Maria Martinez-Cañas, in her own words

Maria Martinez-Cañas, in her own words

As part of Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago we had the chance to sit down with artist Maria Martinez-Cañas and listen to her story. Originally printed in the spring 2019 issue of PMA Magazine, Maria shares how she came to America from Cuba, her views on making art in Miami and how she prefers to "go with the flow", and the importance of photography to "deal with the inside."

When my parents left Cuba,they were two 23-year-old kids with three girls already. I’m the youngest of the three. I was three months old.

I never heard the word "immigration" in my home. I always heard the word "exile" because my parents did not leave Cuba because they wanted to come here to make a better life. They left a better life because they had no choice.

That is a very different feeling because one of the things that happens is that something is detached from you, something that is so intrinsic to who you are and to your identity. I think that if you understand that, you look at things very different. My parents did not want to come here because they wanted to make a better living. They had a great living over there. They left because everything was taken. The company that my grandfather owned was nationalized. The houses were taken. The cars were taken. Everything was nationalized and taken. They had no choice but to leave. 

It’s very different because you grow up always with this sense of something is missing. There is a sense of belonging that has been ruptured and detached. Something broke. A part broke. Maybe you can continue using the tool or the machine or whatever. But something is not completely there. That sense of detachment was something that was very strong in my parents and also the breakup of the family. I have family members that I never met. My grandmother had sisters and brothers that she never saw again. I am totally convinced that is the reason that I started looking at photographs completely different, absolutely. There was so much importance put to [family photographs] that they became like a precious object, almost like an archeologist.

The importance my parents put on photographic images of family members or houses that they had in Cuba or things like that—they were really important to them. It was a way that they would show my sisters and I who were our family members. I never got to meet my paternal grandfather because he died when my father was only 15. The way that I knew him is by only two photographic images that my father got much later. Probably when I was in my 20s is the first time that I was able to see an image of my paternal grandfather because I never saw one before.

[When my parents left Cuba] they never imagined they were going to celebrate 58 years in exile, still. They thought that it was going to be a much shorter time. I think my parents didn’t really completely take everything out of the suitcase until after the first year that they had already been here. They never imagined that they were going to be out of Cuba for such a long time and never go back.

I have never been back. I have people that ask me that often, why I never been back. I would love to know and to see the place that I was born. But I cannot forget the reason that I was not allowed to grow up in the country that I was born in. My grandparents are dead. My parents are still both alive. It’s beyond me [that I could] do that to them because for them, they would be devastated. They don’t feel that it’s the right thing to do. I also don’t think I want to go with the way that things are. I’ve been here too long. Honestly, I am an American citizen. It’s the passport that I have and the passport when I travel. I got the Fulbright because I was an American citizen. I could not even apply to that if I wasn’t. I am an American. I’m just a Cuban-born, Puerto Rican-grown American citizen. It’s what it is. 

When I was very little, I was given a Polaroid Swinger, I think it was called. It was the white camera with the red or blue button. I was given one when I was in elementary school. I started taking pictures. The idea that you saw that image come out, oh my god, it was fascinating. I think the science of the medium was the first thing that took me. The cameras, the science, the seeing the image come out, I was totally taken by that. It was like seeing magic. It’s still magic which is what is so interesting about it. I also like change. It’s even in my personality. If I have to move from one place to the other, some people see it like a sad moment . . . I always see it as a beginning, not an end. It could be an end because it could be that I ended a relationship and I need to move. But for me, it’s always a beginning. It’s always an opportunity to begin. I just love what I do.

I always knew that it was not going to be easy, that it was going to be very challenging, probably a lot more failures than accomplishments. I just go with the flow. I work with what I feel is important to me at the time because I also don’t see a separation between my life and my work. I deal with the issues that are of importance to me as I am living life and thinking about my work. Maybe that is something that has helped me change.
When you work and continue and continue, how much longer can you continue dealing with the same issues? I get bored. Somebody came here to my studio, a collector, he said, “I hear that you’re changing.” I smile. I look at him. I say, “No, I am evolving.” I am not the same person I was at 25. How can I not also be the same person in my work? If I continue doing the work that I did at 25—oh my god—that would be horrible. It’s not that I force myself to change. It’s that I look forward to change. I let change happen when it needs to happen.

