“I’m A Natural Born Fighter” Lisa Armstrong Meets Pamela Ruiz
I first meet Pamela Ruiz at a party in her house in Havana. The house. Strictly speaking, I’ve crashed it, with six other colleagues, but in Cuban style, she’s happy to see us all. Ruiz is a dark-eyed, honey- skinned, articulate woman, with a full mouth and the most expressive arms I’ve seen and, within 90 seconds, she has waved us into convivial semicircle of 1960s armchairs and dispensed rum cocktails.
She’s the hostess with the mostest. But not food. No crisps, no edible stuff. Nibbles? Doesn’t that sound risible when you roll it around your tongue? Especially in a country that still has rationing.
Being a passionate autodidact, Ruiz can give you a five-minute discourse on the cultural, socioeconomic situation in Cuba, tell you her life story or she can let you in on where she got her chic, strappy black dress (the bargain bin in a boutique in New York’s Nolita). To say she has style, that she can do hi-lo, is an undersell. In Cuba, where most people exist mainly on lo, to embark on any kind of high living requires faith, strength and a willingness to roll with the dice.
It’s fair to say that Ruiz isn’t afraid to take the odd risk. In 1995, five years after Fidel Castro introduced the Special Period to Cuba, during which most Cubans dreamed of moving to Miami and planes were mysteriously being shot out of the sky, she made the reverse journey – and stayed. “I think I was probably the only one,” she says, laughing ruefully.
Special Period implies something enticing. It wasn’t. When the Soviet Union started collapsing in 1989, Cuba lost its support system and, over the next couple of years, saw as much as 80% of its imports and exports evaporate, while its GDP plummeted by more than 30%… Here endeth the political lesson. Or perhaps not. In Cuba, politics are as interwoven into the warp and weft of daily existence as the polyrhythmic pulse of Cuban salsa.
Ruiz was 31 when she arrived in Cuba as a serial adventure seeker. Now she’s a striking 52-year-old with a younger, Cuban- born artist husband, Damian Aquiles, a college-aged son called Bastian and a passionate, articulate talent for expressing herself that makes you wish you were more of a risk taker, too. “Back then,” she says, “I knew barely anything about the political situation in Cuba. I mean, I knew there was an issue. You couldn’t fly to Cuba directly from the USA [At the time of writing, you still can’t.], but we had no idea there was an embargo.”
“We” is Ruiz and the Danish partner with whom she had set up a production company organising shoots in exotic, little-visited locations. The embargo is the blockade, or el bloqueo as it’s known colloquially, imposed on Cuba by the US in 1962. It has ensured Cuba’s economic and cultural isolation from the rest of the world for the past five decades. “Let’s just say it was quite hard to find food when we arrived,” recalls Ruiz. “There was no petrol, hardly any cars, no telephones. There was rationing and a lot of skinny people.” There still are. What better place to start a business selling fashion-shoot expertise?
Cuba may be on the brink of another revolution, this one financial, now that it’s finally opening up to the world and the 21st century, following Obama’s visit and promise to end el bloqueo. But this is not yet a flourishing economy, nor even an especially functioning one. For all its lush, colonial splendour, Havana, like Blanche DuBois, has seen better days. Once-proud facades reveal their missing balconies and windowpanes like defiant, ageing courtesans who lived the good life once, but failed to save anything for their old age.
Not that you’d guess this as Ruiz and I sip early-evening cocktails under the avocado and coconut trees in her garden in a beachy suburb of the capital. It’s two days after her party, another balmy Caribbean dusk in early May. Later, back in London, when I listen back to the interview, I can hear dogs barking conversationally in the street and some singing. “That,” says Ruiz, as an uplifting snatch of music ripples towards us, “is why I moved here. There’s a lot that doesn’t function here, but they’re so cultured. Plumbers go to the ballet.”
The production company didn’t fare so well. Ruiz had worked with Juergen Teller when she lived in the US, so it wasn’t as if she lacked contacts (her son’s middle name is Juergen). “It was impossible doing business in Cuba then. There was no infrastructure. People stopped visiting. Even expat Cubans were only allowed to return to see their families once every three years.”
The dream of putting together unique shoot locations for companies all over the world faded away. Her Danish partner raised a white flag and left, but by then, Ruiz was in too deep. The next few years were hand-to-mouth. She did all kinds of jobs to survive, including working as a courier between the US and Cuba, and intermittently producing shoots. Anyone else would have given up. For a year she did, moving back to the US, marrying an artist, having her son. But then she returned with her new family.
