A Portrait that All Families Fit Into

A self portrait of Yailen Ruz

By Katheryn Felipe  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Before picking up a camera for the first time, Yailen Ruz was a psychologist for 15 years. Before going deep into the child’s world of non-heteronormative Cuban families, she was already aware of discriminated people because she had suffered discrimination herself. She had to put up with more than one piece of criticism from people who thought that it was “backward” of her, a white woman, to have two children with a black man.

Yailen is proud that her two daughters represent interracial love, a gift from Life that stirred her interest for drawing attention to victims of any form of discrimination. She felt the need to communicate her thoughts and feelings through photos, and she didn’t start with racist taboos, but with the taboos surrounding sexual orientation.

Her interest was sparked in 2019, when the constitutional draft introduced Article 68, which referred to same-sex marriage. It wasn’t included in the final draft. 

Yalien remembers the controversy that this issue stirred. She felt fear around her, the prejudice people had against different families and the children that are raised by them. She heard comments such as: “Poor kids, what will become of their sexuality?”’ “What if they now copy their mothers’ or fathers’ sexual orientation?” or “Society isn’t ready for this.”

They took her by surprise because she thinks differently. “I have homosexual friends with children and I have seen the taboo that exists within their own homes; grandparents who stop talking to their grandchildren or parents who stop talking to their children because they don’t accept a homosexual relationship.”

Ruz found a means in photography to send a message of love. She wanted to make them laugh, sigh, sing, cry. She wanted to bring a little piece of this private world into the public eye, especially of their children, “where there is affection, mutual understanding, rules, games, roles.” She has been praised on more than one occasion for having done exactly this.

“Having been able to open a little window to bring people closer to what happens inside these four walls has been a blessing,” she says, as a mother of a son and two daughters, who loses sleep over looking for the best for her children, to make them happier and healthier.

Donde habita la quimera” (Where the pipe-dream lives”)

From “Donde habita la quimera II”

Ruz has published two photographic essays under the title “Donde habita la quimera”, that visually recreate her opinion on the matter. “They involve a process of research, reflection, questioning and, based on this, the elaboration of an opinion.”

Unlike a series, where photos can exist on their own, in an essay, photos only have make sense as a whole: it doesn’t make sense to divide them or analyze them separately. While the photographic essay has been a very underestimated genre that very few people have explored in Cuba, Yailen loves it. “It’s a hybrid which brings logic and the artistic together.”

She has spent the past two years compiling a bibliography, talking to colleagues who are experts in gender-related issues and getting to know activists that have helped her reach many non-heteronormative families. “In May, I inaugurated my first essay at the home of two mothers of a boy and girl; and the second one, which I’ve just published, was launched at the house of two mothers with a 2-year-old son. They both happen to be in Vedado.”

As restrictions on movement as a result of the pandemic have stopped Yailen from leaving Havana. she has had to find people in the capital who are willing to collaborate with the essay because “not everyone is”. Not everybody opens up the doors of their home to a stranger with a camera. “They had to be very aware of what I wanted to do as a photographer.”

From “Donde habita la quimera II”

Before living with these families, she speaks to them a few times about her objectives, she gets to know them and lets them get to know her: “I also strip myself bare in a spiritual sense, I give all of me. I don’t tend to be a photographer that observes from a distance because I come from the world of psychology, from leading experience-based workshops with theater students and sharing my own experiences.”

This has helped Ruz learn that if she becomes involved, the other person becomes more involved. It’s not only a matter of creating a comfortable working atmosphere, it’s also a matter of forging a friendship. She starts off by learning about the children, about their everyday lives, the reality they understand. While she has scientific tools to investigate, she admits that she is snipping a piece of this reality with her frame, because subjectivity is inherent in the act of taking a photograph.

From “Donde habita la quimera I”

In order to create both these essays, Yailen lived with the family for an agreed upon day over different weeks. The chosen day would soon come and she would ensure that the children’s most important everyday activities would take place. “It was about being ourselves, talking about our lives, bridging gaps. Photographs were part of a dance where nothing was forced, it was just their day-to-day routine.” It would be almost nighttime before she went home.

“I couldn’t stay the entire month because I’m alone with my children. I have had to give up time with them, but we have been able to function like a major league baseball team. Everything is organized so that things go well when I’m not around. You need good organization and a lot of communication to do this,” she explains.

Aware that her presence influences these families’ routines, even if she doesn’t want it to, Yailen didn’t try and hide. “People subconsciously know that somebody is watching them and this feeling makes them change their behavior automatically.” There were times when she managed to go unnoticed, whilst moving around looking for the right composition, frame, without having an opinion. Other times, she would talk, dance, sing, at the same time she took photographs. “I’m not a completely distant photographer. Sometimes, I would make my presence known, I’d laugh with them and I saw that this improved the emotional atmosphere, it made them more comfortable, to the point that the camera stopped being so important.”

From “Donde habita la quimera II”

Yailen was drawn to just how much the communication between these two mothers and their children flowed. “They give the little ones information, with a book that talks about the issue or answering a question that comes out of nowhere, about sexual orientation, the freedom we have to choose our own. Their mothers make up stories where there are two mothers or two fathers, they talk about the issue in everyday terms and they make their children see giving love without any prejudice, as something totally natural. They treat their children with complete transparency so that they respect other people’s decisions and are more free. They themselves have grown in this way.”

