By Milena Recio (Progreso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES – If you had shown up at the large house on 17th and D Streets last Sunday and peered through the banisters, you could have both seen and heard. It was an improvised box seat on the open sidewalk. Some stayed for a long time with their noses between the railings: looking, recognizing, and taking in those least glamorous moments of a band, when the rehearsal for one piece can be repeated until it becomes a kind of litany.
Music inundated this part of the neighborhood of Vedado, and from as far off as 15th St. the melodies of Buena Fe [Good Faith] and the melodious voice of Israel Rojas, the group’s leader, were recognizable. This young man seems ready to talk about Cuba at any time.
“Maldita culpa..” [“Damned blame”]. I arrive and they are digging precisely into the issue of blame. The piano and the drum lead; Israel is heard: “If there are tears//if they bring no results//what pisses me off//what offends//..is that the blame//the damned blame //belongs to no one.” [“Si corre el llanto // si no resulta, // lo que me jode,// lo que me insulta //…que la culpa //la maldita culpa //no la tiene nadie.” ] That line – for us who are full of metaphorical guilty parties, probables, nameless people we blame. Listening to it there, first hand, burns.
At last the rehearsal ends, and my turn comes. I ask him if he follows Progreso Semanal and he surprises me with such an immediate “Yes” that I am encouraged to ask for his recommendations as an interested reader. We have agreed to a conversation about Miami and the September 18th concert they are preparing for. Conversation deluges us like a tropical downpour.
Israel Rojas: In Miami, even though some of the demographic and demographic-political variables have changed, the tendency towards “I don’t care” is very strong. People leave Cuba thinking that their material deficiencies are the fault of politics, and later they cut themselves off from politics until it knocks on their door once again. During this time, they don’t want to participate, they don’t want to take an active part, they don’t care about it. They’re so sick and tormented that they don’t want to know anything more about it. Regrettably, you could consider that position a step forward compared to the traditional posture, where the Cubans who left became enemies of the processes they lived through in this country. To leave and not want to know anything more about what goes on in the political arena either here or there is, unfortunately, a painful step forward. It’s like advancing from the negative numbers to zero and we hope they’ll move from there to “I care a little.”
Milena Recio: In other words, you prefer the option of being apolitical to being a militant enemy of Cuba with a super-hard line as was taken by other generations of emigrants in the past?
IR: Yes, I believe so. And for that reason Progreso Weekly has to lead with some very alternative contents, because it aims to awaken political interest there without extremism. It has a rocky road, because in Miami the most socially acceptable way of thinking is “if all that [Cuba] is so important to you, then go back.” But some people do respond: “No, this is my place, I want to live here, I feel good here; but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care what happens, both here in Miami and there in Cuba; I want to be a rational human being who thinks, analyzes, and advances towards achieving a bridge, a goal.”
I believe that Progreso has a lot to learn in terms of seduction, but it can’t lose its direction: it’s a light in terms of achieving a constructive Cuban-Americanism.
MR: What might “constructive Cuban-Americanism” be?
IR: It would be someone who has roots in Cuba, who profoundly respects his country, respects the decisions that Cubans who are not Cuban-Americans make, and as a result builds bridges, knowing that only by giving respect can one be respected. A constructive Cuban-Americanism, in my humble opinion, would also serve to construct a community that has a clear voice within the United States. Some might say that there already is one, but I say that it’s not real. It’s been prefabricated during a socio-political era that’s already changing. In the future, the political weight of the Cuban community could be similar to that of other communities like the Dominicans. And it’s probably going to be swallowed whole by other stronger and more numerous communities, like the Mexican for example.
So, a constructive Cuban-Americanism has to find new roots and bridges, break off from the Cuba that existed prior to ’59. When a Cuban-American feels proud of the achievements of our athletes, or our performers, or – why not? – of our political figures, of any Cuban who does something extraordinary, it’s a step forward. The Cuban-American who is anchored to the past and to the refrain that that we have lived all this time under a horrible, disgraceful, evil, iron dictatorship – that’s like calling us Cubans cowardly sheep for having tolerated it. I always feel insulted by that type of phrase, because I’m not a coward, I’m a happy man. I went to the university, I’m cultured, even though I may well continue to cultivate that quality. I have dreams, and I have realized many of my dreams, and I’ve seen my family’s dreams realized. I’m active politically; I go to the May 1st demonstrations not because I have to but because I feel the pull, because I adore them, because it’s a celebration, a party. That is, every time that someone throws that pie in my face, I tell them that they’re disrespecting me.
MR: But to achieve an active, Cuban-Americanism of this new type that you are postulating, don’t we have to allow this part of the Cuban community to participate more actively in the destiny of Cuba, the home country?
IR: That would be fabulous…
MR: Isn’t it essential?
IR: How can I answer that with my heart in hand? It would be the ideal. But we already know that the optimal route isn’t always the practical one. While the historic hostility of the United States government, of their dominant classes, towards Cuba continues, and they maintain their proposition of controlling and dominating the destinies of this country, there will be a lot of obstacles to this.
