Pushing the Limits: Yoani Sanchez Interviews OMNI ZONA FRANCA

Omni Zona Franca in Alamar, with Yoani

Alamar – a pile of concrete blocks without order or agreement – is in this case the work, the artistic object, the clay and the wall on which one has molded and daubed. The artists can be you, me, or anyone else, although for the moment we are going to call them Juan Carlos, Amaury, Luis Eligio, René, David, Fito, Yoyi, Yohamna, Livio, or Ailer. The name of the project could move around Generación OmniFranom-UnoGrupo Uno, but we select – at least until the next mutation takes place – a mix of mantra and space for convergence and liberty.

Omni-Zona Franca does not allow us to remain without giving an opinion, which can go from the common insult “eccentric” to the quiet admiration by the “anti-establishment.” What they really are, not even they want to define it; “creating spaces in which to grow” is enough along with people from Alamar, Havana, and Cuba living in these places and expanding them with their spirituality.

We arrive at the omni-territory, we enter the frankness of the zone and we we make the evocative action of throwing some questions at them. We keep in mind that they may respond with a poem, a burst of hip-hop, or a vote of silence.

Why in Alamar?

Because this city without a cemetery, without industry, without churches, but yes, with a funeral parlor, can accept novelty like no other municipality in Cuba. New rhythms and art forms are welcome here. Perhaps because Alamar needs to be reinvented by its inhabitants, in the absence of a handle on some previous history to validate their existence. It needs to be humanized and recreated. Art is born here with lots of freshness and youth. For example, social action groups, environmental art (group La CuadraDon QuixoteArt-Native), graffiti, rock, and hip-hop have proliferated in Alamar, and even the Havana Abierta project and the group Criteria had a base here. Events also occurred that marked them all, such as those related to Maria Elena Cruz Varela and the Carta de los Diez .Poets like Angel Escobar and Mario Benedetti lived here and wrote part of their work here and radiated with the city for a generation of young poets. The visual arts also had figures like Belkis Ayon, who lived, created some of his paintings, and committed suicide within these buildings.

Alamar was the Project Haus of the Revolution. It was supposed to be the most beautiful development in all Havana. Before the Revolution, it was thought this place would be a luxury development, and they even constructed part of the sewer system. Each house would have a beautiful ocean view.

Later it was projected that this would be the city of the “New Man.” For example, on a visit that Leonid Brezhnev made to Alamar, he forecast that in the future this would become a “prosperous suburb.” Many people came here from all over, including many Latin American political exiles and foreign technicians from the former socialist camp that grew out of the 70’s and 80’s. It now has about one hundred thousand inhabitants. Because of this, Alamar is the most heterogeneous and rootless neighborhood in Cuba. We ourselves were not born here, but came from other places and we live with people from all over the island.

Living here is to inhabit an area with poor structures, with many limitations when it comes to moving around, but it is also an incredibly favorable space to create, precisely because of all those deficiencies that make spirituality and creativity soar.

Foundation for Omni-Zona Franca

Omni was founded in 1997; right now we are celebrating our tenth anniversary. At first we started making sculptures in wood that we took from collapsed buildings in the city, and we managed to sell some at fairs in Malecon and the Plaza de la Catedral. We mix everything into the sculpture: our ancestors, gestures, nature and a lot of internal forces that we dump out into the wood.

Juan Carlos Flores was the axis around which we began to turn. He came from San Agustín and began working here as the custodian of the gallery. He brought with him an impressive body of poetry and an extremely influencing management of the form. He had won a David prize and a Premio de la Crítica. He came here with the idea of forming a group of poets and experimenting with new forms of literature. Other young poets from Alamar were added, like Grisel, Leonardo, John Curri, Luis Eligio, Nilo and Yohamna, and Zona Franca was born. Uniting those from the ZF and Omni, we formed a bond between the visual arts and poetry that converged in the Fayad Jamis Gallery. We were attracted by a journey to our origins, to what we were in a primitive stage. Everything was pure intuition; we had no preconceived idea or schematics.

The idea was to work for the community and in time we adopted forms such as painting, photography, installations and, later, performance. We took on discussions that others considered marginal and expressed ourselves through them.


