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Havana Mantras

Cubans like their dichos. For just about any hairball situation life coughs up, they’ve got a palliative or folksy saying.

As you may imagine, the general difficulties of modern existence are fertile fodder. To cite just a few:

Al mal tiempo, buena cara.
(When times are bad, put on a good face).

To the question ‘how ya doin’? or ‘what have you been up to?’, Cubans invariably answer:

En la luchita.
(Struggling a little/lot).

And then there’s the ubiquitous:

No es fácil.
(It’s not easy).

It’s not easy can apply to anything – caring for aging parents with Alzheimer’s; pending paperwork and attendant bureaucracy; the quality of bodega rice; even the weather.

These sayings and many more like them have become mantras of sorts. Short, pithy and to the point, they help people fortify themselves and cope with the aging/bureaucracy/vagaries life never tires of throwing our way.

Recently several friends confided that they invoke their own original mantras when faced with challenging situations. They make me smile (the mantras, not the challenging situations) – in mal timepo, when things are especially difícil, and when it feels like the luchita might triumph once and for all. They’re funny in their way, these mantras, but also weighty since they reveal the resilience and resolve with which Cubans confront obstacles. And I have a feeling such resilience, not to mention resolve, will become increasingly – urgently – important in times to come.

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If you follow Cuba news, you know that we’ve been under a wet, windy cold front for the past several days. It looks like it’s finally moving on and none too soon: over 100 buildings collapsed completely or in part in Havana due to these torrential, biblical rains, reminding me of 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Rain like this is problematic here, not only because it sends buildings tumbling – it also floods homes, damages worldly goods and grinds transport, sectors of the economy and much of the bureaucracy to a halt.

But it’s not just the wet: the cold is a problem too since so few of us have hot water in our homes. To be blunt: showering in this weather without hot water is a bitch. Sure, we heat up pots on the stove, decant it into a bucket, mix it with some cold and scoop it over us as fast as possible. It’s workable, but in those few seconds between scoops, you freeze your butt off. Ocassionally, it’s not practical to heat water – there’s no time, no gas for the stove, whatever. End result? We take a lot of cold showers around here, even in winter, even during the chilliest fronts.

As I was talking to my friend Julio Pedro about this, he told me he has a ritual – a mantra, mejor dicho – which he invokes before stepping into a cold shower. Bracing himself, he repeats over and over again, before and during the cold blast:

Soy un macho de pinga. Soy un macho de pinga.
(I’m the fucking man. I am the fucking MAN).

If you knew JP, you’d laugh, like we did, imagining this wisp of a guy incanting his cold shower mantra.

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The mantra topic came up again as another friend and I were planning a night out recently. We were headed to one of Havana’s largest theaters to see one of the country’s hottest acts. Neither of us had tickets and it was doubtful we could procure affordable (see note 1) entry the day of the show. I told her we’d only need one ticket since over the past decade, my foreign press pass has gained me entrance into even the most over-sold events, from Pablo Milanes to the Royal Ballet. My friend, who works for Prensa Latina, said she would use her work badge, a yellow and curling card encased in foggy plastic that says ‘Prensa’ in red letters.

‘Isn’t is expired?’ I asked her.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But it has yet to fail me.’
‘Nice.’ I said.
Then she confessed: ‘but every time I use it, I think is it going to work? So just in case, I invoke my mantra:’

Soy la reina de la Habana. Soy la reina de la Habana.
(I’m the queen of Havana).

I’m not sure if it was the badge, the mantra or her killer smile, but the queen and I got into the concert.

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At this point, you’re probably wondering about my mantras. I’ve got mine, of course. Like everyone else, I’ve had to develop and hone my resilience and coping mechanisms over the years here. One I’ve known for a long time, but really started invoking it during my month-long stint covering the Cuban medical/disaster relief team in Haiti after the earthquake. Now, whenever I’m faced with particularly trying circumstances beyond my control, I tell myself:

No coge lucha. No coge lucha.
(Pay it no mind/Don’t fight it).

I’ve added another mantra lately which helps me with the haters and naysayers who for time immemorial have tried to keep down the dreamers and lovers and doers:

Que lástima odias tu vida.
(What a pity you hate your life).  

And a pity it surely is, but you know what? It’s not my problem so I’m not going to coger lucha.

Notes
1. Ticket scalping is a common and lucrative practice in Cuba’s double economy.

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Why are Cubans so Damn Good?!

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December is always an interesting time in Havana – cool in temperature and temperament, but also cruel in many ways. Hurricane season has officially ended, so this is when we breathe easier (if Mother Nature has been benevolent) or tighten our belts one notch further (if she hasn’t). Christmas and New Year’s are bearing down, which means feasts of pork and yucca and the season’s first lettuce; dancing to Van Van in the Protestódromo (see note 1); and having a few days of well-deserved rest.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, certainly, but ‘tis also the season to be on your guard: there are few guarantees in Cuba, but a spike in robberies leading up to Christmas when the desire to provide gifts, food, and drink for the family trumps ethics and the law is one of them (a dramatic increase in water- and food-borne infections during the hot summer months is another).

Nevertheless, the prospect of being jacked is nothing compared to the heartache and nostalgia that afflict family and friends whose most ardent desire is to be in Cuba during fin de año – trust me, I know. The food and mood is superlative, of course, as is the camaraderie, but December in these parts is also Festival Time.