“To tell the truth, I drank the Kool- Aid the first time I landed. I just found something very noble and childlike about the Cubans. I think mine was the first American passport they’d seen at the airport. I was in love with the idea of Cuba. All I could see was potential.”
This was handy, because, after falling in love with the country, she fell in love with her dream house. The one whose terrace we’re on now. Back then, it was a wreck, its garden a tangle of old tyres and refrigerators, its interiors ravaged by floods.
Casa Ruiz, as I think of it, is a one-storey turn-of-the-last-century villa with rooms the size of tennis courts that open onto one another and onto her garden. What’s extraordinary, in this land of shortages, where “five star” hotels are decorated like Soviet-era airport lounges, is Ruiz’s dazzling collection of mid-century furniture, all the more striking against those marble floors and faded wallpapers and her husband’s huge abstract canvases, almost all of it sourced on the island. Not that they have flea markets. Not, come to mention it, that they have a housing market like any other.
In 1959, after Castro and Che Guevara’s revolution, most of Cuba’s wealthy fled. Their homes, appropriated by the state, were reallocated, often to multiple occupants. Casa Ruiz was left in the hands of a trusted maid, who, says Ruiz, took care of it to the best of her abilities. But by the time she knocked on the door in 1999, there had been water leaks. The electrical power, never Havana’s strong point, had been cut off. Most of the rooms were closed off. House of ghosts. Havana was full of buildings like that, lived in by elderly servants waiting for their employers to return.
Unfazed, Ruiz knew this was the one. There was also one (major) problem: at the time, Cubans couldn’t buy or sell property. Instead, an exchange system, called permuta, existed. Ruiz would have to swap her home with the housekeeper. And the housekeeper didn’t want her place. “It was two bedrooms and it wasn’t appropriate.” It took Ruiz another seven years before she managed to exchange her apartment for a property that would be an acceptable swap for the house by the beach. Maybe she directed all the energy she couldn’t pour into her dead production company into that dream home. Not only a singular, raging optimist, then, but persistent. “I’m a natural born fighter. I kind of had to be.”
Born in Queens, New York, to an accountant father and a housewife mother, Ruiz’s first few years were straightforwardly middle-class affluent. Then her parents divorced. Her Colombian mother took cleaning jobs to support Ruiz and her two brothers, before eventually earning her real- estate qualifications (the talent for property deals evidently runs in the family). “We were living in this lovely house on welfare, in an area where no one was on welfare.”
Ruiz left school at 15, learned engraving, graduated to selling engraving machines and started earning good money. But straightforward selling was never going to be enough. There followed a string of jobs – waitress, photographer’s assistant, agent. She was living in Manhattan, famous for her dinner parties. “Not that I could cook, but I knew how to put on a good meal, get interesting people together.” On one such evening, they were watching TV round her table during the first Gulf War, in 1991. Ruiz was so appalled by the level of ignorance and nonchalance among some of her “interesting” friends, she quit her job the following day and moved to Miami.
Then came that life-changing trip to Cuba. It hasn’t been what anyone would call a breeze, but Ruiz is a textbook force of nature who makes things happen. Back in the late 1990s, when her husband’s career hadn’t yet taken off and he and some friends had been overlooked by the curators of the Havana Biennal (though it’s not actually held every two years), she persuaded the housekeeper to let her set up an art festival in the garden of the house that wasn’t yet hers. They cleared the garden, installed electricity… “It was when Clinton was still in power and things had begun to relax slightly. We felt hopeful. Bush hadn’t come in and wrecked everything. By 1999, Americans were starting to come on educational visas.”
Even so, the day of the launch was eerily quiet. She sat on the terrace, sick with nerves, convinced no one would come. When she finally braced herself to look over the wall, she saw coaches of American art lovers lining the street. It was a sell-out.
Things still aren’t easy. For every meticulously restored, UNESCO-funded mansion, there are streets in a state of dystopian decay. Imminent collapse is a constant, genuine concern. But it’s a land rich with romantic possibilities, and often with results brimming with innate style. In Ruiz, it may have met its ideal match.
Lisa Armstrong is the fashion director of The Telegraph
Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Magazine, TRUE RANDOM AUTHENTIC, on newsstands now…