Student researchers feast eyes on Cuban memorabilia

Seeing the accessories of history beats reading about them in a book.

So said students and their professor as they gathered in the Green Library to soak up the Cuban posters, postcards, photos, restaurant menus and more that local collector Elena Kurstin gathered in the 1990s before recently giving it all to FIU.

“A lot of times you can read through the eyes of publishers and authors and get an overall generic view or even informational view of what we’re studying,” said senior architecture major Daniel Pitaluga. “But being able to look at artifacts, the pictures . . . gives you an opportunity to get into the cracks, to read between the lines, so you get to make your own interpretations.”

Pitaluga and the others are studying the architecture of mid-20th century modern hotels in Havana through the end of the Cuban republic in 1959. They are also looking at Miami, including Miami Beach, during the same era to make comparisons. At the time both locations were working to establish their identities, said Marilys Nepomechie, an associate professor of architecture. Competing tropical tourist destinations, Havana was enjoying its recent independence from Spain, and Miami was a mangrove-covered city still in its infancy.

This dinner menu from the Hotel Plaza in Havana details the French-style cuisine served on June 22, 1939, in honor of the Tennessee Press Association’s visit to “the land of romance and sunshine.”

This menu from Havana’s Hotel Plaza details the French-style cuisine served June 22, 1939, in honor of the Tennessee Press Association’s visit to “the land of romance and sunshine.”

In previous years students doing research for Nepomechie’s course relied on a treasure trove of hard-to-find books, black-and-white photos and other artifacts that the university has received from various donors and today holds in the library’s Special Collections department.

This semester students also have use of the riches in the recently acquired Elena Kurstin Cuban Memorabilia Collection. Among the hundreds of items are rarities such as city maps, travel brochures and even cocktail swizzle sticks purchased by the collector directly from dealers, through eBay and at the Miami International Book Fair.

“I love that this is a resource for our students,” Nepomechie said of the original documents on display. “There’s nothing like primary sources for students to analyze and really think about. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

The Elena Kurstin Cuban Memorabilia Collection

Born in Cuba, Kurstin — then Elena Fonte — came to the United States in 1962 pregnant with her first child. It was after her second husband, Dr. Joseph Kurstin, gave her a gift of several framed covers of the colorful social magazine Carteles that the collecting bug bit her. The desire to gather the memorabilia of her homeland had little to do with sentiment, however.

“I started collecting just because I started seeing things coming out of Cuba,” Kurstin said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should just start putting it together and make a collection.’”

Elena Kurstin, in red, speaks with students and others who gathered to view some of the historic Cuban memorabilia she donated to FIU.

Elena Kurstin, in red, speaks with students and others who gathered to view some of the historic Cuban memorabilia she donated to FIU.

Kurstin recalls that during the 1990s the volume of materials available for purchase increased dramatically as Cubans on the islands began selling off whatever might bring much-needed cash. Items such as those she collected were likely sold privately in Cuba to foreign dealers who, due to U.S. restrictions on direct business with Cuba, brought them into the United States through a third country.

As the collection grew, Kurstin meticulously organized it in a large closet fitted with a special cabinet and custom-made drawers—until the day she called Althea Silvera, head of Special Collections.

“Now that I’ve donated the collection to FIU, it comes alive again,” said Kurstin, who addressed Nepomechie’s class and guided students through the exhibit arranged by Silvera.

Aside from their academic value, the pieces in the collection hold special meaning for many who live in Miami.

“It’s like a window into the past,” said third-year architecture major Ricardo Miranda, who is of Cuban heritage. “My grandfather always talks about these places, so it’s cool to see how things were when he was my age.”

The exhibit of items from the Elena Kurstin Cuban Memorabilia Collection is on display through mid-March on the second floor of the Green Library at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus. Patrons interested in seeing more of the collection for research purposes can visit Special Collections on the fourth floor.


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