For us, performance is an attitude that favors the constant demonstration of the creative state, but it is also the artistic demonstration that characterizes us best, and through which we can combine all of our creative possibilities. Through it, we assume elements of the body, orality, poetry, writing in its visual aspect, dance-theater, music, singing, and all of the visual arts, those that we emphatically project on urban spaces as well as in theaters and galleries. Finally, performance is like life, and through it we adopt a civic-minded behavior of involvement in the nation’s issues and public spaces.

In relation to the Fayad Jamis Gallery and the Center for Art and Literature

The Center for Art and Literature, situated in the Fayad Jamis Gallery and currently directed by Alejandro Pujol, in this cultural house in Alamar, is unique in Cuba. However, this center has never been part of the national avant-garde. Nor has it been allowed to commercialize its work, although we have fought a long battle to allow sales.

The Culture House was constructed practically under protest by artists forming part of the “El Quijote” group. Once created, the Gallery has radiated its spirituality and been the center of wonderful things, thanks to the dedication and determination of people like its first director, Alarcón. Nancy Maestequi and Pablo Rigal, for their part, supported numerous projects, among which are Omni and Zona Franca.

One of the first expressive actions was precisely to defend the autonomy of the Fayad Jamis Gallery in relation to the Culture House. We prefer to not be subordinate to the Culture House in Alamar, since enthusiastic artistic work is being realized. Therefore the space that we occupy here belongs to the City Cultural Management.

Then are they usufructuaries of this space?

Rather, we are squatters.

When we arrived, this place was torn apart. We had to reconstruct it, paint, raise walls, and make it suitable to what we wanted. I had started Native Art here before, and from that group Jorge Pérez (Yoyi), Nilo Julián González, and Jesús Miguel Roura (main Gallery specialist) joined us. This is a space of convergence and tolerance where any expression of spirituality fits. For example, on this same site, Catholic, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Rosicrucian movements have reunited. This space of liberty that we have created serves everyone.

We create and meet in this Culture House, which is an intermediate point between the people and the cultural authorities. We have direct contact with those people, we direct ourselves to them, and it does not matter if they are an opponent or lieutenant colonel.

The best is that we are in a neutral space. Our objective is neither capitalism nor socialism, but rather that Omni-ZF is marked by spiritual fusion. We are neither above nor below anything, neither against nor in favor; but we are for poetry, liberty, and collective spirituality. Among the things that interest us most is Martí’s patriotic sentiment for Cuba, which is expressed as:

  • Community of interests
  • Unity of traditions
  • Unity of goals
  • Sweet, comforting fusion of loves and hopes (note the use of the plural)

 Diffusion in Cuban media

Within the emerging Cuban culture, we have had the opportunity for a little diffusion of our work, but we prefer alternative means of spreading. Since the beginning, some of us have talked about non-publication, because we believe that the media here and everywhere distort the legitimate metaphor that we bring to the Nation and the world. When our work spreads through the media, it is not on our initiative, but for the sole right to also be in the media.

The magazine Esquife has echoed what we do and the last issue of the magazine Extramuros is dedicated almost entirely to Omni-ZF. Caimán Barbudo and Gaceta de Cuba have also run articles about us. The catalog of the Biennial Exhibition in Havana and in the Magazine of the Cuban Rap Agency have made reference to what we do.

The truth is that our tranquility to create and to really connect with the people is very important to us. Because of this, we are not interested in the bombast of the media. We do not want to be like those artists that have already separated themselves from reality and who are just creating for the media and publicity. So, most things we make have that mystery behind them and are protected by it.

Control and censorship

We are making original art and the policing authorities have no precedents similar to this, although Arte Calle and Volumen Uno had already made history. For example, we made one of our first acts there in 1997, when the whole city – and especially Alamar – was full of trash on the corners. It piled up weeks after weeks, without anyone coming to collect it, with the flies, the rats, the people passing close to it. We then had the idea of burying ourselves in the trash. The people gathered around us when they saw a pair of legs or a hand rising up in the middle of the waste. The police arrived quickly along with other authorities like the Municiple Director of Culture. Minus the garbage truck, everyone met there. We ended up being detained for six hours.

At the beginning, the police did not understand that we would make these sorts of public acts. Because of this, we almost always ended up in the Unit after a presentation. However, our perseverance has meant that we have continued to run along the border of what is allowed. There has been a lack of dialogue between the institutions and the new players in society. But we have been pushing the limits. This does not mean complaining about what they have not allowed us, but rather about creating a space of liberty where it is possible to do all of what we are doing today.