MR: Is it possible that the Cuban government of today and of the foreseeable future could ally itself with its community abroad and establish more powerful ties in order to realize that ideal of a pro-Cuban Cuban-Americanism?
IR: I believe that there’s still a lot left to do in terms of political risks. That’s the job for our political leaders today: to detect – and I put this in musical terms – the plugs that are lacking in our country, and to create them; so that the connecting board could connect to Cuba. For example, I think it’s unfortunate that no one has yet thought of creating an organization, just one, whose active, fully invested members included both those inside and those outside of Cuba.
Look, the place where we’re talking right now is the seat of the “Jose Marti” Cultural Society. The day that Cubans from Cuba, from Japan or from Barcelona could be members is the day we’re going to begin to move forward, because we could then channel such questions with much more well greased ties among people, more direct, more coaxial. I believe that we’re obligated to make such a move. Do you know why? – because every day more young Cubans emigrate.
We’re losing an enormous potential if Cuba doesn’t cultivate a way of taking advantage of the relationship with these young people who have decided to live somewhere else. We already know that the principal motive for the migration is economic, but you can’t hold back life. When people arrive elsewhere, they begin to develop other motivations that could mutate or evolve towards political interests, to ask themselves why the country doesn’t do this or that. In addition, why not take advantage of the positive things that the Cuban émigré learns in other countries: about administration, technology, innovation, new forms of social organization that could be advantageous for our reality. We Cubans don’t know everything; there’s a lot to learn.
If you look at the relationship of Ecuador and the government of Rafael Correa with their emigrants, that’s an example of what the relationship of Cuba to their emigrants could be in the future. In Cuba, a lot has been done, and I believe there’s a resolve to continue doing more. But unfortunately – I say this with sadness – while hostility exists on the part of the receiving country (United States), a manifest, express and legal ill will (because it’s a legalized hostility), it’s very difficult to advance.
MR: And could the Cuban community of Miami and the United States participate in the demolition of that status between the two countries?
IR: It’s in their hands.That’s not in the hands of the Cubans in Cuba. We can support it through resistance, by supporting the just causes of the world; we can take advantage of the multi-polarity that is growing in the world to develop ourselves. But having the hostility change more rapidly is in the hands of the Cubans who are already there, and who tomorrow will be United States citizens with a voice and a vote.
If someone who today resides in the United States were to ask me “How can I express my patriotism?” I’d say: “Don’t support the blockade, don’t support hostile acts; ask yourself why the USAID wants to come with a smile on its lips and a dagger behind its back; why in hell is a hostile situation maintained with Cuba that isn’t repeated – although they fall back on the same justifications – with Saudi Arabia, or with China or with Vietnam. That is, it’s up to them to become informed, to exercise that resolve. It’s not easy; it’s very difficult. Are there a lot of variables? There are. But I believe that’s the way.
MR: When you left Guantanamo, when you were still singing “Guantanamero” in 2000 or 2001, did you ever imagine that one day you’d be performing in Miami?
IR: Never. Look, when one begins in this career it’s like fishing in the snow. You have a lot of dreams, but you’re looking around with your eyes open and without knowing how it all works. Among those dreams is that of winning a Grammy, being in the big shows, filling a stadium. Later, when you get well into this business, you learn your ABCs and find out that if you’re not part of those high-profile sequined circuits, it takes a lot of work to get there. Almost all the Cubans that have achieved it have rounded the curve of 60 years old. And you’d just love to be able to do it young, like a Puerto Rican, like a Mexican… but for a Cuban living in Cuba that’s a false dream, and if you take it to heart you’re destined to become frustrated.
The best thing is to dream of other roads, other alternatives; to enjoy each concert, try to fill the plazas within Cuba and outside of Cuba with those who want to hear you. We want to reach everyone. Not just those on the left who are in solidarity, who tend to follow us out of political motivation, but also those who are not so political or are on the right, but who also don’t want their solitude played with, fall in love, dream and share with us some of the human questions. That, from Cuba, is the vision as it is today.
MR: Because you’re outside of the music market….
IR: And because of the politics of the blockade, the politics of isolation, the aggression against our country. You always share the fate of your country. When I discovered that, my vision changed. I fixed my eye on more reasonable dreams, less frustrating ones, and that has allowed me to get on with this work that is so much fun but also so enslaving – always taking you away from your family. So my Grammy is being in the Karl Marx Theater when people leave the concert with tears in their eyes, or leave full of joy; when you’ve got them onto their feet in a piece that you specifically wanted them to feel deeply and take home with them, and you later see the feedback…That’s my Grammy award.
MR: Is filling the Miami Dade County Auditorium also part of your Grammy?
IR: Sure, and that’s happened. When we were able to go to the United States we discovered that there was a public who had taken our music with them from Cuba, and who had passed it on to others who didn’t know about us, and they thought our work was cool whatever their political orientation, and went to our concerts and enjoyed them. Those are the awards that you take with you to the grave.
