Reminiscing about my trip to Cuba last September, I remembered my visit to Casa Chi Chi and meeting the feisty potter the workshop is named after. Daniel Chi Chi Santander’s granddad Rogelio Santander founded the workshop and perfected the technique he still practices and teaches in his workshop today.
The sun was hot and the air still in the late morning hours in Trinidad de Cuba. My guide, Ania, a university professor of Cuban culture, picked me up with a taxi that refused to start after 10 frustrating tries from the driver. We eventually got going after a push start from passers-by. During the short drive outside of the city centre, Ania didn’t give me any introductions and insisted that I observe, observe, observe. The taxi pulled up on the side the road to next to an airy courtyard with a beautifully wood-carved entrance. I was worried about the car being able to restart but the driver gave me a nervous laugh and darted down the road speaking Spanish as he hastened away. He said something to the effect of “going over there… find… friend… car… good.” Yeah I have to work on my Spanish.
I opened the small gate and entered Casa Chi Chi. Chi Chi was working diligently at his wheel and didn’t pay much attention to me or Ania as we approached him. I started filming as I walked over to his spinning wheel. After a few minutes of our presence, the form on his wheel revailed itself as a vase. His actions were precise as he molded the form into shape. He paused for a moment then raised his head and gave us a bright smile and a naughty wink. His joyful playful smile is indicative of his personality and his spirit but he is serious about his pottery. I got straight back to work and went into instruction mode.
As Chi Chi spoke in Spanish describing his work, Ania did her best to translate but no translations were needed. I was the pupil and he would show me how it was done. He placed three pieces of clay on the side of his wheel and explained that he would make a vase, a water jug, and a cup. And away he went, the first piece started as a slab of clay but thirty seconds later, a shape of a vase was emerging. His limber fingers ran across the surface of the clay – dipping back and forth from his water cup to the clay form. I was truly fascinated as Chi Chi spun his wheel. He was one with the clay and the forms he created as if he was born of clay himself.
After 15 minutes, he had completed his introduction class in pottery and turned into his chatty, animated, and flirty self. Chi Chi has a particular fondness for sculpting the human form in all its anatomically correctness. He was extremely proud of these pieces but discretely disguised them around the workshop. The male form was a jog covered with a cap disguising the phallus. The female form was in a dish that looks like an ashtray only uncovered after lifting the lid. Everyone has their thing and this is Chi Chi’s thing. These special pieces are … “no venta”, only for display …to those who are worthy, he says. So I settled for a Canchanchara jug with matching mugs. Canchancara is a honey, lime and white rum cocktail local Trinidad bars serve like water on a hot day.
Chi Chi is the epitome of the spirit of the Cuban people. He is dedicated to his craft, his family legacy and sharing his gift with others. The workshop and the pottery technique has survived a revolution, post revolution and continues to teach to a new generation of Cubans and travellers like myself.
To learn more about the Santander Pottery Legacy, you can start with the links below: