The New Cuban Heroes

The New Cuban Heroes

by Nick Hendry

The reputation of Cuban cigars is so strong, and so intertwined with common perceptions of Cuba, that it can be easy to assume they are the only greatness to come from the island.  Ask most outsiders what comes to mind when they think of Cuba and they will likely mention cigars and Communism, and not much else.  This is probably forgivable, as both are such strong elements of Cuban identity, but also sad, as there is so much more to this wonderful nation than these two most famous pillars of its recent history.

Those same outsiders when asked to name the most famous Cuban will usually say Castro.  Again forgivable – he cut a remarkably recognisable figure, all beard and bluster – but again sad, as a country which has delivered so much to the world in terms of culture and beauty should not be known solely for the man who purported to be its saviour, but acted as oppressor for more than 50 years.  Cuba is a land of music and art, of cuisine and drama, and its diaspora has provided cultural heroes in a range of disciplines.  From musicians like the Buena Vista Social Club and Gloria Estefan to screen stars such as Desi Arnaz and Andy Garcia, Cubans have been represented in numbers which belies the island’s population of only 11 million.  Today, a new crop of international figures has grown up to ensure the world remains aware that Cuba can excel at much more than just rolling cigars.

Cuban actor Ana de Armas in No Time to Die

Above: Ana de Armas ready for action in No Time to Die.  Main Image: The 2016 Cuban Olympic Team.

Ana de Armas

The latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, was intended as a fond farewell to Daniel Craig’s tenure in the lead role, but the show was stolen somewhat by the performance of Cuban actress Ana de Armas.  Born in Havana in 1988, de Armas began her acting career in her homeland, before moving to Madrid at the age of 18.  There she landed a part in teenage drama series El Internado, before Hollywood came calling.

Her early life in Cuba saw her access to popular culture beyond the island limited, but after studying drama for 4 years at the National Theatre of Cuba she took advantage of the Spanish citizenship held through her grandparents to head to Europe and pursue her dream career.  Her time on Spanish TV led to English-speaking parts in War Dogs and Hands of Stone, among others, and saw de Armas learn her lines phonetically in order to master the English.  In 2017 her role in Blade Runner 2049 saw her leap on to the world stage.

That performance, bringing humanity and life to a character who was an AI hologram, became de Armas’ breakthrough.  It led to her being cast opposite Craig in Knives Out (2019), and latterly their reunion on the set of Bond.  Her upcoming projects include a turn as the iconic Marilyn Monroe in bipoic Blonde for Netflix: “Playing Marilyn was ground-breaking,” she explains “A Cuban playing Marilyn Monroe? I wanted it so badly.”  Slated for release later this year, it could be the pinnacle of her journey from Havana to the summit of Hollywood.

World-class Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta

Celebrated Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta

Carlos Acosta

Carlos Acosta was born the youngest of 11 siblings into poverty in Havana.  As a child he was extraordinary in his energy, spending his time in the streets playing football and breakdancing, but convincing his father he would soon end up in trouble.  These concerns led his father to enrol him in a local state-sponsored dance academy, in order to instil some discipline into his spirit and put a free lunch each day into his belly.  Training at the prestigious Cuban National Ballet School was the chosen solution, and he graduated in 1991 with a gold medal.

Performances with some of the world’s leading ballet companies through the 1990s led to Acosta joining the London Royal Ballet in 1998.  Here he went from strength to strength, performing most of their major ballets and choreographing his own full-length ballet in Don Quixote.  Arguably the proudest and most important moment of this era, however, was bringing the company back to his native Havana in 2009 to perform there for the first time in their history.

This was far from the only link Acosta chose to keep with his homeland – his own, semi-autobiographical show Tocororo premiered there in 2003, and the city is home to his own dance company, Acosta Danza.  Their doors opened in 2017 and their international tours have already generated huge acclaim.  Along with his role as Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, this shows Carlos Acosta’s commitment to both his art and his nation.

Cuban MMA legend Yoel Romero

Yoel Romero built at reputation as one of the most athletic, and most feared, competitors MMA has ever seen

Yoel Romero

As well as a strong history of excellence in the arts, Cuba is proud of her sporting achievements.  Cuban exploits in combat sports are particularly notable: they’ve won 78 Olympic medals (including 41 gold) in boxing alone.  Yoel Romero competed as an 85kg freestyle wrestler at 2 Olympics under the Cuban flag, taking home silver from Sydney in 2000 before finishing fourth at Athens 2004.  He was born in Pinar del Rio – home, of course, to the finest tobacco farms – and also competed in many World Championships for Cuba, often bringing home the top prize.

While his origins were in wrestling, it was in mixed martial arts that Romero made his name, and fortune.  He made the switch to MMA while training in Germany in 2007, and his debut as a professional in 2009.  In 2013 he had his first fight in the UFC – the most lucrative and prestigious MMA promotion – and won with an impressive first-round knockout.  Over the next 3 years he established a fearsome reputation, winning his first 8 fights relatively comfortably.  A shot at the interim Middleweight World Title followed in 2017, but proved a step too far as he was defeated by Australia’s Robert Whittaker thanks to a unanimous judges’ decision.

This disappointment did not deter Romero, who continued to compete at the top end of the UFC’s middleweight decision for 3 more years.  This time was marred somewhat by consistent failures to cut enough weight to make the middleweight limit of 84kg, but saw him cement a reputation as one of MMA’s most competitive and feared combatants.  In 2016 he swapped fighting in the octagon for fighting for justice, as he successfully cleared his name after returning a positive drugs test to USADA.  Romero consistently maintained his innocence, and it was eventually proven that the presence of banned substances in his test was the result of manufacturing errors by the makers of a supplement used by athletes to recover.  He was awarded almost $30 million in damages as a result.  Since 2021 Yoel Romero has flown the Cuban flag in the Bellator MMA octagon and, despite being 44 years of age, shows no sign of quitting.  His drive and pursuit of excellence are magnificent examples of the strong Cuban spirit.

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