Cartographer Maps Cuba, And A Personal History

Sep 20, 2011
Originally published on September 20, 2011 3:48 pm

Last July, the National Geographic Society released its first comprehensive map of Cuba in more than 100 years.

The new, detailed map includes two new Cuban states and is worthy of recognition in its own right — but the real story is the cartographer behind the project.

Cartographer and geographer Juan Jose Valdes fled Cuba for the United States when he was a young boy. Today, he's not just any geographer, but the geographer at National Geographic.

In a special broadcast in front of a live studio audience, Valdes explains the features of the new map of his homeland and what it meant to him to create it. (Click here for a closer look of Valdes' map of Cuba.)

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NEAL CONAN, host: One of the advantages of being at National Geographic today is that we have a chance to meet the geographer. That's Juan Jose Valdes' title here. He's a native of Cuba, which he left almost 50 years ago. He recently finished Geographic's first new map of that country in more than 100 years. Juan Jose Valdes joins us here onstage at the Grosvenor Auditorium. It's an honor to have you with us today.

JUAN JOSE VALDES: Thank you, Neal. Appreciate it.

CONAN: And this had to be a - your map. It's a personal dream.

VALDES: Well, I had a lot of help putting this map together. I had a staff of four cartographers working with me. But when I got the news that the project was on, it was heartfelt, to say the least.

CONAN: And as you had to come up with a reason to make a new map of Cuba?

VALDES: Well, basically, every couple of months the directors at NG Maps get together and discuss upcoming projects for the year. And I was looking at the roster. And Cuba, the last time we did it was in 1906. It's time for an update.

CONAN: I'm sure very little changed.


VALDES: Considerable changes have taken place.

CONAN: Yes. How do you go about getting information on Cuba?

VALDES: Well, it's not as hard as you may think. First of all, there's a lot of GIS data available. There are a lot of sources that one can access from our map library, from the Library of Congress. If, you know, you really need the minutia, you can always contact the Cuban Interest Section. And they were most willing and helpful in providing us with the new administrative boundary changes that were about to take place.

CONAN: And indeed there are two new provinces.

VALDES: That's correct. Artemisa and Mayabeque.

CONAN: And so they're said to be put on, too. How do you go about drawing a map? Where do you start?

VALDES: Well, basically, we have a very nicely detailed database, ranging in scales from 400 million to five million. Whatever is not available in that database we can go out and obtain from other cartographic sources, other GIS files, basics, et cetera.

CONAN: GIS files?

VALDES: Geographic information systems.


VALDES: Basically, someone's already mapped all the detail that is required for that map.

CONAN: And you are making, essentially, editorial decisions because you could go down to the tiniest detail, but it would be too cloudy to read.

VALDES: That's correct. So we have a certain hierarchy that we follow when we do general reference maps. We basically start out with what I call the superlatives: the administrative capitals, major cities, sites of significance. And then we start drilling down. And when we get to the point where we see that the map is getting a bit crowded, then we start backing off.

CONAN: As a child, I had to draw maps on onionskin of the, you know, Assyrian Empire, that sort of thing. And what you learned is as you made layers, you could add more detail. Do you do the same thing?

VALDES: The process is basically the same. It's just in a digital format. It's layer by layer by layer, from to type to line work to color.

CONAN: And do you look - stand back and look and say that area is too cluttered, this area is too bare?

VALDES: Yes. Basically, what we do is we print out the map at proof stage to take a look at it entirety, and then we compare and contrast overall content density.

CONAN: And content density, is it too crowded to read. And how do you decide to make one place - the typeface for one place bigger than the other?

VALDES: Well, for populated places, we follow a hierarchy of ranges, population ranges, physical features. It all depends on the size and extent of that feature, so, for instance, the Rocky Mountains would have considerably larger type than the Blue Ridge Mountains.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking with the geographer. This is Juan Jose Valdes. He drew a new map of Cuba. You can see the new map at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you go through this process, Cuba, the place you left as a young boy must have been very special to you.

