The year is 1991 — the setting, Havana.
That year is commonly recognized in world history as the year that the Soviet Union dissolved. With it followed the collapse of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), which facilitated economic partnerships and assistance to Russian (then USSR) allies.
Cuba was one such allied country, and without the economic assistance available through Comecon, the country would enter the greatest economic depression in its history. Ironically, this span of time, roughly stretching from 1991 to 2000, is colloquially referred to as the “Special Period.”
During the Special Period, farming communities, for multiple reasons, struggled to produce sufficient crops to fill the void left by the halting of affordable food shipments from Russia. While it eventually resulted in a complete shift in Cuban society by increasing the need for agriculture and industry, the people of Cuba were first forced to endure a painful time of national food insecurity.
In the farmland near Las Tunas, a city located in the east-central region of a rapidly changing Cuba, a young Dorian Agüero was experiencing firsthand the harsh reality of the Special Period.
His experience heavily influences the highly unique style of his acclaimed artwork.
“This time of peril, which was extremely horrible for the people — no money whatsoever for anything, there was no food or anything in the country,” Agüero said over dinner Wednesday night. “A lot of people from the east part of the island started to sacrifice all the cattle they had because there was nothing else to eat.”
Having only recently arrived in Cheyenne with his family, Agüero primarily speaks Spanish. Adjacent to this reporter was Harvey Deselms of Deselms Fine Art, who met Agüero after the artist wandered into his shop one day with a portfolio of his work.
Deselms jokes that, since then, there’s been a lot of “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” conversations. However, a language barrier hasn’t stopped Agüero from selling five pieces of his work in the short time they’ve known one another.
To help facilitate the conversation, Victor Rivera, who also recently relocated to Cheyenne from Miami for a position at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, translated the conversation between Agüero and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
With significant knowledge of the region, Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, was also able to provide insight into Cuban culture, like how much of Havanan infrastructure and product continue to reflect those of the 1940s. He also explained that the average wage in Cuba is $30 to $40 a week, that military service is mandatory for all men, and how becoming an artist in Cuba is a particularly rigorous journey.
“In Cuba, people like him that are artists, they are amazing,” Rivera said. “I will say the worst painter in Havana will be one of the best painters anywhere in the States. What I think is different is that, in Cuba, when you go to the National Art School in general, they teach you to be an expert in technique.”
He explained the uniqueness of Agüero’s work and the fact that it displays more “American” updates than much of the other Latin artwork he’s come to see during his travels throughout the world. Rivera also attested to the quality.
To understand this statement, it’s easier to observe Agüero’s art than explain it.
A child of the Special Period
The entirety of his portfolio consists of paintings and sculptures of cows — often colorful renditions of the animal portrayed with human qualities. Some cows wear hats and makeup, others are dressed as matadors.
More recently, the bodies of cows were presented in amorphous shapes that are likely to stun the viewer at first glance.
Some art is best viewed and interpreted without understanding the intent behind the work, but for those unfamiliar with the Special Period, knowledge of Cuban history is essential to comprehending the theme that Agüero explores.
Because of extreme food shortages during the Special Period, Cubans in the east were forced to slaughter livestock to feed themselves and their families. In order to prevent the people from rapidly depleting the country’s cattle population, the Cuban government soon instituted new penalties for killing a cow.
Ultimately, the government determined that killing a cow carried a prison sentence longer than what might be imposed for killing a human being.
“This is ridiculous, because you’re literally putting more value in a cow than in a human,” Agüero said. “(I) decided to humanize cows and make them a character of the society, like they literally are members that, to an extent, are more privileged than the regular Cuban person in the streets.
“(I) try to make every cow that (I) paint represent the identity of a specific issue. It could be a political, economic or social issue that (I) have experienced. (I) try to make that issue the face of the cow.”
Though he was young, Agüero clearly remembers the lengths to which the Special Period affected his family. His and his parents’ generations were left to navigate the fallout of the Cuban Revolution caused by generations before them.
Yet, these older generations continue to encourage the country’s youth to keep the revolution alive, he said.
To a certain degree, he said that the majority of Cubans his age are not interested in continuing a revolution — especially a revolutionary mindset now fueled off of ideology after “practical aspects of the revolution have failed.”
“(Our) parents had nothing to eat at the table, and the little they (had) they stopped eating so their kids could eat,” Agüero said of the Special Period. “Kids (had) anger and broken hearts because they saw (it was) so unfair for our parents.
“What this revolution did to our parents, it’s unforgivable. After the pain they saw, it was like ‘No, this wasn’t fair for them.’ They don’t want to forgive the regime that left that to their parents.”
These feelings are strung throughout all of his work, honed through years of training and advising in National Art School in Havana. They are the culmination of his family’s past, his country’s history and the unique perspective that he had to develop from his life experiences.
As a result, he’s found a niche unlike anyone else.
It’s fair to assume that he will only develop further as an artist as he and his family further acclimate to their new life in Cheyenne. Already, he has begun painting cows in suits and more formal attire to represent the cow being a more “civilized creature” in the States.
Moving to the United States has been his family’s goal for some time now. With the United States government’s passage of new immigration laws in January, a once incredibly difficult process of applying and being granted entry into the country has been simplified.
Citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela can now apply to enter the country, as long as they have someone who can financially support them stateside. For Agüero, this person is a family relative they are currently staying with.
The entire process took all of 15 days, and they are yet to acclimate to the harsh wind and unforgiving cold since arriving in the region.
Agüero is soon to complete his most recent painting in the main room of Deselms Fine Art — a depiction of buffalo stampeding through powdery snow, a small balloon above the animals bearing the likeness of the United States flag.
He said aspects of the painting, like the powdery snow, represent that he and his family have “found salvation” in their new home.
“(I) identify with the buffalo because of the buffalo’s strength. It’s a very strong animal that can endure a lot of things,” Agüero said. “(I) feel that, in a way, (my family) are buffaloes, because (we) went through a very hard time to get here. We needed a lot of strength; we had that strength to make it here.”