Havana, Cuba, 2010 Pho­to by Car­ol M. High­smith, Library of Congress

In the ear­ly 1990s, about a decade after I start­ed my pro­fes­sion­al career in art con­ser­va­tion, I decid­ed to attend a preser­va­tion con­fer­ence in Havana. This deci­sion came out of nowhere. Though both my par­ents and I had been born in Cuba, my child­hood had been fraught with stress­es that were root­ed in our Cuban past. My moth­er, for exam­ple, had grown up moth­er­less and des­ti­tute in a Havana Jew­ish orphan­age. My Jew­ish father was raised in a com­fort­able mid­dle-class home by an immi­grant busi­ness­man, but my pater­nal grand­fa­ther would not allow him to take some of their nest egg out of the coun­try when Cas­tro took pow­er. This was a con­stant source of fam­i­ly argu­ments when I was grow­ing up, espe­cial­ly because my father’s busi­ness­es in Mia­mi were always going bank­rupt. My adult­hood had tak­en me first to Boston, then New York, then Philadel­phia, and final­ly Los Ange­les, far away from the nexus of the Cuban immi­grant expe­ri­ence. And yet, an art conservator’s job requires us to seek and under­stand the source of dam­age as the pre­lude to repair. Some­how, I must have known this when I jumped at the chance to head to Havana.

The con­fer­ence was spon­sored by Cuba’s Cen­tro Nacional de Con­ser­va­cion Restau­ra­cion y Muse­olo­gia (CEN­CREM). I was sur­prised by every­thing I saw. First and fore­most, there was the breadth and depth of my Cuban pro­fes­sion­al coun­ter­parts’ abil­i­ties, even as the recent col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union had left them with­out resources like wax to line paint­ings, Japan­ese paper to mend draw­ings, and near­ly every type of syn­thet­ic glue or sol­vent. Then there was the city itself, a near­ly com­plete palimpsest of the last 500-years of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry in tile, bronze, lime­stone, ter­ra­cot­ta, and mar­ble. Most of Havana’s build­ings were in dis­re­pair, but still stand­ing since no devel­op­ers had an incen­tive to tear them down. How was it pos­si­ble, I won­dered, that the odd­ball pro­fes­sion I had cho­sen – art con­ser­va­tion – had so much to do with the place where I came from? And how could it be that no one in my fam­i­ly had told me that this lega­cy was as much a part of our past as the losses?

A few days into the con­fer­ence, the deputy direc­tor of the CEN­CREM asked me if I would like to vis­it Havana’s Jew­ish ceme­tery. Luis Lapidus was a lanky and mus­ta­chioed archi­tect a few years younger than my par­ents. Like my par­ents, he had been born in Cuba to East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­grants, but he had sup­port­ed the rev­o­lu­tion and decid­ed to stay when most Jews left the coun­try. I accept­ed his offer with enthusiasm. 

Unit­ed Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion Cen­tro Macabeo Beyt Hay­im is locat­ed in Gua­n­aba­coa, a hilly colo­nial town on the oth­er side of Havana Har­bor. As Lapidus drove me there in his Sovi­et-made Lada, he explained that Gua­n­aba­coa is a native Taino word that means site of the waters.” 

Cuba’s orig­i­nal peo­ples were almost com­plete­ly dec­i­mat­ed by Span­ish con­quis­ta­dores,” he said, but their pres­ence is in all of our towns and places.” We entered past the cemetery’s tall gates, and Lapidus greet­ed an Afro-Cuban man who sat in the gate­house. Gua­n­aba­coa is also famous for the prac­tice of Afro-Cuban reli­gions,” he added, fur­ther explain­ing that prac­ti­tion­ers of San­tería, Palo Monte, and Abakua took care of the rest­ing places of los muer­tos judios by remov­ing weeds and gath­er­ing bro­ken mar­ble pieces. The man at the gate kept a large ledger that con­tained names cross-ref­er­enced to loca­tions. This helped the many Jews who vis­it­ed the ceme­tery from abroad locate their rel­a­tives among the many aisles of marble. 