That first concert in the Artime Theater…Some people here were upset with us because we played in a theater with the name of Manuel Artime [a Cuban-American and former member of Fidel Castro’s rebel army who later became the political leader of the abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion]. Honestly, at the time I didn’t know who he was. I found out later. But if you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I felt proud to play in that hall, no matter what it was called, because of what happened in that concert. Those who went there left happy that day, even if they hated us later because they discovered that our political views are definitely pro-revolution. Nevertheless, that day we made them happy, left them feeling joyful, inspired. Our songs turned that place into a little piece of Cuba. And that, for me, is something marvelous.
MR: Did that also happen the next times you visited Miami?
IR: Yes, it was repeated in the Miami Dade County Auditorium. The last time we were there was a spectacular experience.
MR: Are you expecting the same thing for September 18?
IR: We want to do even more. We want to take a show that we did here three years ago, a tribute to Cuban Cinema through the music of Buena Fé. We start with those images that have become part of us forever. Coño, you’re going to be dying and those images are going to be with you: the shout of Luis Alberto García in “Clandestine, “Take a look, I’m delivering her to you alive. She’s alive!” The comic lines of Juan Padrón in “Vampires in Havana”; Miravalles, falling behind the cow – “Campanaaaaa”… or that scene of young Martí in “Eye of the Canary” in which he yells out “Long live a Free Cuba!” in the middle of the trial….
It’s going to be a wonderful emotion-filled concert that will make use of culture, in this case film, to bring us all together. It begins with “Cuba Va” in homage to the Sound Experimentation Group from ICAIC, and from there it travels through different moments in Cuban film through the songs of Buena Fe. We already performed this show in Cuba where people’s feelings of nostalgia are more related to bygone eras than to other territories or surroundings, and it was beautiful. It occurred to us that if we do this in a place like Miami where nostalgia is so prevalent, it could become something magic. I know that September 18, which is a Thursday, isn’t a good day for a concert, that there’s an economic crisis, etc… but something tells me that those who attend that concert are going to be really glad they did, and that makes me very happy.
MR: There are people in Miami who want to build bridges, but others maintain their animosity. They’re hurting, they were mistreated, they had very difficult experiences in their lives as a result of the political forces in Cuba as well as in the United States. These people maintain a “no forgiveness” zone. What would you say to those people?
IR: First of all, I’d tell them that I respect their pain. Not too long ago I was conversing with some friends and I said to them, “Can you imagine that now that the country is allowing private food businesses and such things, what would happen if another “revolutionary offensive” took place? [Referring to the confiscation of all remaining private businesses in 1968]. There are people who had their little café or business and left Cuba because it was taken away from them.Just imagine those people inherited it from their grandparents or their parents – who had invested all of the hopes in the Revolution – and then lost their family business. In addition, life later demonstrated that such small business was useful for the country. That’s a small example. Those were people who never misused funds, who never stepped on their workers, who never set off a bomb. I not only respect their pain, but I’m also 100% in solidarity with them.
MR: And how could we make reparations for this?
IR: I don’t know if some day there’ll find a cure for all pain: an effective cure, a legal cure. I wish it were so, I swear. But we already know that life isn’t always fair. The person you want to love you doesn’t always love you, your children don’t always turn out the way you designed them in your head, you’re not always followed by good health like you’d want, and you don’t stop living for that. You keep going, you keep on loving your children the way they are, you keep on loving your body, even if you’re missing a piece because unfortunately you were bitten by cancer, or an accident took it.
The only way to go forward is by cultivating love, betting on the positive, trying as much as possible to leave behind your grudges and wounds, and even using them to enrich yourself. To take those bitter experiences and advance nevertheless towards love, towards the future, towards harmony, mercy. I might also ask you: What would have happened to our people if we had anchored ourselves in the profound grief of the downing of the Cuban airline in Barbados (in 1976), or in the deep, deep pain that the blockade against Cuba has caused. What would have become of us?
Look, I’m a baseball lover, and I think about that rule that was made on purpose to screw with us, whereby Cuban athletes are not allowed to play in the Mexican league. What would happen, if I went into a stadium to throw an egg at a player from the United States, a kid who isn’t to blame for carrying the name of his country on his chest? Life doesn’t make sense that way. In Cuba there’s now a generation that understands this, and practices forgiveness. You’d have to ask some people who live in the United States if they understand our pain, and if they’re willing to practice that desire to come together, to dialogue and forgive. Only when we’re capable of cancelling these debts will we be spiritually ready, which is the fundamental thing.
MR: What do you expect from the press in Miami on this return?
IR: I don’t expect anything. We manage our own press through Facebook: we work on our site and we take our risks. Just as I learned that we’ll never be as free as we’d like because we’ll always be vulnerable to manipulation, both here and there. Here in Cuba an online media that is very well read, tried to give weight to their editorial line by manipulating us in a very damaging way. I’ve already explained the reasons. It’s happened to me in Cuba. Do you think it wouldn’t happen to me in Miami? With those Ladies in White and that pain-in-the-neck business about how I support the official line, that I’m a Castro supporter and I don’t know what else. From the established press in Miami, I don’t expect anything. From Progreso, I hope and expect that they’ll publish this interview.
Cover photo: Cubasi.cu