Juan Martínez was born in Jaruco, a rural town east of Havana. A country-side speckled with palm trees, mountain peaks and a coastal fishing town created a landscape that planted itself in Martínez’s heart and would surface years later through his passion for art.
Martínez arrived in Miami in 1966 when he was 15 years old. As a student at Miami Dade College, Martínez took an art history course with a professor that changed his life.
“I was fascinated by these pictures and the story behind them,” recalls Martínez, now an FIU emeritus professor of art history. “I learned that you can actually have a career in this. I started from there.”
He went on to earn multiple graduate degrees in art history at Florida State University. But it wasn’t until a friend asked him if he wanted to check out an exhibit featuring Cuban art that Martínez discovered an area that spoke to his past. He was hooked.
“It’s pretty obvious now, I realized that studying Cuban art was a way to put me in contact with my culture and my identity,” says Martínez, citing one of his favorite Cuban artists, Carlos Enríquez, whose works often explore themes related to Cuba’s countryside.
“When people are immigrants, they yearn for their original culture,” Martínez explains. “In many cases, they like to have their material culture. Part of that material culture is art, so they want to collect it, share it and want to add to the knowledge of it.”
Martínez would eventually become one of the leading scholars on Cuban art and one of the main voices in Miami keeping Cuban art and its history alive.