There is also a lot of sensationalism about what really happens to us. We have had enough shocks and encounters, but we have never been jailed, only detained and warned.

It happens frequently that Cuba’s key problems are much discussed out there, although they are not talked about inside the country. At times, when dealing with these themes, there is a desire to satisfy some morbid pleasure, to see political motivation in everything. Of course the Cuban system is to blame for this, since it has a war-like attitude and censorship is its fundamental mechanism. But we do not like the distortions that are sometimes made about us; we prefer to see ourselves as people that create space, move borders, push the limits. But without sensationalism.

For us it is more important to free ourselves from self-censorship. This has not been an easy task, but we have achieved a space where everyone can be themselves without fear, complexes or blame, without all of these obstacles that on many occasions have caused Cuban intellectuals to not talk about the true problems of the people.

The disk Alamar Express

The disk is a film that shows how space on the Island is being inhabited, reduced to the scale of Alamar and structured in zones just like this city. It is a sample of the poetic-sonorous discoveries and the experience of intervening in reality that we have reached in ten years. One could say it is an anthology of the counterculture in Alamar. Many artists appear in the film, from Juan Carlos Flores, passing through poets from Arte-Nativa, El Quijote, Omni-Zona Franca, Grupo Uno (founder of the Rap Festival, which brought together the new movement of Cuban protest), up to Tania Bruguera, a real performance legend in Cuba.

It is an entirely homemade disk. We distribute it personally throughout the island and we have also sent it to many people abroad. Here, it has been received in silence by the media, although Norge Espinosa published an article in La Gaceta de Cuba, where he links us to the most important anthologies in Cuban literature. The magazine Esquife has also put the disk up on its website.

The disk received support from the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and the Spanish Embassy in Cuba, without which we would have never made it. Alamar Express is very original for all of what it contains, the form in which it is articulated, and by presenting poetry in a sort of medium rarely used in Cuba for its spread. We know that the disk is also listened to in small towns that do not even appear on the maps. We have proof of this. But the idea of the disk was never a commercial question; it was rather to reach the Generación Omni and collect the work of a group of artists that had never been anthologized on any prior CD.

Documentaries, bulletins, or web pages 

As of now, there are three documentaries that deal with our work: Cuba performances, by Elvira del Puerto, Omni frente al espejo, by Raydel Araoz, and Alamar Express: el hombre nuevo, by Patricia Satora.

We never undertake a new project without having guaranteed its complete realization or its continuity. For example, we are now working on a bulletin called Bistec de red, which will have both printed and digital versions. It will not have a large circulation, but it will be in the same spirit of calm and mystery that characterizes us. Regarding our having a web page, there are already various sites on the Internet that circulate our creations. Some are sites from other people or projects that have shared their space with us, but we also have our own: http://www.alamarexpress.com. Access to the Internet is very complicated and it is a problem to update and maintain the site, which is still very simple and outdated. However, we plan to improve it and upload our videos, photos, and music to it.

One of the latest performances

A short time ago, we made a march walking backwards from the Capitolio to Coppelia as proposed in an alternative event to share vital experiences, organized by the group Gigantería. In a single line of more than 15 people, we also walked through Calle 23 on the yellow strip that separates the two roads. Some people joined us on the way. Near Habana Libre, a police officer stopped us, and when we explained to him that this was an artistic event, he said, “Ah, now I understand. Well then, I am going to tell that to everyone calling me here, saying that this is a counter-revolutionary march!” And he let us continue.


Hip-hop arrived in Cuba, first in English, copying what came from abroad, but immediately fusing the best of the Cuban musical tradition and thought, and also taking on civil discourse of social criticism and political questioning, which has lead the Cuban cultural authorities to mobilize themselves and quickly create the Cuban Rap Agency. The creation of this entity is born out of politics on the part of official institutions to assume and absorb alternativeness.

At the last Rap Festival organized by Gruop Uno, for example, the police still did not see the rappers as artists, but rather as delinquents. They constantly asked for identity cards and hounded them. René, who is part of the Festival promotion team, spoke with the police and explained things to them. Afterwards, the mood relaxed a little and things continued with fewer problems.