The Havana Film Festival is now well underway, and hot on its heels is the Jazz Festival, which showcases some of the world’s top jazz musicians in intimate (and cheap!) venues. This isn’t Cannes or Hollywood, Montreux or Manhattan: here the stars are in the seats and streets and whole days and nights are consumed hopping from theater to conference to club, followed by stellar after parties and sizzling jam sessions.

The depth and breadth of Cuban artistic output is (dare I say it?) unsurpassed by any other country its size and many much bigger (sorry my Commonwealth friends, but Australia and to a lesser degree, Canada, come to mind). With so many amazingly talented Cubans strutting their stuff these festival-filled days, I’ve begun to think seriously about Cuban culture and talent.

In short, is this surfeit of greatness thanks to Nature or Nurture?

O sea: is it 50 years of free education (including in all the arts) and the abundance of dirt cheap and even free cultural offerings that have nurtured such success? That’s part of it surely, but doesn’t explain all the Cuban cultural phenoms who predate the Revolution (Desi Arnaz notwithstanding) like Bola de Nieve, Ernesto Lecuona, and Benny Moré.

Maybe it’s in the genes then? This nature theory would explain a lot, like the prevalence of both dynastic families and cultural autodidacts, of which Cuba, as a country of only 11 million, has a disproportionate amount.

My first glimpse of this was provided by my friend, singer-songwriter Santiago Felíu. A high school dropout with a well of the maniacal genius bubbling deep within him, Santí taught himself to play guitar (better than any of his contemporaries mind you), as well as piano. If you know anything about Cuban music, the name Felíu will ring a bell: his older brother Vicente was a co-founder of the Nueva Trova musical movement and Vicente’s daughter, Aurora de los Andes, is a formidable singer and actress in her own right.

Not surprisingly, it was the Family Felíu that first aroused my interest in Cuba’s cultural autodidacts and dynasties. Like a spouse who suspects infidelity, once I started paying attention, I saw the connections everywhere – not just in music, but also theater, dance, art and of course, politics.

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In honor of the Film Festival, I’ll start with the ‘7th Art.’ If you haven’t yet heard of Habanastation, you will: it’s an Oscar contender and was a blockbuster hit when it opened in Cuba this past July, captivating audiences with its dissection of class divisions in Havana and their effect on values. It was made by filmmaker Ian Padrón, son of Juan Padrón, creator of both Elpidio Valdés and the classic Vampiros en la Habana movies, both of which remain staples in the island’s canon. A young, budding dynasty, perhaps, but an impressive start nonetheless.

The Crematas, meanwhile, are another dynastic artistic family, with brothers Carlos Alberto and Juan Carlos making their marks as director of the Colmenita and director of films respectively.  

In dance, the Carreño tribe leaps to mind: Jose Manuel, Yoel, and Alihaydee, continue to nurture their legacy as some of the most accomplished ballet dancers around, as evidenced by their principal status in top companies. If you can make it in the American Ballet Theater and the Royal Ballet,you can make it anywhere, right? In theater, the Revueltas (Vicente, Raquel) are renowned for their work on stages near and far.

But nowhere is the dynasty dynamic as tangible as it is in music. The Familia Romeu (orchestral director Antonio María, pianist Armando, and Camerata Romeu director, Zenaida) is a good example, as are the López-Nussas – Ernán and Harold on piano, Ruy and son Ruy on drums – and the López-Gavilán Clan (Aldo plays piano, his father Guido is a classical composer and conductor, mother Teresita Junco was also a composer and brother Ilmar is a violinist). I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the Alfonsos here: father Carlos and mother Eve Valdes founded the group Síntesis over 35 years ago (think the Partridge Family funkified), in which their musical children Eme (M) and Equis (X) cut their teeth, both of whom have healthy solo careers today (see note 2).

Controversial as he is of late, mention must be made of trova great Pablo Milanés, who also heads up a musical dynasty, with three daughters – Lynne, Haydée, and Suylen – nurturing successful singing careers of their own. Even Silvio Rodríguez, world famous and (almost) universally revered, is the head of a dynasty of sort: his son ‘Sivito El Libre’ is part of the highly polemic rap group Los Aldeanos. Salsa is another genre where families shine, as epitomized by Los Van Van founder Juan Formell and his drummer son Samuel.

 Apart from the dynasties, autodidacts also swell the ranks of Cuba’s über talented. In art, Yanluis Bergareche is an exciting emerging artist who is entirely self-taught. Is it not simply astounding that a young man could teach himself to paint canvasses such as these? In addition to the aforementioned Santiago Felíu and inimitable El Benny, self-taught musicians include up-and-coming rapper/chanteuse Danay Suárez and the blind tres player Arsenio Rodríguez – one of my all-time favorites.

 With artistic giants such as these, the ascendancy of regguetón – defined by simplistic rhythms and misogynistic vulgarity (see note 3) – is doubly shameful. Moreover, it obviously disproves the powers of both Nature and Nurture.

 Do you have a favorite Cuban autodidact or dynasty? Let me know!

  Notes

 1. Each New Year’s, the ‘Rolling Stones of Cuba’ play a free concert in the parade grounds directly in front of the US Interests Section (the pseudo embassy here). Inaugurated to protest the sequestration of Elián González in Miami, this space is officially named the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, but is known as the Protestódromo in local lingo.

 2. X Alfonso is one of the most innovative musicians in Cuba today and works with artists and musicians in many diverse genres; try to catch a concert when you’re here.

 3. In one recent regguetón-related fracas, Osmany Garcia’s “song” Chupi Chupi was taken to task in the national media for its disgusting, degrading lyrics telling a woman to “come suck my cock, you know you’ll like it; open your little mouth and swallow it sweetheart.”

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