Tico Torres (left) and Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte at home in New York.
Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose work has appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, Town and Country, and L’Uomo Vogue. Tico Torres is a fashion stylist who, in addition to collaborating with Rodriguez-Duarte since the beginning of his career, has worked with such legendary photographers as Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson, and Bruce Weber. (Torres styled Weber’s portrait of ballet star Damien Woetzel in this month’s Vanity Fair.) Together, Alexis and Tico have produced iconic portraits of such personalities as Gianni Versace, Gloria Vanderbilt, Andy Garcia, and most notably, Celia Cruz—their fifteen year friendship with her is documented in the photo book Presenting Celia Cruz. When they aren’t jetting off to Paris, Ibiza, or some other exotic destination for a photo shoot, Alexis and Tico divide their time between homes in Miami and New York. The Luck Guide paid a visit to their New York apartment, tucked away on one of the West Village’s leafiest streets. Here, lucky objects share the whimsically appointed space with a formidable collection of Cuban art.
Kevin: What fascinates me about your apartment is how you really incorporate all these good luck talismans into the décor of the place. The first thing I noticed is the horseshoe above your front door. It looks ancient. Can you tell me more about it?
Alexis: We found it in Colorado. We were out at a ranch in the middle of nowhere.
Tico: Actually, it was Daryl Hannah’s ranch. Our friend Jeffrey Cayle was working on the design of her ranch out in Colorado and he asked us to visit him and bring him some stuff that he needed for Daryl’s place.
A: So we drove—and it was an amazing road trip since it was the first time we had driven across the country. The house used to be a stagecoach stop and on one of the days we were out exploring the enormous property we found this horseshoe in one of the fields, which we decided to bring back with us.
K: You know it’s very lucky to find horseshoes by accident.
A: Oh really?
K: Yes, and every nail left in the horseshoe is supposed to count for extra good luck. Above the horseshoe on your doorway, it seems like you’ve got a whole treasure trove of little angels and sculptures…
A: These were picked up on a trip to Mexico. We went for the Day of the Dead and we got these in Patzcuaro.
T: The two on the sides are both statuettes depicting La Virgencita de Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of Mexico, and then there are three crosses with Christ on them, which are all handmade and painted right there in the plaza where we bought them. We picked them up right from the artist, so we thought they were really special because we actually saw them painting it right there. The three little cherubs and angel are from a dear friend of ours, Albin Kohanski, who was Joan Crawford’s hairdresser and colorist. He and his boyfriend were together for 51 years, and traveled all over the world. These three angels came from Italy, and I believe they purchased them in the 1950s.
K: Are the virgins supposed to bless you or bring you luck?
T: Both. Mexicans really believe that she will answer their prayers and help them. She’s very, very important in Mexico.
A: It’s very interesting because for us, we grew up catholic, but we’re not really practicing Catholics. These symbols, because of our family traditions, always had a meaning that went beyond religious faith, and we continue the tradition without being totally religious about it.
K: Well, is there any special reason you hang these saints above the doorway with the horseshoe?
A: Well, as always in our houses and in our parent’s houses, we like to hang lucky charms over the ledge of the front door. When you go out, the angels, the virgin, and the crosses will go out with you and protect you.
T: We also put them there so that as you’re walking out, it’s one of the last things you’ll see.
A: Before we go away on any trip, we always stand in front of the door and say a little prayer to let us have a safe trip, and to keep the house safe.
T: And we do this at our house in Miami, too, in front of the little saints that I’ve collected from my family.
A: I don’t know if you noticed, but on this other doorway leading to the living room, we’ve hung this pineapple drawing. The pineapple is always supposed to be welcoming and bring good luck into the home. It was given to us by Gilberto Ruiz, the Cuban artist.
K: I’ve never noticed that until today! Now, what are all these little saints lining the windowsill?
T: These are actually the ones they sell in Miami for you to put on your dashboard. They have little magnets at the bottom, and they bring luck to your car. When I was growing up, my Dad always had these little saints in the front of the car to protect you while you were driving. These four are the most important saints to Cubans: you have Santa Barbara, La Virgen de Regla, which I think is probably unique to Cuba, La Virgencita de la Caridad del Cobre, and San Lazaro.
A: When I was a little boy growing up in Havana, I was run over by a car. My entire leg was crushed, my femur was severed, and the doctors said that I would be handicapped for the rest of my life. San Lazaro was the one who helped those with physical ailments.
K: He was the patron saint of lepers, I believe.
A: Yes, exactly. So on the seventeenth of December every year, there’s a shrine in El Rincón, and people would go on their knees to this shrine. As a little kid, my parents would make a pilgrimage to El Rincón de San Lazaro to make an offering so that I would be cured. And here I am today—totally healed—I don’t even have a limp.
K: As we enter the living room, I’m noticing all sorts of lucky charms. Where should we start first?
T: Well, we have our little elephant here on the mantelpiece, and following the Cuban tradition, we always have his butt pointing toward the front door.
K: That’s interesting, because in some other traditions, like the Chinese, the trumpet is supposed to be facing the front door, as if “heralding in” the good luck.
T: Really? That’s interesting. If you go to many Cuban households, you’ll always find a little elephant, and the butt is always pointing towards the front door. As a matter of fact, I remember that white ceramic elephants in different sizes were always popular in houses when I was growing up in Hialeah [a Miami suburb heavily populated with Cuban immigrants].
A: (Laughs) Yes, I remember that my parents had a set of those white elephants too. Three of them!