For con­ser­va­tors, repair­ing does not mean revers­ing. It means deal­ing with the fin­ger­prints of his­to­ry, incor­po­rat­ing what has hap­pened into the sto­ry of the artwork.

All of those valiant efforts notwith­stand­ing, the Jew­ish grave­yard was in dire con­di­tion. Many lids were cav­ing in from their own weight. Stars of David were miss­ing points. Weeds sprout­ed through hair­line cracks, and tombs were sug­ar­ing, a process that exfo­li­ates small crys­tals of cal­ci­um car­bon­ate. Inscrip­tions were so caked with fun­gus that many were hard to read. It looked like a textbook’s worth of mar­ble damage. 

Which was appar­ent­ly the rea­son Lapidus had brought me here. 

How would you like to teach a work­shop on mar­ble restora­tion here?” he asked.

The idea seemed out­landish, but I felt my pulse race. Lapidus and I began dis­cussing the logis­tics, how to get the adhe­sives and oth­er repair mate­ri­als to the island, when the course might be attempt­ed. Even as we planned it, I envi­sioned my par­ents’ reac­tion. They already thought me crazy for return­ing to Cuba. For them the island was a bas­tion of irrepara­ble loss­es, only worth vis­it­ing if it was pos­si­ble to recov­er what had been usurped. But as I stood there, watch­ing thun­der­heads roll towards us from the north, I real­ized that there was more to recov­er than sim­ple pos­ses­sions. For con­ser­va­tors, repair­ing does not mean revers­ing. It means deal­ing with the fin­ger­prints of his­to­ry, incor­po­rat­ing what has hap­pened into the sto­ry of the artwork. 

Just then, light­ning flashed over the ocean to the north. Lapidus said, Would you like to find any of your rel­a­tives here? If so, we should hur­ry up and do it.” 

We made our way back to the gate­keep­er. I gave him a list of names, begin­ning with my mater­nal grand­moth­er, Rosa Oxman, the woman who had died from com­pli­ca­tions of giv­ing birth to my moth­er. He flipped the pages of his large book and shook his head. But he had the loca­tions of Chaya Fel­man, my mother’s grand­moth­er, and Fan­ny Lowinger, my father’s aunt. 

Lapidus led me first to my great-grandmother’s grave. I placed a stone on the mar­ble and said the kad­dish. Amen,” respond­ed Lapidus. 

The thun­der rum­bled clos­er, so we hur­ried in the direc­tion of my father’s aunt’s grave. As I rushed to fol­low Lapidus, the tip of my san­dal caught the bro­ken side­walk. I fell onto a tomb. It was bad­ly erod­ed. But the name was clear­ly visible: 

Rosa Oxman Felman.

That after­noon, the grand­moth­er I am named for, the woman whose trag­ic death set off a chain of dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences that framed my entire life, reached out to remind me that my inter­est in repair — the rea­son I became a con­ser­va­tor — is root­ed in the sto­ry of our family’s dam­age. It orig­i­nat­ed there, with her in Cuba. Con­ser­va­tion is found­ed on the idea that things of val­ue are worth retain­ing, and that our paths in life are often marked by error. A tiny road­block or a bro­ken piece of con­crete can make all the dif­fer­ence. Our cracks and fis­sures are what authen­ti­cate us.

Rosa Lowinger is a Cuban-born art con­ser­va­tor who works in Mia­mi and Los Ange­les. The author of Trop­i­cana Nights: The Life and Times of the Leg­endary Cuban Night­club (2005) and Promis­ing Par­adise: Cuban Allure Amer­i­can Seduc­tion (2016). She is a grad­u­ate of Bran­deis, NYU’s Insti­tute of Fine Arts, and was the 2009 Rome Prize Fel­low at the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my in Rome.