When New York-based Jauretsi Saizarbitoria went to her homeland of Cuba to explore the country she’d never seen and only heard about, she wound up discovering something more familiar and inspiring than she ever expected. Now, with a successful documentary about her discoveries, a soon-to-be-released photographic book, and a burgeoning media career, Jauretsi speaks to ASW about her numerous passions, how they intertwine, and she shares her hopes for a brighter Cuba.
As she orders her café con leche and huevos in a perfect Cuban accent at Manhattan’s Café Habana, it’s clear that Jauretsi Saizarbitoria feels right at home in this authentic rustic eatery. Born and raised in Miami to Cuban parents, she describes having always felt a strong affinity for – and fascination with – her family’s homeland. “You know of Cuba and you’ve never been there, and when you tell your parents you want to go you get your head ripped off. And you can literally get into a fight at a cocktail party with someone, because it’s such a sensitive subject,” she says of discussing Cuba amongst many Cuban-Americans. “And I just got sick of it.”
When her curiosity finally got the better of her and her lawyers managed to cut through the red tape that prevents US citizens from visiting Cuba, Jauretsi made the much-anticipated journey to the Caribbean island. She describes the challenge of getting to Cuba as two-fold: “There was the obstacle of the American Embargo which forbids me to travel there legally, and then there was a cultural embargo from the Cuban-Americans, where I upset my elders by visiting the homeland, comparable to an act of treason.”
Despite the resistance she faced, Jauretsi did go in search of answers (or in her words, “to sniff around”) and found them in an area east of Havana called Alamar. “If Havana is Cuba’s Manhattan, then Alamar is its answer to the Bronx,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “I fell in love with that neighborhood.” Jauretsi relays that as her cab pulled up to a house party in the Cuban ghetto, she knew she had found the heart and soul of Cuba that she’d been craving. “It was the best house party I’ve ever been to in my entire life!”
Jauretsi on the decks
Jauretsi at a Pre-Oscars party
A hip-hop DJ herself, Jauretsi had uncovered an underground Cuban hip-hop movement made up of individuals who she could not only relate to, but who were later to become the subject of a photographic essay (due for release soon) and her highly acclaimed documentary, East of Havana: “These kids were using rap as an outlet for expressing the grievances that they weren’t otherwise allowed to voice,” she explains. “It’s like a newsletter for the ghetto.”
While the film’s official release was in 2007, Jauretsi is still attending screenings at film festivals and speaking about its message to various audiences around the world. In fact, she just returned from a university in Florida where she was asked to lecture on the subject of Cuban youth movements, “which is an amazing thing,” she smiles. “People are actually using my film as a learning tool in universities.”
But film-making is just one of the many areas of media and entertainment in which this young talent has already made her mark. Formerly an events director at Paper Magazine, Details Magazine and later working on the editorial side of both Details and Jane, Jauretsi has now found herself at Starworks, a global creative casting agency. There she books talent for magazine covers and ad campaigns and is developing a New Media & Film department – and she loves it. “I remembered how much I love the media industry when I got back from Cuba and people were asking me to write for smaller hip independent mags,” Jauretsi recalls. “My career has fallen into place with each project I’ve worked on leading me to another.”
East of Havana film poster
When she’s not making public appearances for the documentary, dealing with celebrities or writing freelance articles, Jauretsi is DJing. And sometimes she’s doing several of these things at once. “I am frequently being asked to screen and then DJ afterwards, which I recently did at Norwood,” she explains. Her musical passion lies with the original masters of funk and soul, such as James Brown and Charles Wright. And she’s looking forward to her new monthly residency at the SubMercer in New York City, starting Thursday, April 3rd.
As our discussion of Jauretsi’s personal pursuits draws to a close, the indie beauty brings us back to what seems to be her first passion – Cuba – and more specifically, to the issue of Cuban-US relations. She is not sure how different Cuba will be under the rule of Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl Castro, but she is sure of one thing: “We need more cross-cultural exchanges in order to slowly build positive relations between the US and Cuba,” she stresses with a sense of national pride and concern that seems to span both nations. “For example, artists from both countries should be able to work collaboratively and in both places. And athletes need to be able to travel freely between countries. It will be a gradual process, a collaborative effort – changing the entire embargo can’t happen overnight, but these are crucial steps to begin dismantling it, and working towards a mutual friendship.” For now though, Jauretsi is certainly doing her part.