K: Looking up at that ledge by the window, I notice a beautiful recreation of San Lazaro.
A: Yes, that was my grandmother’s San Lazaro statue, and she had it for many, many years. And you’ll notice the cigar next to San Lazaro, because he liked cigars. You were also supposed to wash him every so often with warm water.
K: And put a cigar next to him?
A: No, actually you’re supposed to blow cigar smoke onto his face for good luck, because that’s what he likes. Now in this case, this is an actual cigar that Celia Cruz smoked. We were with her at a launch party for Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s book Holy Smoke, and these cigars were sitting on table. Celia turned to Tico and asked, “Do you have any matches?” She wanted to smoke the cigar, because it turned out that in all her years she had never smoked a cigar before.
K: So this is the first cigar that she ever smoked?
A: Yes! She was smoking it and she told us, “This is the first time I’ve ever smoked a cigar!” So we kept it and leave it up there. I don’t know if you see it, but in front of San Lazaro is a tiny little saint there—it’s called El Niño de Atocha. It’s a tiny little saint that was given to me by my grandmother when I first arrived from Cuba. And next to them are rosary beads given to us by a dear friend who had brought them back from Bethlehem. So we keep all these special good luck things up there on that ledge.
K: I’ve noticed this handkerchief tied to the leg of a chair. What is its significance?
A: This is another Cuban lucky tradition: whenever you lose anything—from your car keys to your passport, whatever—you’re supposed to “tie San Dimas’ balls” until they reappear. Basically, what you do is tie a handkerchief around the leg of a table or chair. Actually, you can use a handkerchief or grass, because in the countryside, that’s what they used. And as you tie the handkerchief or the grass, you’re supposed to say, “San Dimas, help us find the thing we are looking for.”
T: The basic premise is that you’re tying San Dimas’ balls and you’re not going to release them until he helps you find whatever you’re looking for.
A: Again, I should say that we don’t believe in this a hundred percent, but it’s one of those traditions that our parents have passed down through the years, and so we just repeat the ritual. Recently, I lost my passport and citizenship papers here in the apartment, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere. Tico was also helping me search for it, and he tied San Dimas’ balls. We were searching and searching . . .
T: . . . and we turned the apartment upside down, going file by file . . .
A: . . . and we just couldn’t find it. One day, I noticed that the handkerchief was a little loose. So I decided to make it tighter, and I said, “San Dimas, please bring me luck in finding my passport.” About half an hour later, I found my passport and citizenship papers—tucked away in of all places a file folder that contained articles and tearsheets—you know, the ones that give me ideas and inspiration for my photo shoots.
K: Someplace it would never be?
A: Yes, as a matter of fact, I wasn’t even going to look there. But as I came across this file, I decided to just throw some stuff out for recycling. So as I’m going through these old clippings, suddenly my passport appears.
T: So then we untied San Dimas’ balls, because he came through.
A: It was a little freaky, really, because I was never going to look there. Because I knew there was absolutely no way my passport or important papers could possibly be in that file. I was actually going to take that whole file and toss away everything, but something made me look in there, and voila!
K: Do you think that Cubans by nature are big believers in luck?
T: I don’t know if we’re bigger believers than other nationalities, since there are superstitions in every culture, but yes, luck does play a big factor for Cubans.
A: Well, take the lottery for example. Cubans are really into playing the lottery, and for them every number has a special significance. If you see a bird in the middle of a street, for instance, that symbolizes a number.
T: Every sign you see has significance that relates to a number. Number 15, for example, relates to a dog. A dove is 24, or a monkey’s 34.
K: What do you think is the most prevalent or popular Cuban lucky superstition? For example, the most widely held superstition in Japan is that if you cut your fingernails at night, your parents will die before you next see them.
A: Wow, I don’t think we have anything as dramatic as that. Some popular good luck superstitions are: leaving a place the same way you came in—from the same door, because you don’t want to take the luck of the place out, whether it’s good or bad.
T: Another one is to always walk out the door with your right foot first. There are a lot of little things, but I don’t know if there’s one ultimate belief.
K: I realize that with the saints, there’s a lot of superstition intermingling with Catholicism.
T: Catholic imagery and iconography has always been very prominent, because the Spaniards brought these religious figures with them, and then we get the slaves from Africa. The Spaniards did not like the slaves practicing their religion, which is Yoruba, and they would force them not to practice it. So the Afro-Cuban slaves started using the saints as substitutes but really still prayed to their gods. The Spaniards would see the statue of Santa Barbara in their houses, but really they were praying to Changó. So the fusion of superstition and religion has always been very strong. I remember that whenever my mom or dad played the lottery, they would put the ticket underneath the saint for the evening. My family was catholic, they weren’t into Santería, but they certainly mixed a lot of these superstitions. You would put an apple next to Changó, or Santa Barbara, because Changó liked apples. You go into many Cuban households, and even though they are not practicing santeros, they’ll have little offerings next to their saints, like food or little glasses of water. Saints were the ones that brought you luck.
A: In our house, we always did a lucky cleansing ritual by cleaning the house with water and ice. Once a week, you were supposed to open the front door and throw out a bucket filled with ice and water to “cleanse” the whole house out.
T: Especially on New Year’s Eve.
A: Yes, every New Year’s Eve, it was very important, and my grandmother always did that.
K: That’s such a cool tradition, no pun intended. Well, I think we’ve just about covered it all. Thanks so much for inviting us into your home!