Cuban poet Juan Carlos Flores has described Alamar as "The Heart of The Russian Barrio."

“I’ve lived my whole life here,” Alex Gallardo Batista, a second-year philosophy student at the University of Havana, tells me when I ask how long he and his family have been residents of Alamar. “What I like most about it is this park, La Bolita del Mundo, that provides an incredible peace, and I also love the coast and the sunsets. But I would change a lot of things: install more trash cans, the sewer system is awful, and I would change all the deterioration of the spaces intended for public use.” 

One of the most populous districts of the sprawling municipality of Habana del Este, Alamar – literally “to the sea,” though the exact origin of its name is up for debate – is the embodiment of that classic cocktail of dashed dreams, internal contradictions, hope, and potential that has perpetually fascinated visitors to the island. For residents of Alamar, however, it’s just a part of daily life. 

Post-Revolution, Alamar became part of Fidel Castro’s campaign to promote equality and solve Cuba’s problems from past administrations. 

“Living in Alamar is synonymous with living in a district on the outskirts of Havana,” Alex says. “Not a lot of shopping centers, few places for recreation…I should note that Habana del Este is one of the most extensive municipalities of Havana, and Alamar is one of its largest and most populous districts. The transportation and access to stores and recreation centers becomes a problem simply because of the concentration of people, and it’s worsened in these times of COVID-19.”

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Guayabera-factory-turned-recreational-center En Guayabera, an Alamar landmark. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

Alamar started off as a small residential area and vacation hotspot before undergoing a period of urbanization in the late 50s. Spearheaded by architect Guillermo Alamilla Gutiérrez – who some say named the district by combining the first three letters of his paternal surname, Alamilla, with the first three letters of his wife’s name, Margarita – Alamar’s transformation was meant to create an exclusive upper-class suburb. Attracted by the area’s high-profile residents, even the mafia moved in to build their clientele through gambling, drugs, and prostitution once the urbanization project was concluded. 

However, while at one point Alamar might have been nearly utopic… over the years that version of the district has become somewhat of a memory.

Post-Revolution, Alamar became part of Fidel Castro’s campaign to promote equality and solve Cuba’s problems from past administrations. One of these issues was a housing shortage in Havana that had intensified after the 1960s baby boom. Modeled after Soviet architecture, the apartments seen in Alamar today were built by the Tupamaros microbrigades, named after the Marxist Uruguayan guerilla group. These microbrigades, or microbrigadas, were groups of mostly blue-collar Cubans whom the government provided with supplies to essentially build their own homes. Many families in Alamar have lived there for generations, the children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren of the original members of the microbrigades. 

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However, while at one point Alamar might have been nearly utopic – a beachfront paradise for the upper echelon expanded through teamwork to provide housing to those most in need – over the years that version of the district has become somewhat of a memory. The houses in Alamar, like so many others in Cuba, suffer from poor maintenance, generally the result of a lack of the necessary materials to make repairs and spruce up run-down building facades. Issues with the district’s planning, like the fact that the numbering of Alamar’s “zones” (a form of urban organization also borrowed from the Soviets) goes in reverse order, are also common complaints. 

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Playground inside En Guayabera. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

Ironically, as the population grows, Alamar’s residents are facing another housing shortage. Growing families and a lack of living space has prompted illegal and sometimes dangerous modifications like converting balconies – now about fifty years old and built by people with spirit and grit but not necessarily a contractor’s license -into bedrooms. Unfortunately, as a marginalized part of Havana that contributes little to life in the capital beyond the resources provided directly to its residents, Alamar isn’t on the government’s priority list of areas that need refurbishing. 

Alamar’s residents have taken it upon themselves to repurpose dilapidated spaces and rebuild their community without government assistance.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done! Carrying on the tradition of hard work and collaboration started by the microbrigades, Alamar’s residents have taken it upon themselves to repurpose dilapidated spaces and rebuild their community without government assistance. 

“A few years ago the multicultural center En Guayabera was founded,” Alex shares. “It has movie theaters, craft shops, a bookstore and a discotheque–it used to be an abandoned guayabera factory, where I had some good times when I was a kid. Then there also used to be a giant pool that’s no longer in use, but it’s become the preferred hangout for skaters.”

According to Alex, the pandemic has hit Alamar particularly hard, aggravating existing issues of transportation and access to basic goods. A University of Havana dormitory located in the district has also been converted into an isolation center for patients suspected of having COVID-19, and boredom has set in as pandemic restrictions curtailed what little nightlife there was. However, Alamar’s residents know how to roll with the punches. With that kind of perseverance, there’s a strong possibility that once things return to normal, Alamar could once again become the vibrant community it was in its heyday – maybe even better. 

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Gabriela Rivero is a recent graduate of Harvard College with a major in Sociology and minor in Latinx Studies. She comes from a colorful Caribbean (Cuban & Venezuelan) and Mediterranean (Spanish & Italian) background, to which she attributes her love of sunshine and her addiction to guava pastelitos. Gabby uses her English–Spanish bilingualism in her work with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), helping immigrants obtain asylum in the United States. She'll be starting law school at the University of Miami to become an immigration attorney —shocker!-— specializing in asylum law. She enjoys writing, cooking, singing, and playing tennis and guitar. However, Gabby’s favorite activity is traveling to Cuba, exploring her grandparents’ home country and visiting the friends she made while studying abroad at the University of Havana.

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