Perhaps embodying the experience of many Miami residents, Jonathan Brooks is torn between two lands. His American father and Cuban mother raised Brooks in an environment that he describes as equal parts “Que Pasa U.S.A.?” and “I Love Lucy.”
Brooks, a writer, photographer and filmmaker, recently published the book "True Cuba," partially in response to "Vamos a Cuba," which was pulled from Miami-Dade County public school libraries in 2006 for portraying what critics called an unrealistic depiction of life on the island.
His first book "True Cuba" features photos of life on the island as seen through its residents, rather than a publicist's lens. Brooks hopes that his book will provide readers with an accurate picture of life on the island minus any type of propaganda, either pro-Castro or anti-Castro.
A true homegrown talent, Brooks graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami and his award-winning work has been exhibited in Art Basel, New York, Amsterdam and the United Kingdom. On April 16, images from his “Skulls” series will be featured as the photography of one of the characters on the television show "Vampire Diaries."
Brooks took a few moments to speak with us about growing up Cuban-American, cultural disconnect and inspiration.
Describe your experience growing up with a Cuban mother and an American father.
I think I was able to take the best parts of each background and combine them into one. And being bilingual has opened up a world to me that would never have been possible otherwise. Not solely in communicating, but in the ability to to take in much more information. I don't agree with Latins who refuse to learn English or with anyone who refuses to learn a foreign language. We take in so much more when we understand more.
In the book you mention that you disconnected from your Cuban roots for a while. Could you elaborate on that?
I can remember being around 5 years old when my mother subtly signaled for me to keep my mouth shut on board a conch tour train in Key West when a few passengers were becoming vocal about their disdain towards Cubans. Later, the 1980 Mariel boat-lift release of many Cuban criminals and mentally ill prisoners did not help the reputation of exiles in the eyes of many Americans. It was during these peer pressure-riddled high school years that I succumbed to distancing myself from my Cuban side, at least publicly. Maturity brought me to my senses.
You promote the book as representing the "true" Cuba without any propaganda. What would you say to those who may claim that your book is actually anti-communist or anti-Castro propaganda?
I'm a patriotic American and have always been about liberty, truth, and justice. It would be hard to be about liberty, truth, and justice without being anti-communist or anti-Castro. I tried to stick to facts and to keep Fidel out of of it. It is one thing to have a political belief and another to lie or twist truths to accommodate your position.
How do you explain the huge disconnect between what is really happening in Cuba and the happy-go-lucky paradise that some believe it to be?
I think until you examine communism closely or experience it firsthand, it is really easy to not understand the oppression and devastation fully. I think that recent world circumstances, such as the revolt in Venezuela, prove that to be true.
What inspired you to create "True Cuba"?
The Thanksgiving arrival of Elian Gonzalez in 1999 motivated me to be more vocal about my views because I saw an extreme difference in the dissemination of information in English versus Spanish regarding the situation and the truth about Cuba. The Spanish message seemed to be more accurate, but much was always lost in translation or distorted, sometimes intentionally. I tried to convey those messages in English, but found when Elian was returned to Cuba, exile and public interest waned almost immediately. Then when I heard about the controversial "Vamos a Cuba" being pulled from library shelves in 2006, I immediately headed to the bookstore to evaluate the book firsthand. I then decided that creating a book from the point of view of an American born with Cuban heritage would be a great platform to voice my perspective.
Can you tell us about the Kickstarter campaign and how it helped get this book made?
Crowd funding platform sites have become extremely popular, and I felt Kickstarter was the most credible and most focused on creative projects. I started checking out the projects and supported a few. The more I learned, the more excited I got about other's projects, and the more I learned about putting together a successful campaign. My rewards for support were copies of the book, and the interest of a few helped me with some of the funds to finally publish the book myself. If the campaign had not been successful, I knew I could always try again at a later date with a new revamped campaign, so it was a win-win situation. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has a project that they hold close to their heart and have the determination to see it through.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
If I've opened the eyes of a handful of people after reading my book, I think that in itself is an accomplishment. I hope it opens up more frank conversations about what is really happening in Cuba and other similar topics. And if I could influence someone to do more research before commenting or taking a position on something, rather than believing everything they see in the media or read on the internet, my efforts have been a success. I don't have children, but if I did, I would want them to have access to the messages I write about in the book, especially as a Cuban-American.
A viewing party for the "Vampire Diaries" episode featuring Brooks' work will take place on 7 p.m. Thursday, April 16 at Sunset Tavern, 7230 SW 59 Ave., Miami.
Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the passing of the author's mother. It was his aunt.