“I think it is an intrinsic part of our nature to explore something beyond our immediate environment,” says José Mateo, founder and artistic director of Cambridge-based José Mateo Ballet Theatre. But getting away isn’t always easy: “My whole career here has been looking for time to travel.” When he does get away, Mateo, a Cuban citizen, carries a teal blue “Travel Document” issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It’s a passport, essentially,” he explains, and the most recent one holds the stamps from Mateo’s trip to South Africa last year.
He first visited the country in 2005 with a group of nonprofit leaders selected by the Boston-based Barr Foundation to expand their worldview through travel. “The idea was to disrupt our normal flow of thinking. It was very exciting and impactful,” Mateo says. “My work often focuses on the tension between who we are as single beings and as members of a much larger race. Some of that comes from travel and trying to understand common denominators.”
A winning bid at a charity auction gave Mateo the chance to return to South Africa but it was several years before he could make the journey. He visited organizations working in struggling Johannesburg neighborhoods, but spent most of his time in a game park. “I couldn’t help but marvel at the difference between seeing animals in captivity and seeing them in larger numbers in the wild,” he says, noting that many are endangered. “You are amazed by what you are seeing, but also distraught by what’s happening to the animals and the land. All of us should try to squeeze this into our lifetime experience.”
Mateo hasn’t visited Cuba in more than three decades. He is involved with a local organization that provides humanitarian aid there and hopes to visit this year. China is also on his wish list. The country’s “vastness of space and history and centuries of cultural development” can provide perspective, he says. “When we are in the midst of strife, we think it has selected us. The history of mankind and womankind has been a history of struggle and challenge. It can humble us.”
Although he can’t travel as often as he’d like, Mateo tries to make the most of each journey. He usually brings back something special that will remind him of the experience. But objects are ultimately less important than state of mind. “Travel allows us to see our existence in the larger context,” he says.