While Yailen is still taking her first steps in documentary photography, she has chosen black and white. “I’m fascinated by black and white photography because it exaggerates a situation and can make it a lot more dramatic.”

For her next essay, Ruz wants to include stories about men, far from the city center. “I’m looking for rural or economically underprivileged settings. I can start to include other variables once I’m allowed to travel to other provinces, having access to other homes and gaining better representation.” To summarize, “I don’t want them all to be in Havana, with a certain financial solvency and not just professionals, like it’s been so far.”

From “Donde habita la quimera II”

Yailen’s take on the Family Law Act

Not to make a sweeping statement, because she hates them, Yailen Ruz says that she has seen happiness in children’s eyes in these homes “when they are allowed to be children, to play, imagine, express themselves, make decisions, whilst also being guided, of course. When they are given access to books, music, games, so they can create, without thinking that these are things boys do and these are things girls do.”

The photographer wants every child to grow up without taboos, with respect for everyone’s rights and with the freedom to “have a partner they love, to express their sexuality however they want to, to choose whether they want to have a profession and a family with children or not.” She thinks that in order for a better future to exist, patriarchal standards need to first be dismantled. “We shouldn’t be spending time on bans, ideologies and opinions that make others unhappy.”

When experts are consulted about the draft bill of the Family Law Act, that will be taken to a referendum in 2022, and proposes to broaden the concept of “family”, Yailen’s photographs defend the idea that this social cell is based on affection. “Family exceeds blood ties, it isn’t only who gave you life; it’s whoever raises you, gives you love, allows you to be happy.”

From “Donde habita la quimera I”

Family doesn’t just mean making sure children have food and a roof over their heads, “which are important and pressing issues given the tough situation our country is experiencing right now.” Sometimes, the important “education, affection and communication” part of family is forgotten. There are many people who might not be biological fathers or mothers, but they are in practice if they take on the role of a father or mother.”

Yailen warns that “people take on maternity and paternity according to their own experiences and their character. When somebody decides to have a child, it’s because they know that they are going to leave a part of themselves in somebody who needs them to give all of them, to stay up all night when needed, to be committed and be by their side. This doesn’t have anything to do with being heterosexual or not; it has to do with your ability to take on this commitment.”

According to the psychologist, for somebody who grows up with the idea that being heterosexual is “normal”, that men are providers and women rear children, take care of them and bend over backwards for anyone who needs her without thinking about herself, anything that is different to this standard will lead to a lot of insecurity.

From “Donde habita la quimera I”

“It’s our responsibility to better ourselves, to try and be the best human beings we can be, mature, evolve. This includes questioning stereotypes, unwritten rules, the rigid status quo we’ve grown up with. If we don’t, we’ll always be immature, with what we grew up with, within the same mental four walls. To go outside this box, we have to understand that every person has their own way to be happy, as long as it doesn’t disrespect, harm or violate another person’s space,” she says.

Nevertheless, she has sadly learned about the experience of people who, in addition to having to face the tough process of recognition and acceptance for their identity and homosexual relationship, they have also been attacked. “Things have been thrown at their backs, insults have been shouted at them. It’s painful and outrageous that these kinds of things are still happening in Cuba.”

From “Donde habita la quimera II”

While social conscience doesn’t change overnight, Yailen believes that the draft bill of the Family Law should lay the groundwork so that everyone can form their own family, via assisted reproduction or adoption. “It’s a legal framework that needs to be defended. It needs to exist because it is protecting every human being’s right to form a family and this shouldn’t be negotiated or approved by intolerant people. It’s a human rights matter,” she says.

Yailen also admits that it has been inevitable for her to tell the stories of other mothers and compare them to her own experience of motherhood. The experiences she photographed have confirmed just how important it is for her to be with her children, to cover their eyes so that they can see through her eyes. “They have their own voice, their own way of seeing the world and I just need to be by their side.” This is why she speaks frankly to her children. “I involve them in what I’m doing so that they can understand that I have my own life, that I deserve my space, that I have my own dreams and that I fight to make them come true, like I want them to do.”

Yailen with her three children. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Amidst everyday hardship, struggling to get by and sleepless nights, she has seen the mothers she photographs look for the best for themselves as women and for their children. “They are admirable because they have defended a relationship that society still censors, and they have built their family like they’ve chosen to. They have defended their love above all prejudice, gazes, or obstacles. They have proven that you need a noble character and be sure about what you want to rise above any adversity.”

This artist believes that sex education is key, and it needs to go into schools for teachers and students. “There are transgender children in schools, who suffer bullying because they express their sexuality in a different way; they are being raised under rigid precepts that castrate the expression of their feelings because “this is how a boy should be” and “this is how a girl should be”. Sometimes, sexuality is only spoken about to prevent unwanted pregnancies or STIs. But it goes beyond this: it’s a matter of learning to respect diversity.”

At 41 years old, Yailen hopes that what she shows in her photographic essay one day becomes reality. She dreams of a freer country in terms of culture, thought, and the way it sees its citizens. She wants a more participatory society, “for people to really feel like they can talk and be heard.” For minorities to have rights and for nobody to be rejected or censored, just because of who they are or for thinking differently to the majority. As the strange, the unseen, becomes normal’; as these families are able to adopt and people know that these homes exist, people’s mindsets will change.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.