‘Have no Fear’: Miami artist explores papal visit to Cuba three years ago this month

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The Florida Catholic

January 18, 2001

By Tom Tracy

Xavier Cortada made a career change in 1993 when he left his teaching position at a Miami university to dedicate himself to art. The 36-year-old Cuban-American underwent a spiritual change three years ago when he joined a Florida pilgrimage to join Pope John Paul II at his closing Mass in Havana. “I would not have visited the island except because the pope was going, that was my ticket,” said Cortada, who grew up in Miami’s Little Havana and attended Gesu School in downtown Miami. The impact of the pope’s visit was it gave me a personal invitation to travel to Cuba, and it also gave Cubans (in Cuba) the invitation to carry their flag in the plaza in what at that time was the `pope’s plaza.’ The Latin American Art Museum in Miami is featuring Cortada’s impressions of the papal visit to Cuba in an exhibit, “No Tengan Miedo” (Have No Fear), which runs through Jan. 27. The exhibit — which takes its name from the pope’s remarks about Cuba being a frightful place — contains works created immediately after the artist’s first visit to the his parent’s homeland during the 8-hour charter trip with representatives of the Miami Archdiocese. It was organized for the closing of the papal visit Jan. 21-25, 1998. Have No Fear includes paintings — Cortada’s traditional medium — as well as conceptual pieces featuring objects which capture what Cortada sees as the “tragedy of Cuba.” They include course, raw, rusted, almost dangerous items such as blades, scissors and metal wiring. The former faculty member at the University of Miami Department of Psychiatry and director of the Juvenile Violence and Delinquency Prevention program there said he thought it was appropriate to look back on the papal visit to Cuba and consider its impact — on Cuba and Cubans in the diaspora. “I think the pope created these small places for people to be able to begin rebuilding Cuba and through a re-encounter with God,” said Cortada. “It used to be prior to the pope’s visit, you would only assemble (in Cuba) for state reasons, to go to the mandatory rallies of Fidel,” he said. “After the pope’s visit, there was a spiritual reason to gather and you begin to build a civil society and that is the legacy of the pope in Cuba.” Cortada was not just moved externally by the Cuba pilgrimage. The trip facilitated a rediscovery of his religious roots. His own concept of Cuba was already intertwined with Catholicism because of his upbringing, but through the years, Cortada said, especially while a college student, he experienced a disconnect. It was a beautiful experience in Havana in 1998 where the pope gave me permission to be there. He gave (me) a connection, so I in Miami could literally shake hands with the people I used to write letters to as a kid.” The pope’s words, “Have No Fear,” also had an impact on Cortada artistically. They served as stepping stones for the artist to take a chance and experiment with conceptual art. Cortada’s art work owes its roots to the need to communicate across borders and cultures. After passing the bar, the Floridian joined the University of Miami faculty and held a heavy schedule of speaking engagements in Latin America and Africa on juvenile justice matters. During a visit to children at a South African village in 1994, Cortada found he couldn’t speak their language.”So I did a lot of drawing for the kids and they started drawing back. I realized art was the universal language I could use to communicate with others.” By 1997, Cortada was a full-time artists with international artistic and humanitarian credentials. The U.S. State Department recently presented him with their Millennium International Volunteer Award for his work with children in Latin America in Africa. In February, he was invited to attend the Jubilee Day for Artists at the Vatican. He was one of only 600 artists and cultural figures invited from around the world for that celebration. Completing the circle, Cortada made a return visit to Cuba last April. He accompanied his father to his hometown of Nuevitas, a fishing village. It was there that father and son witnessed a Sunday Mass that was standing room only. It was the only place he saw hope in Cuba. “The church itself was in disrepair, it needed help and an infusion of cash,” he said. “But what was in those pews resonated with energy. It gave me hope for an island that has been stripped of its morality for 40 years.” In his piece, “Libertad 53-Embargo One,” Cortada puts the political question of the U.S. embargo against Cuba into some perspective. Describing himself as a kind of moderate on the question of Cuba and foreign policy, Cortada points out some in Florida1s Cuban-American community remain critical of the pope for calling for an end of the embargo. “It is one of those hot-button topics that completely precludes the discussion,” he said. “For those people who want to block out what the pope said with the embargo should remember this: He said the word embargo once, and liberty 53 times.” Looking back, Cortada said he believes the pope’s visit to Cuba accomplished much. He blessed and validated the people in Cuba, and those who wanted to visit. “He said, ‘If I can come to this island, so can my flock.’ After the kind of opening that has happened, it changed the paradigm. That is what this exhibit tries to convey.” For more about Xavier Cortada visit: www.cortada.com.