An Unexpected Find in Key West | Havana 1 and Owner/Painter Juan Ego

When I talked about 10 Things I love, I mentioned my love for art. Chris and I can rarely go to an art show without picking something up, which isn’t always forgiving to the wallet.

On our recent jaunt to Key West, we stumbled upon Havana1, a Cuban restaurant that also served as the owner’s art studio.

“Havana 1 Restaurant Key West” | Juan Ego

Score.

Havana 1 gets its namesake by being 91 miles to Havana, Cuba (the famous southernmost point of Key West is 90 miles). Immediately upon entering you notice several original paintings on the wall, most of which depicting people and places reminiscent of Cuba. The cafe is charming and unpretentious, like most Cuban establishments in southern Florida.

We had our pick of booths and tables, and I was immediately drawn to this fellow.

“Oliver” | Juan EGO

“He makes me feel good,” I said to Chris. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘YOU, are a beautiful woman.'”

I couldn’t stop looking at him throughout the entire meal. Chris was jealous.

Just kidding.

After spending the afternoon walking through the rain, dinner at this little cafe really hit the spot. Though they serve arroz amarillo instead of arroz blanco for all dishes (it’s a personal preference really), everything was delicious. The vaca frita was saturated with garlic and fresh citrus—in a fabulously good way. The people in the paintings watch you as you eat, which might be unnerving to some.

Not us. We were enamored, and wanted to learn more.

Juan E. Garcia, the owner and artist, paints under the pseudonym “Juan EGO.” He left Cuba for the United States in 1994. Like many immigrants from Cuba, Juan shares similar stories about his time there, and why he left.

“This one es mi Papí, Oliver.” He pointed to the painting I was so taken with. Sadly his father passed just 3 days after he arrived to America. He shared his poem that accompanied the painting, both titled “Oliver.”

It was then I realized that the people depicted in these paintings had so much life because they were in fact, real people that Juan knew in his lifetime.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Oh him? That’s the ‘Happy Man.’ That’s my wife’s Papí.”

 

“Happy Old Man” | Juan EGO

Juan is an incredible storyteller, in part because of the heart-wrenching truthfulness his stories possess. The stories of Cuba during pre and post-revolutionary times aren’t exaggerated. The fears and threats were real and commonplace, that even an innocent child naming his new puppy “Rebel” could be seen as an act of political defiance:

“I was too young to understand what the revolution would come to mean to my family and to all of Cuba. Without knowing it, I had innocently brought to my family the first self-censorship that would become a way of life for them and for my country, that would last the rest of our days, causing them to weigh so carefully their every future word and action.”

I encourage you to read the rest of Juan’s story about Rebel on his website.

After this interaction with Juan, I knew I needed to take home some prints. We were lucky to find a single Giclée print of Oliver available for purchase. Juan even offered to write his poem about his father on the back of the print. When we came home we immediately had it framed, and I was thrilled that the framers kept Juan’s poem visible on the back:

juan-ego-painting-oliver

 oliver-juan-ego-painting

 

Oliver now sits in our entryway, facing the kitchen. I wanted him in a visible spot, someplace where I would see him each day. It was a lucky accident that Oliver’s position is in direct line of site to where I stand and prep food in the kitchen. I see him often when I prepare meals, his head craned to the side, asking me ¿Qué estás preparando para comer?

juan-ego-oliver-painting-2

  • Byron

    Juan is a man of many talents. He did an excellent documentary about Cuba & Israel Kantor. Miss you Juan and Lucia
    Byron P Roanoke

  • juan EGO

    Decubri tu blog por accidente no me digiste que escribias tan bien . Te felicito pues tu forma de escribir es encantadora. Y me haces un honor con tu post. Dale saludos a Crist y a ti un abrazo grande. Ya eres mi amiga. Juan EGO.

    • Hola, juan!

      Gracias por las buenas palabras! Fue un gran placer conocerlo en key west. Le deseo buena fortuna en todos sus esfuerzos.