HAVANA TIMES — It was 1992. My brother-in-law had invited me to his graduation at the University of Oriente, which was to be held at the former residence of the mayor, in front of Cespedes park in Santiago de Cuba.
At the time, my brother-in-law lived with my sister and their small child in the city of Bayamo. I would be present on behalf of the rest of the family, who was unable to travel for the ceremony.
The ceremony began and it looked like any other, run-of-the-mill graduation, celebrating the double sacrifice of pursuing university studies in Cuba at a time of extreme shortages. It was not to be just any graduation, however. Gradually, from the solemnity of this morning ceremony, there emerged a brilliant and singularly talented student who was totally in step with his time.
The student was Ismael Cala, someone who, until that moment, for me, was merely the host of an excellent nightly radio show that was aired on Sundays by Santiago de Cuba’s CMKC station and the occasional children’s program shown on local television.
Ismael Cala was the student of the day that morning. His grade point average of 7 (the highest of his graduating class that year), earned him repeated ovations during the ceremony. His graduation thesis was also hailed at his faculty’s best that year. Its title was something along the lines of “Tourist Entertainment for a 5-Star Hotel.”
That’s why I say he was very much in step with the times, for the country was beginning to enter into the world of tourism and, as such, to construct 5-star hotels. I also recall that virtually every teacher at the graduation wanted to have a photo taken with him.
The students’ graduation gift that day was free admission to the Espantasueños disco at the Santiago Hotel, where I went with my brother-in-law. Someone from our table called Ismael Cala over and asked him: “how did you manage to end up with a 7 grade point average, when the highest average is 5.” Cala replied that he had taken several extra-grade exams, each of which was worth 0.7 percentage points.
From that point on, I could no longer think of Cala simply as the host of a local radio show. I began to see him as an extraordinarily capable person, determined to take on any sacrifice to succeed in this, his only life.
Time has proven me right. One fine day, I saw Cala hosting the 12 am national news. Later, I heard him host Cuba’s national radio broadcast Radio Rebelde – where, incidentally, the host at the time, the late Gladis Gouzueta, “made fun” of his countryside origins. If she could see him today!
A short time later, while having a beer with a friend, sitting in front of a TV with cable at the Villa Panamericana, on the outskirts of Havana, I was surprised to see Cala cover Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada, as a CNN correspondent in Toronto.
At the time, fool that I am, I thought Cala had gone as far as he’d wanted to go. But no: he wanted more and, talented man that he is, was able to get more. Today, Cala is the evening host for the Spanish-language CNN broadcast.
If anyone’s interested, his segment is named after him, “Cala”. There, he has interviewed anyone from the most renowned politicians in the Latin American world, artists and philanthropists to anyone with a project that can be of interest to Latin Americans.
Cala is now trying his hand at self-help books, to give back, in the form of teaching, what he has achieved through hard work, patience and intelligence.
I don’t make a habit of buying self-help books. Generally speaking, they strike me as easy formulas for a future that is always changing, full of examples that are so specific that they can never work for everyone.
However I am going to buy Ismael Cala’s book “The Power of Listening” (“El poder de escuchar”), for the author is a successful man with my background: a black man from Santiago de Cuba willing to work hard to attain success, without stepping over anyone to do so.
His book deals with something a bit unusual in our world, the act of listening. In fact, we are always being encouraged to do just the opposite of listening, to express ourselves, to speak up, to do just about anything to persuade others, never to remain silent.
It is great that a man from Santiago de Cuba should enter the world of best-selling self-help books with a slogan saying something along the lines of “the first thing one needs to learn is how to listen to others.”
I’m going to read Cala, study his book (bookmarker and all), for I am sure this compatriot of mine, obsessed with growing as a person and a professional, today one of the great hosts of Spanish-language television, has something to teach me. Thank you, Cala, I hope many others follow in your footsteps.