Crossing Over

Veronica Vega

Juan Carlos Flores at a poetry reading.
Juan Carlos Flores (c) at a poetry festival back in  2006.

HAVANA TIMES — On Thursday September 15th, the sea that washes up on “Russian beach” in Alamar, spread the ashes of poet Juan Carlos Flores.

Friends who tried to pay tribute to him by walking the same route that he used to take to get to the coast on foot, when we walked along the steps that separated us from the waves, fell into a spontaneous silence. No other sound was greater than that of the water, this timeless ebb and flow that tries to warn us of the fact that this life-dream that hypnotizes us, has an expiration date.

Juan Carlos (Juanka) couldn’t even wait for his end prescribed by natural decree. He hung himself on the balcony of his apartment, after having brought home his miserable daily bread from the market, his last quota of survival.

Suicide is common among schizophrenics, so I’m told, as if there wasn’t a lot of room for surprise. However, I am surprised and I refuse to believe it, because a chosen death is always an interruption, a failure, and Juanka was proud enough to not settle for less than a complete victory.

If he gave up in a calculated act to the point that he put junk in front of the door so that nobody would get in the way of him crossing the dangerously close line, it was because of exhaustion, and even then he fought until the very end, even if it was against his own breath, which takes a colossal amount of courage.

When I met Juan Carlos Flores, he was giving a presentation of his book “The counter-attack”, at Garage 19, an alternative venue which belongs to the OMNIZonafranca project. The stage imitated a boxing ring. Wearing shorts and a towel thrown over his shoulders, his nasal voice, almost rough, he read a poem, ripped out the page, crumpled it up and threw it to the floor.

I was so impressed by the strength of his poems that I began to collect the balls of paper spread out among the audience’s feet. Afterwards, I wrote a text where I asked myself why in this game where you imagine which great figure you would like to have dinner with, we always think about those who have passed away, never about those who are still living.

This age-old indifference that cursed poets and painters have had to pay with their agony. Now that he has crossed over to the other side, I ask myself how many of those who had denied his work a deserved space in Cuban literature, will have the honorable hypocrisy of choosing him among other great universal cultural figures, at least for an imaginary dinner.

Irreverent and funny, Juanka used to say: “I like the way I am, I get it out, I’m a good friend of myself.” It’s fair to remember him like this, however at his funeral, when somebody stated that we shouldn’t cry because this hadn’t been a suicide but a hara-kiri, I thought about how comfortable sarcasms and metaphors can be, because suicide is unquestionably the failure before the challenge of individual existence, and the failure of a society’s inner workings.

Juan Carlos Flores wasn’t a member of the Artists and Writers Association (UNEAC), he didn’t believe in institutional patronage and he felt free to voice his opinions, even with a sharp tongue, and not only in his poems. He was a guest at the Estado de Sats, a space for exchanging thoughts, demonized by the Cuban government which stigmatizes anyone who went through its doors.

The circumstances of his death: alone, vulnerable due to his mental illness in spite of his friend’s sincere help (especially from poet Amaury Pacheco and his family), shows the inefficiency of the Cuban health system, the objective inexistence of a Social Security institution, and the obvious neglect of Cuban citizens.

Government media which was deaf to his poetry, are now deaf to his death. Granma newspaper, precisely on Thursday when his ashes were scattered into the sea, published a detail in the Education Channel’s program announcing: To read tomorrow: Juan Carlos Flores, poet.

With the proven efficiency of omission and silence, who can differentiate between the living and the dead? Between those who are here and those who aren’t; it doen’t matter if they have crossed over the sea to another land or if they have disappeared like dust among its waves.

Now, those who survive by stealing other people’s insides will boast that they knew him, discussing his poetry’s obsessive circularity or extremely sensitive details such as his rough personality and even (with the morbid circumspection of kidney specialists) the misfortune that this planned death wasn’t instant.

Tragedies stun us because of the violence with which they bring home the opposite. The last time I visited Juanka was to talk to him about a project that a friend had told me about, that a US painter who had painted a series of dead Cuban poets now wanted to paint living Cuban poets.

Through the closed door of his apartment, with sadness in his voice, Juanka told me that he couldn’t see me. Today, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that his portrait will no longer be in this exhibition, not because of the remote possibility that he might not have accepted, but because one morning, or a second, marked the irreversible difference between life and death.

Because of a neighbor’s skepticism who didn’t take his announcement seriously, because of the tempting abyss that loneliness opens up to us, because of the pain that can only be spoken of by those who have felt it like himself and Angel Escobar:

“I’m invisible, a monster who abhors his ways. They all come,
they torment me; I bear it. They only offer me their tall standing, white insane asylums. (…)”

Juanka once told me: “I think that man has the freedom to choose his slavery. There are people who have the vocation to be a vassal. If you change your relationship with fear, you move forward, if you don’t, it paralyzes you, like gas. A free man, in my opinion, is a man free from fear.”
Today, I hope he reached this freedom.

One thought on “Crossing Over

  • Veronica, I am so sorry for your loss of your friend and for Cuba’s loss of a poet. It is tragic that he could not get adequate treatment for his illness.

    May his soul find peace.

    As the great Cuba poet Reinaldo Arenas wrote in his suicide note,

    “Cuba will be free. I already am.”

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