Many people tell us that we are an example of resistance, but the truth is that we are not resisting; although this also is a component of our art, it is not fundamental. Hip-hop, for example, is a rhythm of protest, of resistance, and Omni-ZF has a lot of that as well. In place of resistance, opposition, or rebellion, we prefer to say that we work to open spaces of understanding.

Outside of Alamar and the City of Havana, what other acts have you made, and where?

In Santiago de Cuba, we did one called “Three hours of discourse” at the Caribbean Festival in 2004. There, we made reference to the prisoner of influence, specifically the Cubans, and to the excess of nationalism. We walked papered with newspapers and flags, with a tube that left our mouths and allowed us to “breathe” from a suitcase, also papered. We walked like so to the Parque Serrano where we undressed and danced in a circle of fire to demonstrate that one can break away from influence and artificial respiration.

At the beginning, people watched us out of curiosity, but they slowly became involved in our act so that at the end, when we we put the beggar (another participant) in the suitcase and carried him like a prisoner of information to the Cabildo de Santiago, shouts of sympathy and support were heard from all sides.

When the police started to act, we had already finished. This is something we have learned: in the midst of the agents’ dilemma – they do not know if this is a spontaneous demonstration or an artistic act – we have already transmitted our message and involved the people in our actions. At the end, the organizers of the Caribbean Festival pointed out to us that the Parque Serrano and City Hall were not suitable places to do that, but we could not turn back time. Therefore, one of our principal recourses is surprise.

We have attended various artistic events throughout the country, among which are the Visoarte Internacional de Cienfuegos (2001), the Jornada de Performances in the same city, also in 2001, the Romerías de Mayo (2003), the Jornada Nacional de la Poesía de Santi Spíritus from 1999 to 2002, at Puente Sur – Encuentro de Performances de Melena del Sur – from 2002 to 2007, at La liebre muerta – Festival de performances de Matanzas in 2004 and 2006, and up to the Biennial Exhibition in Havana where we proposed the city of Alamar as a work of art.

In ten years we have realized more than 300 different acts, always investigating and counting on all the live elements of the space in which we work.


This is a place where we meditate daily and now we are also going to do it in public spaces in the city and throughout the country. Every one of us has our own method of meditation. This is a space for spiritual dialogue, since Cuba is multiple and diverse and this manifests itself a lot in spirituality. We want this space that we have created to multiply, and as a result, we will sow the same love wherever we go.

We recently held a spiritual mass dedicated to poetry. We wanted to contact, get down to the spirit of poetry in a traditional Cuban mass, with various mediums. It was a great experience because we were in the middle of the mass and together with the prayers, Hindu and Buddhist mantras also joined in.

Every year we make a procession to El Rincón, where the sanctuary dedicated to Saint Lazarus is found, carrying a huge “drawing” to ask for the health of the poetry and dedicated to the hidden energy of the people. We leave from Alamar and mount the drawing on a camel, and from the sports city we go to El Rincón on foot with our request on our shoulders.

For us, poetry is the foundation of our creation; it is our road through life; we are essentially poets, beyond the written poem. The pilgrimage is part of the poetry festival “Poetry Without End” that we have held throughout the month of December for the last nine years. In 2007, it was called “Poetry Without End: The Sacred Family,” because after all these years of going, we have arrived at the center, the foundation of society: the Family, the Great Cuban Family, and we want to nourish and illuminate this center through poetry.

Because of this, we like to think that we are a space of dialogue that helps us to feel the nation not through fear, but through love. We try to find a solid basis; we have Buddha here with us as much as Christ and Olofi; even the Taínos are included. And finally, all of the divine beings that have reincarnated once and again to teach us the road to follow.

PS Ah! Oil has now appeared in Alamar…

To contact Omni-Zona Franca

Telephone: (+53 7) 765-3253 (Fayad Jamis Gallery, Alamar)

 (+53 7) 862-0797, 208-8979 (Luís Eligio); (+53 7) 763-2156 (Amaury Pacheco)

 email: zonafranca14@yahoo.comomnizonafranca@gmail.com

Yoani Sánchez, Havana
1975 Bachelor’s in Philology
Member of the editorial board of the digital magazine Consenso

Translated by: M. Ouellette