One of our final days was spent coming and going from Hamel Alley (Callejon de Hamel), a small art and religious community founded by self-taught artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona in 1990, a time that coincided with what is now known as The Special Period in Cuba. During this extremely difficult time of economic crisis, resources became so scarce that the entire Cuban way of life had to be modified for the sake of survival. In the art world, this meant a struggle to find materials like paints and brushes. Despite this, Salvador took it upon himself to cover all of the building surfaces in the community with murals. In his words, “A real artist can’t be stopped by anyone. He will paint with dirt if he needs to.”
The community of Hamel Alley is not only centered around art, but also Santería, the Afro-Caribbean religion common in the region that came about when descendents of African slaves merged their beliefs with the predominant Roman Catholicism. The murals in Hamel Alley relate to the stories and deities of this religious fusion. After decades, the community now functions like a well-oiled machine and draws crowds of visitors seeking to learn and experience a piece of this unique culture.
It appears as though Salvador’s lifelong mission for Hamel Alley to become known worldwide, not just for his art, but as a center for Cuban cultural identity, is well on its way to realization. He has always insisted that the art be for everyone and accessible to all for free. Support for the community comes from optional tour fees, donations, and sales of Salvador’s work to visitors like us (between us, we brought three of his pieces home!).