A Madison native’s love letter to Cubans and their vintage cars
Michael Shapiro's interest in pre-1960 American cars in Havana inspired his new, bilingual book.
Michael Shapiro was sitting on a park bench in Havana one day in 1999 when a Cuban woman told him how a Chevrolet Impala helped christen her marriage.
“This was an older woman talking about her wedding, remembering back 40 years,” Shapiro says.
The woman had worked as a maid. “She’d never had a car or any possibility of having a car,” Shapiro says. The family she worked for hired an Impala convertible for the wedding party.
“She said she felt like she was flying in that convertible,” Shapiro says. “It was one of the most memorable moments of her life.”
Shapiro is a Madison native and 1975 West High School graduate. He spent most of his professional life operating Libros Sin Fronteras (Books Without Borders), a U.S.-based, Spanish language book and music distributorship.
It was while attending a book fair in Havana in 1998, Shapiro says, “that I was enchanted and really blown away” by the number of pre-1960 American cars in the city — and the stories associated with those cars.
“Cuba stopped importing American cars with the revolution in January 1960,” he says. “At the time about half the cars on the road were pre-1960 American cars. They are still everywhere in Cuba. Very few of them have their original engines. The stories about them are evocative and engaging. I started recording interviews.”
The result is a new, bilingual book, “Under Cuba’s Hood: What Cubans Say About Their Old American Cars.”
Shapiro’s own story is connected by cars.
Growing up on Rolla Lane, it was a short walk to the corner of Midvale Boulevard and Odana Road, where a young Shapiro took down the makes and models of passing cars in order to earn a Boy Scout merit badge.
He studied Spanish in high school and worked as a teen at the University Book Store. After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of California-Berkeley, Shapiro got a master’s in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico in the mid-1980s.
“That prompted me to travel to Nicaragua,” he says.
He made the trip solo in a 1962 Ford Falcon, through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
“It was fun,” Shapiro says. “I learned a lot about cars and mechanics. I got robbed once or twice but never had my life threatened.”
He ended in Managua, where he spent considerable time in the last half of the 1980s. Shapiro had identified a need for Spanish language books in the United States.
“I started bringing books back,” he says. “First one box, then four, then 16 — it just kept growing exponentially.” He started his business in 1988, distributing the books to American libraries and bookstores, which were serving an increasing number of Spanish language readers.
It was while at the famous Guadalajara International Book Fair that Shapiro met the Cuban publishers and authors who encouraged him to come to Havana.
“I applied for and received a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department,” he says. “Books and informational material were exempted from the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. I was one of the few Americans able to go to Cuba to work importing Cuban books and music.”
His first visit in 1998 was followed by more over the next several years. Shapiro began interviewing for his American cars side project, engaging a Cuban photographer, Juan Carlos Alom.
In 2001, Shapiro started submitting his book manuscript.
“I got numerous rejections from numerous publishers,” he says. “I had a box of materials that came with me from one house or apartment to the next for 20 years.”
Shapiro sold his business in 2007 to a large distributor for whom he continued to work for a few years. Subsequently he has worked with nonprofits including the Gates Foundation on library and digital technology enterprises.
It was nonprofit work that took Shapiro back to Cuba in 2018, for the first time in more than 15 years. The American cars were still there.
“I was overwhelmed by how important it seemed to me to finish this work,” he says. “I pulled out the box and got serious.”
In 2019, he spent a month in Cuba, interviewing and writing. He located Juan Carlos Alom, who did more photography.
Shapiro published a deluxe edition of “Under Cuba’s Hood” himself, 200 copies, and then earlier this year an Argentinian publisher — Shapiro lives in Cordoba with his wife, Tanya — brought it out as a paperback and e-book.
He loves that the book contains both English and Spanish text. It can be enjoyed in either and help those fluent in one language begin to learn the other.
It is, too, a gift to his Cuban friends. “The people are so warm and gracious,” he says. “They often don’t have a lot. They share what they do have.”
When we spoke by phone last week, Shapiro in Argentina, me in Madison, our connection was poor at first. Michael did something on his end — beats me what — and suddenly his voice was so clear he might have been back on Rolla Lane, a few blocks from my house on Gregory Street.
He laughed. “I’ve lived many places,” he says. “But I’m absolutely a Madisonian at heart.”