Leon Ichaso, a Symbol of Cuban Culture in the US Diaspora 

The filmmaker Leon Ichaso in 2015. One critic called his first movie, “El Super,” made on a shoestring budget with help from family members, “the quintessential Cuban-exile film.” Photo: David Gonzalez/The New York Times

Ichaso’s “El Super” marks a difference in Cuban film made in the US as it strips itself of the political rhetoric that limited other movies.

By Jorge Luis Lanza Caride

HAVANA TIMES – Recent news of US-Cuban born filmmaker Leon Ichaso’s death (1948-2023) shook me. With his physical disappearance, Cuban culture in the US has lost one of its greatest examples. However, existing preconceptions in Cuba towards movies produced by the US diaspora had been the main reason his work has been invisible in his birth country.

The only movie I have as a reference of Ichaso’s work was one Cuban TV did broadcast called El Cantante (2006) (Who Killed Hector Lavoe? in English), about legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe, but his movies about the uprooting and identity crises Cubans – and other Latin communities in the US – face, are still unknown in Cuba.

Ichaso’s first feature movie was El Super (1979), in collaboration with legendary Orlando Jimenez Leal and scriptwriter Ivan Costa alongside Manuel Arce, which is considered the best movie out of the few made by the Cuban diaspora in the US, up until today.

According to Juan Antonio Garcia Borrero, the movie’s success is based on the following idea: “The movie represented a shift in this community’s story-telling imaginary, and it was perhaps the first time the simplified understanding of exile as an automatic way to improve your life or salvation was forsaken.”

Its universality comes from dramatizing the uprooting Cubans, like any other Latino, experiences when they try to settle into a new culture, like in the US. According to scriptwriter Ivan Costa: “When I put on El Super in the theater, Leon Ichaso asked me for the rights to film the play, which had already been on the stage for three months. We took the same cast, except for two actors, and we stuck them down a real basement. That’s where the movie was recorded. Orlando Jimenez was the director of photography, and his brother-in-law Leon directed the scenes. The cast had already been given direction for the theater stage. The rest is history. El Super became the “One Hundred Years of Solitude of Cuban exile.”

The movie marks a difference in Cuban film produced in the US as it strips itself of the political rhetoric that had limited other movies produced in the diaspora. It has won many awards for this universal and humanist approach, such as the Grand Prize at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival and an award in Biarritz. While the political rhetoric hasn’t completely disappeared in this movie, it isn’t the driving thread of the story, except for Pancho’s character.

The conflicts characters in this story experience are the same ones that any Latino goes through in the US. Movies like Popi  (1969) and El Super are some of the first to dig into these conflicts within a context that isn’t usual for dealing with these problems of ethnic minorities in the US.

Interpretations and readings of Ichaso’s movies transcend ethnic or ideological discourse and strive for something more ambitious: Cultural Studies.

El Super reveals the dark and muted side of migration, by exposing the identity crisis of a Cuban family with ease, breaking away from this idyllic and black-and-white view of exile being the only alternative to people’s problems, as Roberto, the lead character, says in the movie: “If I had known that, I would have stayed in Cuba, you have to cut sugar cane in Cuba, but that’s what there is.”

Despite living many years in the US, this family’s nostalgia for Cuba makes them cling even more to their roots. Their home environment becomes a refuge where they can try and live like they used to in Cuba, talking in Spanish all the time, keeping the same phrases and words used in popular Cuban vocabulary, the same old rituals, those cultural practices that are firmly-rooted in this diverse mosaic that is the Cuban diaspora in the US.  

El Super is the first movie Cubans in the diaspora made that approaches exile from a family’s point of view, with a humanist view of the inner struggles with a fragmented cultural identity that is marked by the international, which is the same for any ethnic group in this country.

Movies such as El Super, Paraiso and Cercania, and even the nonconforming attempt to prolong the debate in Memorias del subdesarrollo in Memorias del desarrollo (2010) – made by young filmmaker Miguel Coyula -, have done nothing more than take an X-ray of this long and difficult path.

Unlike El Super, Azucar Amarga has different virtues like its aesthetics, showing off its exquisite photography and an unprecedented visual take in the diaspora’s film discourse. Some scenes even seem to echo influences from a movie such as Memorias del subdesarrollo, using the narrator – an aesthetic resource that reinforces the inner chaos the movie’s lead character is navigating -, who is split between remaining loyal to the Revolution or surviving in a hostile situation like 1990s’ Cuba, with clear shortages and all kinds of hardship.

It turns to a visual aesthetic in order to reflect this turbulent situation in true-documentary style, shooting in black and white almost entirely, which is being used to reinforce the apocalyptic image of this difficult period and national history. Using striking archive photos of the riots that took place in Cuba in August 1994, when the crisis and inflation which affected Cuban society reached concerning levels at the time, which was called the Maleconazo in Havana in 1994, also masterfully depicted in the documentary Balseros (2002), by filmmakers Josep Maria Domenech and Carlos Bosch for Cataluña TV, which used real images of these riots.

One of the characteristics that aesthetically identifies Leon Ichaso’s movies is their ability to experiment with cinematic language. If he uses a classic and conventional narrative in El Super, elements innate to his work become blurry and are revealed in Crossover Dreams (1985)and Azucar Amarga, such as the black and white combination, which helps to give his movies an air of documentary, frentic and chaotic editing, with abrupt cuts and shots that visually work really well in movies about characters like El Bobby in Azucar Amarga, artists who fell into drug addiction such as Puerto Rican natives Miguel Piñero and Hector Lavoe.

We have to bear in mind the fact that El Cantante – about the late Puerto Rican salsa singer Hector Lavoe-, has a strong aesthetic and existential link to its predecessor Crossover Dreams, which stars Panamanian singer Ruben Blades. Both movies reveal how traumatic trying to introduce themselves into such a competitive landscape has been for many Latin musicians in the US.  Their obsession with making it ends up devouring them and often trapping them in drugs and alcohol.

We should remember that Latinos trying to find their place in US culture, their identity crises and the representation of psychological imbalances that many artists suffer under the influence of addictions, were some of the most frequent issues portrayed by this great filmmaker, his hidden obsession.


El Super and Azucar Amarga by León Ichaso:


Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times