Ricky Ricardo: The Cuban Who Loved Lucy

Alfredo Fernandez

LUCILLE BALL and DESI ARNAZ. Photo: Los Angeles Times.wikimedia.commons.org

Let me tell you how I learned about Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III.

It turns out that last July, I was sitting on a park bench trying to cool off from the unbearable heat of my native city of Santiago de Cuba along with another person who also writes for Havana Times.

She suddenly asked me if I had ever heard of Ricky Ricardo.  She then went on to tell me that he was a leading character in the old television sitcom “I Love Lucy.”   The series had been filmed in the United States in the 1950s and had a Cuban actor in the principal male role; the character’s name was Ricky Ricardo.

She also told me that the series was so famous in the US that even youth today are familiar with it and that the series had helped Cuban men to be seen by Americans as good lovers.

I recently read an interview conducted by Alfredo Prieto (the assistant editor of the Temas magazine and a writer with Havana Times) with three Cuban-American writers for the La Gaceta de Cuba magazine.  From that I was able to learn several new facts about the actor Desi Arnaz.

There Prieto shows how one Cuban was perceived by Americans “with a mixture exoticism, assimilationism and paternalism; relations (according to him) that generally acted in the mainstream at that time to bring about a realization of the otherness of Cubans…”

There too, Prieto informs us that Arnaz arrived in the US in the 1930s because his parents had to escape Cuba after the fall of the dictator Gerardo Machado, since his father had been the first mayor of Santiago de Cuba and a member of the Congress during the brutal Machado administration.

A few days ago an old friend, the journalist Lino Betancourt, returned from the recently concluded Cubadisco trade fair that had been held in Santiago de Cuba.  He had what was for our country a strange book in his hands: “A Book, by Desi Arnaz” (The personal memoirs of “Ricky Ricardo,” the man who loved Lucy).  Although the book was published in English, I received it with a pleasant surprise.

On the cover of that biography we’re shown the young Desi Arnaz playing a conga drum while at the same time revealing a furtive smile for the camera.

For that reason I was able to read the book by Desi Arnaz, who was born March 2, 1917 in Santiago de Cuba.  His television program was a true media conquest during the ‘50s because in real life he married and started a family with the actress who played the leading character Lucy (Lucile Ball).  The series was so successful in the US that it was the number one program during from 1951-1955.

As curious fact in his life, I also read in the biography that the expulsion of his family from Santiago was due more to (according to Arnaz) the uncompromising attitude of a group of anarchists and communists.

He says that that the true people of Santiago somehow worshipped his family owing to the prestige of his grandfather as the city’s doctor, who had attended everyone without distinction during epidemics of measles and yellow fever that had hit Santiago decades earlier.

Because of his father, who had educated him to respect to others, (according to Desi) he himself wasn’t familiar with racism until he came to Florida.  His house in Santiago was constantly visited by black patriots and veterans from all the wars of independence were friends of the family.

The book is rich in photos of the life of Desi Arnaz and of his family with Lucile Ball.   The actor is also shown together with Xavier Cugat, the famous Cuban orchestra director, and with the brilliant comedian Buster Keaton, to mention only two of the great figures of the epoch.

So today I’ve discovered perhaps the most famous of all Cubans in the United States: Santiago de Cuba native Desi Arnaz.  Though deliberately forgotten in his own country, this rediscovery pleases me because culture is much more than the forgetfulness of a few powerful individuals who always look to politics for the most subtle spaces to legitimate themselves.

7 thoughts on “Ricky Ricardo: The Cuban Who Loved Lucy

  • In the United States of the time it was really a testament to the negotiating power Lucille Ball wielded that she her real-life Cuban husband cast as her TV husband. Network executives even told her that no one would believe that a white middle-class American woman would be married to a latino man, and a musician no less! — to which she incredulously pointed out that in fact she and Desi were proof that it can happen (remember that at this time in the US many states banned interracial marriage until those laws were struck down in 1967). Though the show engaged in stereotypes and paternalism, it was still quite an important step along the way in changing American ideas about race and national origin. And that was down to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz making it happen. They might have been the first Hollywood “power couple.”

