Jennifer Cearns conducts research in Latin America (Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Panama, Mexico, and the Cuban diaspora in the U.S.A.). Her work follows material and digital items to look at how they’re appropriated in different contexts to express elements of social identity (like gender, class, race, and nationality). She is currently Leach Fellow in Public Anthropology at the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain & Ireland, and an Honorary Fellow in Anthropology at University College London. 

The illustrations featured here are digital renderings of initial sketches she made whilst in the field, as part of a visual tutorial she drafted for herself on how to navigate public transport in Havana, Cuba.

“My research in Havana was looking at the formation and growth of informal economies, that operate in a semi-legal sphere between state-centred socialist economic organisation and the more ‘improvised’ capitalist-style arrangements that have been emerging over recent decades. It is common for people to have several strands of income, and while I was conducting my fieldwork, Cuba also had two currencies, one of which was predominantly used in these more economically competitive lines of work.

One such area is taxi-driving, which operates rather differently in Havana to elsewhere in the world. Public transport infrastructure is very limited in Cuba, and so many people either walk long distances, or share private taxis which follow set routes across the city. This forms a sort of informal infrastructure – or network – which everyone knows about, but which isn’t written down anywhere. In order to hail down a cab, you have to know exactly where in the city to stand in relation to where you want to go, and signal this to the drivers as they pass by, or the cars won’t stop.

Under socialism, Cubans developed many hand signals and gestures to exchange information without having to say it out loud. This was in part a response to a police state, but has also seeped into all aspects of life. Cubans often seem to be able to have whole exchanges without speaking out loud – which is baffling for foreign anthropologists trying to work out how to get from A to B!

When I asked my participants to explain how to hail a cab, most of them struggled to find words, and had to just show me which hand gestures to memorise, and which one corresponded to which street corner. I ended up sketching them in my notebook so as not to forget and find myself stranded in a distant part of the city, but this later became an important tool for me in my research more broadly speaking. So much information goes unsaid in Cuba – and memorising the sign language became imperative, not only for getting around the city, but also for being able to participate in and interpret information exchanges with the people I encountered from day to day.”