in the art community in Cuba, he shrugs off any concerns about leaving that life behind. “From my generation, almost everyone that used to do this has left,” he says.
Now, Navarrete works on his art in a small studio in the Hunters Point Shipyard, and occasionally shows his work in galleries. He creates sculptures out of objects he finds in secondhand stores or on the street. During a recent open studio, he pointed to one of his pieces, a plastic foot attached to the bottom of a crutch. “It’s funny because crutches are so expensive here,” he said. “People buy them when they need them, but then they just throw them away.”
As it is clear from his café, he’s inspired by the surrealist and Dadaist movements, and creates art that doesn’t follow any particular rules. His work also explores themes, like war, that he wasn’t allowed to express when he was in Cuba.
His café is filled with art as well. The back wall is a rotating gallery featuring local artists’ work, while the rest of the walls are covered in old photos, posters, and Navarrate’s quirky sculptures. Mobiles hang from the ceiling. Their ornaments include a Barbie wearing a motorcycle jacket, a baby doll with a rat’s head and a wooden figure with a shark’s body. “Time is kind of running out, so I have to do things quickly,” he says with a laugh, “but I like what I’m doing, and I’m happy with that.”
Open from 7:30 p.m. until 2 a.m. every day, Radio Habana Social Club is designed to be a gathering place. “If you’re an immigrant and you’re new here, this is the place you come,” says Dheyanira Calahorrano, a health worker from Ecuador. “There used to be more places like this, but now this is the only one.” She was sitting at the bar eating dinner with her young son, who looked no older than 10, who was working on a drawing to add to the collection on the bar’s refrigerator. He already had completed one titled, “Fuck Trump,” which Leila had proudly posted behind the bar.
Navarette has only been back to Cuba once, but he goes to Miami once a year to visit his daughter and granddaughter. It’s the only place he’ll swim in the ocean, because the water is warm and “mentally, you’re close to Cuba.”