  • Do you know where precisely. Is the house that desi a lived in in Cuba?

  • I’m Cuban as well and was also unaware of racism before arriving in the U.S. In Cuba we were all Cubanos regardless of race and have intermarried for centuries. Although most Americans of the 50’s may have categorized Arnaz as white, he is clearly mulatto.

  • Its sad to hear he is all but forgotten in cuba the place he held so dearly to his heart. The youth in America has not forgotten Desi or Lucy it is because of syndication that I a 25year old Mexican-American with two small children enjoy I Love Lucy… in fact it was the first complete series I had ever bought and hold dear to my own heart.

  • In his bio, Desi also says he had a black girlfriend in Cuba. Many people say they know nothing of racism until they hit the shores of the good old US.
    CBS did not want to even allow Desi on the show as the husband of Lucille Ball. How was he suppose to have black guests on the show with that kind of attitude? That was the Jim Crow of the day back then. However, I do fault him for not exposing his children to their Latino side. His daughter Lucie has said she knew nothing about her father’s side of the family and doesn’t know Spanish either.

  • Desi Arnaz was no doubt a great entertainer together with his wife, Lucille Ball. Appreciation of their hilarious comedy routine transcended cultural and national boundaries. When I was exposed to the show in my pre-teen years outside the US, I never had the faintest idea then that Desi’s orchestra was trying to portray the mix of African-derived chants and rhythms, e.g. his signature “Babalu” song, that is “the other half” of Cuban music together with the Spanish-derived elements. Desi was an authentic Cuban who knew his culture very well and as a musician too. But he provided no context or commentary for the non-Cuban to appreciate the roots of Cuban music. The show offered a sanitized version of Cuban culture with the sensibilities of white US audiences of the time in mind. And herein lies the contradictions in the cultural message of Arnaz. He and Lucy were billed as the US’ first “mixed-couple” on TV, sort of breaking the barrier against multiculturalism. But this multiculturalism was the period-approved type – between white ethnicities. If Mr Arnaz “wasn’t familiar with racism until he came to Florida” (the grand mythology of the exilio), he fully embraced all its norms in TV. He conceded to or assimilated into the segregationist white American psyche of the times. His show was very enjoyable but represented Cuban culture as “arroz sin frijoles” (white rice without black beans). There were no blacks in the cast, nothing to rock the boat. It was all white Cubans boogieing down to some really “bad” Afro-Cuban rhythms and moves. It was just as white America would have it and love it in those days.

    Thanks to revolutionary Cuba, non-Cubans have a context to understand the roots of Desi’s “babalu” chants and the conga line and the wonderful dance moves featured on the I Love Lucy Show. Thanks to the rare US appearances of: Conjunto Foclorico Nacional de Cuba, Papa Chango playing with Los Van Van, Grupo Yoruba Andabo, Afrocuba de Matanzas, Jesus Alemany y…

  • I would say that a (very) few American youth are still familiar with Desi Arnaz; although you can see syndicated “I Love Lucy” reruns on a few obscure cable and satellite tv channels, such as TVLand, for the most part Desi and Luch are becoming quickly fading memories of those in their 80’s, 70’s and 60’s. At one time, however, when I was growing up in the 1950’s, everything came to a halt, and the family gathered around the old console tv to view “I Love Lucy.” Their humor seems quaint, naive and innocent by today’s standards, and their family is a time-capsule snap-shot of gender roles and family values in mid-Century America, when the empire was at its (post-war) height. If I remember correctly, one of my first disputes with my parents occured when I declined to join them in viewing “I Love Lucy” one evening, preferring instead to read in my room. When my mother asked me, rhetorically, if I was “too good to join them” in watching tv, I replied, rather provokatively, that, well, “Yes, I was!”

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