Student Mini Grant: Idealized Cuban Family Structures

Image of Cuban family structure translated to steel

The Project

Idealized Cuban Family Structures is a research based project that uses humor, the Cuban Family Code, the ASCE Steel Construction Manual, and my own family history to start a conversation about social engineering. It is presented as three sculptures, or “corrective devices” for the steel structure shown above, which represents my family’s dynamics. The sculptures will be accompanied by a series of 2D graphic works which assist the viewer in understanding the absurd translation of my family’s interpersonal relationships into this steel structure. The 2D pieces will also sarcastically illustrate where the family went “wrong” according to the Code. Humorous caricatures of engineering drawings depict where the corrective devices would bolt into the family structure and how the corrective devices would physically work to “fix” the family.

The 1975 Family code was a Cuban policy that proclaimed what the role of each family member should be. The written law was widely distributed throughout Cuba in a “pocket book” format for citizens to easily refer to. It was signed on International Women’s day and promoted as a feminist breakthrough for Cuban society. I conducted a series of interviews with Cubans of different age groups and personal politics who experienced Cuban family life before and after the code. They seemed to agree that the Code opened up employment opportunities that where previously closed to women but it did not have an affect on the machismo that women experienced in their day to day lives. Those who I interviewed suggested that the code was effectively a way of the government codifying cultural norms, alleviating their financial burden, and having more control over Cuban citizens, specifically children. Among other things, the Code did this by making into law that marriage must be between a man and a woman, each child must have two guardians carrying their financially burden, and children must go through the socialist school system.

The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Steel Construction Manual is a reference book for civil engineers designing steel structures. It is a complete manual that includes all construction codes applying to steel construction in the US.

Most of my family left Cuba in the years right after the revolution of 1959. They moved to the US and did not live through the Cuban Family Code.

The University of Michigan Library was critical for conducting the research behind this project. My U-M Library mentor introduced me to library resources and the incredible amount of content available to students through the library. Among many other resources, this included an original copy of the first English translation of the Code shown below, and books on historical instances of social engineering by governments in other countries.

Image of English Translation of Cuban Family Code

U-M Library Original Copy of 1975 English Translation of Cuban Family Code

The objects below are absurdly engineered corrective devices for my family structure. Through conversations with my mother about our family in 1950s Cuba, I mapped my family's complex interpersonal relationships and translated them into a steel structure in accordance with the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Steel Construction Manual. I then referred to the Cuban Family Code, a 1975 policy that proclaimed what the role of each family member should be, in order to create devices for “fixing” the family wherever it was “broken”. These pieces’ obvious lack of structural integrity satirically suggest the deficiencies of social engineering.

The Family bringer together-er, pictured below, slides right onto abuelo Alfredo, an L8x8x1 angle beam. Each side stretches to attach to five different beams, his wife and those of his children who left Cuba. Alfredo worked in a factory in Mariel, they lived in Havana, half of his children eventually left for the US. This all utterly invalidated their family, according to the Code. This piece references the Family Code when it states that a “marriage loses its meaning for the couple and for the children and, thus, for society as a whole when… the marriage is no longer the union of a man and a woman in a manner adequate to… fulfill the obligations mentioned in Articles 24-28…” Article 25: “spouses must live together”. The Code also explicitly states that it is a parent’s obligation to instil in their children a love for their country and its socialist values. During this time in Cuban history, those who fled the island where looked down upon and considered traitors of the revolution.

Image of family bringer together-er

Family bringer together-er, 2020. Silicone; 4”x35”x38”

Image of family bringer together-er

The Sexual reorient-er, pictured below, is made for any mis-oriented member to slide into the slot and be bolted in. A crank can turn the member until the proper orientation is achieved. This piece references the code’s exclusive definition of a family to include only heterosexual couples. It should also be noted that during this time in Cuban history, people suspected to be homosexual would be sent to labor camps.

Image of Sexual reorient-er

Sexual reorient-er, 2020. Cast iron, steel; 14”x12.5”x12.5”

The Juvenile align-er, pictured below, references the extensive mention in the Code of the legal obligation that parents had requiring them to make sure that their children went to school. It is explicitly stated that “Partia potestas entails the following rights and duties of the parents… seeing to the education of their children;… seeing to it that they attend school;… and collaborate with educational authorities in school programs and activities; training their children to be useful citizens;…”. This allowed the government to both continue their progress in making Cuba a very literate country and systematically instil socialist values in the nation’s children from a young age. It was a vehicle for the government to further execute their social engineering.

Image of juvenile align-er

Juvenile align-er, 2020. Silicone, steel; 68”x33”x3.5”

Image of juvenile align-er

I used the same logic and ASCE Steel Construction Manual for translating my family into a steel structure as I used for translating the ideal Cuban family as per the Family Code into the steel structure modeled below. This image is used in one of the 2D pieces; still in progress, as an image of what the corrective devices aim to make my family structure emulate. It is the “perfect Cuban family”. The ASCE Manual is a US manual based on US construction codes. Using this to create the initial translation key for translating humans into steel members, reflects on the un-erasable history of US imperialism in Cuba. This imperialism left a capitalist framework for pre-revolutionary Cuban social code. The 1975 Code aimed to explicitly replaced it with a socialist framework. Both frameworks, more or less explicitly, were used for social engineering and both massively over-simplify human socialization in their inherent assumptions.

Image of Ideal Cuban Family as per the Family Code


Ideal Cuban Family as per the Family Code, Translated to Steel Structure


This project paints a picture of the disconnect between legal policies and the complex situations they aim to model and control. It uses a very clear attempt at social engineering for the purpose of caricaturing this practice in contemporary policy. I plan to show this work virtually and in a public in-person setting in order to initiate dialogue about the over-simplifications of social engineering and government codification of social norms.

Next Steps

These sculptures will be virtually exhibited at as of May 2, 2020. They, in conjunction with a series of 2D pieces that are still in progress, will be visible at by June. I am in the process of applying to show the project in spaces in Miami, where a large Cuban community can engage with the work and with this conversation on social engineering in a contemporary context.

The U-M Library mini-grant was crucial for funding the fabrication of sculptures cast in silicon and iron. Below is an image of CNC routing the costly foam purchased with grant funds and used to make a mold for the Family bringer together-er. More fabrication and creative process images can be seen at (@cuban_steel on Instagram).

Image of CNC Routing Positive

CNC Routing Positive for Mold of First Corrective Device Sculpture

Image of author


Maite Iribarren is graduating from the University of Michigan this year with a BA in Art and Design and a BSE in Civil Engineering