I think maybe one of the things of having a long journey or trajectory is that I don’t know what else to do. This is the only thing I know how to do. I just don’t know. It’s what I have done my entire life. I’m still fascinated by photography. That’s what is so interesting . . . It’s always been very experimental. My idea of using photography is not to document the outside world. It’s to deal with the inside, with a very personal way of working with the medium. People normally don’t see me with a camera. I am not the type of person that I walk out with a camera on me all the time. But when I go out with a camera to photograph, I photograph the outside world. It just that I ended up not using it completely the same way. It is there—you just don’t really see it.

You can hope that people would understand what the work is about. But art should be only universal. I hope that anyone would understand or at least would be curious to look at the work, not only Cuban-born. Many times [people] ask me, “Are you a Miami artist?” I say, “No, I’m an artist who, that happens to live in Miami.” My work is not about Miami. I can do my work here as I can do my work in Chicago as I can do my work in Philadelphia as I can do my work in New York. I don’t have to live here. Also, one of the things that happened once I moved here is that I became in many ways part of a majority. That’s very different than doing your work as part of the minority. That was really different. [Also] I didn’t have to explain myself so much. People understood the search for personal identity that I was going through when I moved here. [Recently, I was] nominated for a fellowship that I didn’t get. It was very interesting because they had a theme. I have never really applied to a fellowship that have a theme. But I did. It was called “The Last Photograph.” You can either use it very literal or you can use it very personal. I decided to turn it personal.

I interviewed four friends that are Cuban exiles in different stages, some older, some younger, about the significance of images in their life as they were growing up, just like I had with my parents. Then in talking to one of them—she left on Peter Pan*— she had a sign on her neck with her name and the address which she was going to go to in Miami. She was six years old. She’s sent to a completely different country on her own at the age of six, as a child, with four other kids.

What she didn’t know—that she found out almost at the age of 40—is that somebody took a picture of the five of them at the airport in Cuba. When she mentioned this to me, because her mother showed her this picture when she was writing a book about the whole process of Peter Pan, I became fascinated. I’m thinking, “You know, this is amazing because this is actually the last photograph of her as a Cuban national. This is the last image of her before she became an exile.” To me, it was really incredible the significance of that, of how before she started this journey that would forever change her life, a photograph was taken that exists today. She can see it. For her, it was incredible because she had no memory of that day. Her memory goes blank. Now she has evidence and proof of that moment when she becomes an exile. That to me was really, really fascinating to see and to hear and to think about it . . . Photography is really amazing.

One of the things that I love the most is to travel. I love to travel because I love to learn about other cultures, and I love to learn about other languages. I have met some extraordinary people by chance in a café, on the beach, you name it—people with whom I have remained friends my entire life, and they have been a big inf luence in my thing.

I think [Relational Undercurrents] is one of those opportunities that audiences in New England have to learn about cultures that they may know little about, because it can open your eyes to some extraordinary ways of looking not only at your own life, but looking at other people’s lives.

The more knowledge you have about other cultures, the less racism and prejudice, because people, when they don’t know, they are afraid. We’re all very similar. We’re the same. We have different accents, we have different ways of dealing with the world. We have different perspective of dealing with things that we are confronted with in our lives, but I think that that’s the beauty of it. Can you imagine if we were all the same? How boring it would be? That’s terrible. I think that the people that live in Miami, at least people that I know in Miami, we’re very open to different cultures because we are all from different cultures. . . We’re not afraid because we are all very different. I think that’s the way. That’s how we break down barriers. I highly believe that is one of the most important things— we get to learn about other people’s cultures. This is what makes this country so great, I think.

* Operation Peter Pan was a mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States between 1960 and 1962.

Add comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
February 26, 2019
Director of Communications

Graeme is a Maine native who, after ten years living in New York and the west coast, decided to come back and set up shop in Portland. In addition to the PMA, he's held positions at GQ, Rogues Gallery, and Might & Main. He lives in Yarmouth, where he spends most of his free time with his daughters, Ramona and Maude.