VALDES: It was extremely special. And every day when I came to the office and I worked on that map, I literally had flashbacks. I know what that place looks like. I know what that place smells like. I know what that place feels like.

CONAN: Did you include, I guess, you get - do you have points of personal privilege? Do you get to include something that mean something special to you?

VALDES: I did. I'd made it a point to put a couple of places on the map that not only that I myself would recognize but that any Cuban of my generation and of my circumstance would recognize immediately.

CONAN: And they are?

VALDES: Valle de los Ingenios, outside of Trinidad. It's a World Heritage site. It's the most majestic place. Basically, you're looking down on sugar cane fields from a series of hills. Magnificent. Basilica del Cobre, which is down by Santiago, which is the holiest shrine in all of Cuba. And then, of course, there's Vinales, which is a valley to the west of Havana, of coffee and tobacco-growing region with this fantastic Karst topography.

CONAN: These are places you saw as...

VALDES: Those are places I saw before I left, and those are places I got to see again in 2001.

CONAN: You went back on a trip.

VALDES: I went back with the National Geographic Expeditions group.

CONAN: And did you lead them consciously to the places you knew as a boy?

VALDES: No, I did not. Ironically, before my departure, my parents made it a point to take me around the island. I was a map lover back then, and one of the things that they requested that I do is don't take a map with you. Let's just see the island for what it is and remember it. And, of course, I couldn't make the connection. Well, lo and behold, in 2001, it was exactly the same circuit, and nothing had changed.


CONAN: The cars are still the same too.

VALDES: The cars were still the same too.


CONAN: It's interesting. Some people will wonder if the map of Cuba contains detailed information on Guantanamo Bay.

VALDES: Not at that scale, not at one to 500 million. It's very generalized detail for that very small plot of land.

CONAN: And similarly, I assume that there are sensitive locations the Cubans would rather you not detail.

VALDES: We didn't address them. We didn't do any research in that arena. It was basically a general reference map, sites of interest, sites of historical importance.

CONAN: I assume, of course, National Geographic wants to have maps of everywhere. But I assume they like to make some sales too. Interest...

VALDES: Definitely. Definitely. From what I understand, the map's proven to be quite popular. There's a high demand for it.

CONAN: Good. There was a story. Tell us about how you became fascinated with maps as a child.

VALDES: Well, it seems that during all those pivotal moments in my early life there was a map involved. I was explaining to a lady just recently that on the eve of the Bay of Pigs, my mother had, for the last previous days, has been reading me a story of Pearl Harbor. And on that very day, she started reading the part about when the Japanese were beginning the attack. And at that point where she showed me the map of the attack route, because of where we lived, our area was being strafed by aircraft. So immediately, it left a very strong impression.

CONAN: I could understand.

VALDES: The map, the strafing, and there were many other incidents down the line where a map was always there at that point in time.

CONAN: There was a moment after you'd moved to Miami, your parents had moved there as well, your father got lost.

VALDES: Yes, he did. He called the house and he said I'm lost. Well, where are you? I'm at the corner of one way and yield. Well...


VALDES: know, where is that? Miami. Luckily enough, we lived across the street from a firehouse, and in my pidgin English, I was able to work with a fireman who had this large map of the city of Miami. And based on some of the landmarks that he gave me over the phone, I was able to give him a general direction on how to get home.

CONAN: Maps can do a lot.

VALDES: They sure can.

CONAN: Juan Jose Valdes, thank you very much for your time today, and thank you for your new map.

VALDES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Juan Jose Valdes, the geographer for National Geographic Society. He joined us here in the Grosvenor Auditorium. Thanks to everybody here at the Grosvenor Auditorium who'd joined us in the audience, and thanks to our technical crew and everybody who came out to join us, called and emailed.

Tomorrow, it's the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. We'll talk about what happens next. Also, director/choreographer Bill T. Jones joins us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.