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The Villamil Family - Divided Lives

Year: 2006

Authorship: Leonie Purchas / FABRICA

Leonie Purchas’s photo report explores the idea of the family and its role in society through a portrait gallery of a family divided, whose members live in Cuba and Los Angeles. Her work captures the things that stay the same even in different social environments.


By the age of 43 Felipe Villamil had become the head of his family and a respected Santeria priest for the Afro-Cuban community in his home town of Matanzas. In January 1980, he was thrown into jail for an unproven offence, the result of which would unalterably change the course of his life.

After nine months in prison he was given the choice to leave for the US along with 125,000 of Castro’s ‘undesirables’, (later to be known as Marielitos) or languish in jail for the rest of his adult life. He opted for freedom despite having to leave behind his wife and family.

From a detention centre in Florida he moved to New York where he started a new family and struggled to make ends meet. Finally, in 2001, he settled in Los Angeles where he has built a new life, earning a living as a priest and drummer for afro-latino religious groups. Santeria, or ‘way of the saints’, is the product of the intertwining of Christian and Yoruba African beliefs. All ceremonies take place in the home and there are no public centres of worship.  Today Santeria is practiced in some form by over 80% of Cubans.

Felipe never fell for the American Dream. He claims that Santeria has become for him like a job, whereas in Cuba it was a way of life. He still hopes that one day the government will change and he will be able to return to his roots.

“Sometimes I feel like I am only surviving, whereas in Cuba people know how to live.”

“People think that there is great wealth over here. It’s true there’s a lot of money, but to get it you have to put your fingers into the oven, and do you realise how hot that oven is?”

Meanwhile the family he left behind continues to draw strength from practicing Santeria in Castro’s dilapidated Cuba. The memory of Felipe remains well loved and respected, even though he has only been able to visit once in the last 25 years.


Featured in the I SEE project exhibited in 'Les Yeux Ouverts' at Centre Pompidou (France 2006), Milan Triennale (Italy 2007), Shanghai Art Museum (China 2007), Tokyo ShiodomeItalia Creative Center (Japan 2008)



A physical and visual journey of exploration into the current trends of historical, cultural, artistic, social and economic development. “I see” also means “I observe” and “I understand”. Six photographers from Fabrica each chose a story to represent one of the world’s six main geographic areas: North America, South America, East, Far East, Africa and Europe.


Commissioned by:
Fabrica for the I SEE project



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