Byron Motley grew up in Kansas City has visited Cuba 18 times in the past 10 years on a research visa, documenting the life and culture of the island in a new book called “Embracing Cuba” ($35, University Press of Florida).
The book includes essays about Motley’s experiences and has sections devoted to architecture, vintage automobiles, baseball, music, art and dance.
Motley, who now lives in Los Angeles, was in Kansas City recently to promote the book and visit his parents. His father, Bob Motley, is the last living Negro Leagues umpire. This conversation (minimally edited for clarity) about Motley’s friendship with Mariela Castro Espin, President Raul Castro’s daughter; performing at the Havana Jazz Festival and a coming film with Penny Marshall took place over lunch at Gates Bar-B-Q on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard.
Q. You just returned from Cuba a few days ago. What were you doing down there?
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A. I was invited by my friend Mariela Castro Espin (Raul Castro’s daughter) to present some of my photos of the Cuban LGBT community at a conference on sexuality in Havana. (Castro Espin is director of the Cuban national sexual education center and is an LGBT rights advocate.)
Q. How much tolerance is there for the LGBT community in Cuba?
A. Cuba has made tremendous strides in the past few years, mainly through Mariela’s work. It’s gotten much more open just since 2009, when I first began documenting that group.
Q. Did you have any book-signings while you were there?
A. My book is not for sale in Cuba because of the embargo; the publisher is not allowed to sell books there. I can give them away as gifts.
Q. In your trips to Cuba since President Barack Obama announced he was reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana, what are people saying about the possibility of Americans being allowed to travel to Cuba again?
A. My driver on this trip, he was 23 and he said, in effect: As great as I think this is, my concern is the negative influence of American violence and drugs on our culture. We have none of that now.
If you look you can find marijuana, but it’s not that prevalent and we have the safest country in the hemisphere right now. He told me that is the concern most Cubans have.
Q. Where do you stay when you are in Cuba?
A. In private homes, called casa particulares. For years I stayed in the same casa in the Vedado section, what used to be the aristocratic neighborhood before the revolution. Then a few years ago I thought I would check and see what was on Airbnb …
Q. Cuban homes are listed on Airbnb?
A. Yes. Who knew? And I found this really great apartment in Vedado, so there’s more privacy. And it’s owned by a beautiful family and they cook for me in their apartment if I want.
My concern is the negative influence of American violence and drugs on our culture.
23-year-old driver in Cuba
Q. You write in your book about the incredible happiness of the Cuban people, despite their circumstances. Did that surprise you?
A. Oh, yes. The first time I went there I was a little scared. I made out a will in case I got thrown in jail or whatever. And what I found was, you would be hard-pressed to find another culture that is so honest and so real and so happy. The Cuban people are not a stressed people.
Sometimes when I’m walking if I hear music inside a house and the door is open I’ll just walk in, start taking some photos, maybe go into the kitchen, grab a glass and have some rum, and they love it.
Q. How does being a black man in Cuba feel compared with being a black man in the United States?
A. It feels absolutely different. In Cuba I go to different places and look around and see whites and blacks mingled together as if it’s nothing, and all these wonderful mixed children running around. And they are all just Cubans. I do have to say, though, in the upscale establishments I have noticed that the wait staff is all white and the black Cubans are relegated to cleaning the floors.
So it’s not perfect, but Castro announced early on in the Revolution, “We have no more racism.” Of course, that wasn’t true yet, but it was a powerful way of saying, “We’re not having that any more.”
Q. Cuba is a huge place, the island is longer than Florida. What are some of your favorite places outside Havana?
A. At the very bottom of the island, near Guantanamo, is Baracoa, where they say Columbus first landed. A lot of people there are indigenous, so a lot of them have Indian-type features, and their cuisine is coconut-based.
My second-favorite city after Havana is Trinidad, a colonial city with cobblestone streets and a lot of charm. It’s very colorful. I have an adopted family there.
Q. How did you meet them?
I met them when I was looking for another family that had moved because of a hurricane. I couldn’t find their new neighborhood, so I stopped a kid and in my bad Spanish asked for directions. I couldn’t understand him, he was talking so fast. He must have seen the look on my face because he said, pointing to my car, “Can I get in and show you?” So we find this other family and spend a couple hours at their house and then I took him home and he invited me in to meet his family, and we’ve been the closest of friends ever since. I’m the godfather of his kids now. His mother and sister cook for me; it’s just wonderful.
Motley is also working on a film with Penny Marshall about Effa Manley, owner of a Negro Leagues baseball team and the first woman owner in baseball.
Q. What is the transportation like?
A. I usually have a rental car, and the roads outside Havana can be dicey. I would never drive on those roads at night. There are not enough signs and huge potholes and cattle running across the street. I’ve never flown inside the island — you hear about those old Soviet planes …
Once Mariela (Castro Espin) invited me to fly with her from Havana to another town and I was like, “No thanks, I’ll drive.” Even though with the president’s daughter on board, that plane would probably have been safe.
Q. You are a singer. Have you ever performed in Cuba?
A. Yes, at the Havana Jazz Festival in 2005. That was the most incredible musicianship I have ever worked with.
Q. How so?
A. At rehearsal I brought recordings so the musicians could hear how the songs go, and when I tried to play them, they said, “No, no, just give us the charts and count it off for us — what’s the tempo?” I counted it off and they started playing like they’d been playing those songs all their lives, perfectly. Every single song. It was top-notch.
Q. What is your next project?
A. I have a feature film in development that I am doing with Penny Marshall. It’s about Effa Manley, the first woman to own a sports team in the U.S. She owned a team in the Negro Leagues called the Newark Eagles. She was also the first woman ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.