By David Montgomery, Tuesday, July 26, 12:47 AM
Squint at this map just right, with a pair of wistful eyes — Juan Jose
Valdes's eyes — and it reveals more than shapes and symbols on a grid of
latitude and longitude.
There is the warmth of the setting sun splashing gold over the sugar
cane fields. The smell of coffee and the sea. The sound of the wind in
the palms. Somewhere, also, is a little boy who loved maps in Havana,
plotting the location of revolutionary battles on his Esso gas station
road guide — until one day, the boy was put on a plane, alone, bound for
colder places he knew only from maps.
"To a Cuban, there's nothing more iconic than a map of the island,"
Valdes says now, holding up his latest creation for inspection.
It's a brand new map of Cuba, the National Geographic Society's first
comprehensive rendering of the Caribbean nation since 1906. It's a
classic wall map, 3 feet by 2 feet, 24 miles to the inch. The island
stretches like a bony finger across the azure sea.
The map breaks cartographic news, which is not easy for a map to do
anymore. Last year, Cuba created two new provinces on the western end of
the island. Hello, Artemisa and Mayabeque.
Valdes's coordinates this minute locate him at a drawing table in the
maps division on the seventh floor of National Geographic's headquarters
on 17th Street NW. He is 57. It is almost exactly 50 years since his
parents put him on a plane in August 1961, several months after the Bay
of Pigs invasion.
He grew up to be a cartographer and geographer — the Geographer, in
fact, at National Geographic, charged with helping direct map policies
and projects. Last year, during a brainstorming session, he said to his
colleagues, How about a map of Cuba?
It was his dream project, bringing his life full circle. He poured
everything he had into it, as if the standard data on a conventional map
could resonate with something more.
"When I was mapping the beach areas, I would remember the wind hitting
the palm trees," he says. "Every day, I would feel, 'I've been there.
That looks like that. That smells like this. This tastes like that.' "
His eyes moisten as he tells the story of the map.
During the six months of production, on his way from the elevator to his
office, he would pass a wall plaque with words he often quotes,
attributed to Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the first editor of National
"A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the
realization of great dreams."
Goodbye to Cuba
The boy thought he and his parents were going to the airport to look at
planes, as he sometimes did for fun with his father or uncle. He would
be quizzed on the origins of different national airlines. His first
Instead, that day he had to say goodbye to his parents for nearly seven
months. Goodbye to Cuba for much longer, maybe forever.
Jose and Juliana Valdes worked for Cuban Electric Power and Light. The
family was middle class, living comfortably in a suburb of Havana, with
a car and a housekeeper.
They were not politically active but were skeptical of the revolution,
their only child recalls. "They just wanted to carry on with their lives."