A “Palestinian” in Havana

The Dream of Leaving Cuba (Part II)

By Fernando Aramis

Fernando Aramis

HAVANA TIMES — “That’s where the cameras and glitz are, I’m off to the capital!” That summarizes the way nearly all people from Cuba’s interior see Havana. I imagine this is true everywhere in the world. It’s almost always the case that people born in small towns look towards the big cities when it comes to realizing their dreams, but…

Is it also the case that, like we see in Cuba, town folk are considered illegals in their country’s capital? How could one be an illegal immigrant in the country of one’s birth, the land one was born in? Did you know people from other provinces are not authorized to reside in Havana, that they can be deported within their own country? I wonder if that also happens in other countries. I don’t know. What I do know is that, in the capital, we’re referred to as “Palestinians” and, if the authorities find you, you will be cruelly deported back to your province. Outrageous, isn’t it?

This is what my girlfriend (Nadiezka Rodriguez Reyes) and I faced when we decided to stay in Havana after an island-wide tour that had begun in Santiago de Cuba, titled Nosotros los que amamos (“We Who Love”). It was a hellish night. I was from Bayamo and she was from Ciego de Avila, two people from the provinces. If they caught us, we would not be able to avoid deportation. We walked down Linea street all the way down to 24, with almost no money, looking for a hostel, the only place we could spend the night in, we had been told. We walked over two kilometers.

“We’re out of clean sheets, we can’t put you up for the night,” the hostel employees told us.

Our hands tied and empty, we went up the same avenue and reached the entrance of a church, where we ended up spending the night. To remain positive, I told myself that, despite these difficulties, the situation couldn’t be worse than the 1992, when I would spend the entire day on the porch of my house shining shoes, then wash my hands with kerosene and head down to the Folk Music House to play the guitar. The city’s most renowned folk musician shined shoes by day and performed by night. I’d give the measly 20 Cuban pesos I’d earn shining shoes to my mother-in-law so she could buy the little food she could find. No, it couldn’t be worse than that.

That is how my adventure in Havana – which thankfully only lasted two years – began. Some friends who had been living in Havana for more than 5 years still hadn’t seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Crashing at different friends’ houses, sleeping on the floor here and there, I began to make my way into the world of show business. Singing in nearly all neighborhood peña jam sessions, I gradually made my work known.

Fernando Ramirez and his wife, Carina, friends of ours from back in the days in Bayamo, put us up in their room, which was smaller than a grain of corn. It was a crazy situation: four people living in a closet.

Cuban folk musicians Raul Torres and Diego Cano lent me a hand. Julian Hernandez, chair of the Esperanto Association in Cuba and a great, unrecognized composer, allowed me to stay at the venue of the organization.

I was able to do work for children with Cuban actress Mercedes Arnaiz. I thought this would be my salvation, but it turned out to be my marriage’s ruin. Such is the dirty world of Old Havana. There was one person, though, that was something of a guardian angel for me during these difficult times: Ana Maria Jimenez, a Chilean who had lived in Cuba a very long time. In addition to helping me find a place, she gave me all of her love, led me down the road of good art and became the most severe judge of my work. I did everything to reach that impossible dream. As I moved from place to place like a pariah, doors began to open thanks to my faith and my talent.

Fernando with his father in Varadero.

One ironic twist of fate involved a work trip a group of artists and myself went on to my hometown. There, I would meet Niurka Rodriguez, a producer at the Theater and Dance Center in Havana. In a few months’ time, she would become my representative.

When I arrived in Bayamo, I noticed the way people treated me had changed. The city that had seen me grow up, the cultural representatives who never supported me and at one point stood in my way tooth and nail, would now call me “maestro” and expressed reverences as though I were a king. I had to leave Bayamo to prove the old saying “no one is a prophet at home.” Obviously, they didn’t know that I was still going through very rough times in Havana.

I returned to the capital to take part in the Los dias de la música (“Music Days”) festival organized in 1997 by the Hermanos Saiz Association (AHS), an organization I had belonged to since 1986. I was selected one of the best ten young folk musicians in the country.

This distinction earned me a contract with the National Concert Center. Since I had managed to get an official evaluation before arriving in Havana, something everyone was surprised to hear, having done this in Bayamo after returning there from Las Tunas, my salary was of 148 Cuban pesos a month, around US $ 5.60 at the exchange rate then.

It was the official base salary for all artists who were taking their first steps in the art world, but, in my case, it was actually the third attempt. I would ask myself: “Will this be my salary for life? At Cauto Cristo and Niquero, they paid me 148 Cuban pesos a month, at the Provincial Music Center in Bayamo and Las Tunas, it was the same story. Was it a joke, or some form of torture?

Then came the radio interviews. The rumor was that a folk musician from the countryside, a “Palestinian,” was putting on quite the show. I continued to perform at small neighborhood gatherings and concerts, until, finally, a door opened and a torch was lit in the middle of the darkness.

Thanks to my representative, I was invited to sing at two of Havana’s most important venues: El Gato Tuerto and Delirio Habanero. The disinterested help of actress Daidi Veloz was key to getting the gig at Delirio Habanero. This is where that popular Cuban saying, “only those with godfathers get baptized,” applies. Even though these establishments had hard currency covers, I continued to earn a measly 148 Cuban pesos a month. It was all truly illogical.

At this time, I was living with a couple in Nuevo Vedado, next to Havana’s Colon Cemetery. They had rented out the only room in their apartment to me for US $35 a month. They would sleep out in the living room. It was one of the many sacrifices people had to make during the Special Period to somehow remain afloat and put decent food on the table. At night, I would crack open the windows in my rooms to let in the sepulchral breeze that issued from the cemetery. One could breathe the peace of the dead. Rather than frighten me, it brought me peace, soothed my soul and made me forget everything I was going through. Djvan and his music were also part of this story.

Finally, I was able to rent a small room in Vedado (at the intersection of 14 and Linea, to be precise) for 15 dollars a month. My salary would slip through my fingers like sand, it wasn’t even enough to buy those thick-crusted, greasy pizzas they sold on the street, let alone pay for a room. My father and mother had moved with me to that small room on 14 street. My mother kept me company and my father tried to earn a few cents playing his accordion on Havana’s malecon ocean drive. He had also grown fed up with Varadero and had opted to try his luck in the capital. It was the only option they left him with after expelling him from the Provincial Music Center in Granma following an inexplicable payroll cut, after working there all his life.

To be continued….

One thought on “A “Palestinian” in Havana

  • Most interesting. The struggles are amazing to read. I am looking forward to the next printed installment of this intriging story. Jim

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