A couple of days ago, I tweeted “So, according to @wikileaks, @realDonaldTrump has no emails with evidence that he’s a psychotic #sexualpredator#fascist fucktard? Weird!” The next morning, there were responses from the Trump camp saying, “Trump doesn’t use email.” and “You don’t know how wikileaks works.” I immediately blocked those people and deleted the tweet. These Trump supporters did not protest, “He’s not a sexual predator!” or “He’s not a fascist fucktard!” They responded, “Trump doesn’t use email.” I cringed thinking these people knew my name.
So, here is my letter imploring those who feel “I must vote my conscience,” or “I cannot vote for either Hillary or Trump, they are both the same.” to not do that. Stop doing that.
I, like many of you, dreamed of a Sander’s presidency, that big menschy saba in the White House, saving the planet and providing a platform of this country we could all get behind and even participate in. Saving the planet, improving public education, enforcing and protecting civil rights…I am not a big Hillary supporter, I do not feel an impending sense of glee or empowerment having her be the first woman president, but I offer to you, voters, why I am voting for her on November 8th and why you should too.
Consider, under 8 years of President Barack Obama, our first African American president and, as far as presidents go, pretty liberal and progressive, the alarming and terrifying rate at which unarmed black men, (or those who are lawfully carrying a weapon) and women who are murdered by police officers without fear of reprimand. And each time an officer unlawfully shoots and kills a black man or woman on the street and walks away, the message is clear: “These actions are tolerated, these actions are ok.”
Consider again, under the same progressive administration, the rise of rape, domestic abuse and murder of women, world wide, by their partners or someone they knew and, again, the lack of consequence for the actions of these perpetrators. Brock Turner raped a woman and was found guilty but released after only three months so he could get back to the very important business of swimming in a pool. Aaron Persky then let the world know, women are not valuable. Their bodies are yours for the taking.
Brock Turner is still a rapist. I hope he remembers every waking moment of his life.
Consider again, under the same administration, which has been decidedly pro-gun control (see HERE for details), that according to www.gunviolencearchive.org. 12,506 people have died due to gun violence in this country since January 2016.
There are forces at work here that are outside the control of the federal government. This is indeed the rise of the uber-right in our country: armed, immoral and dangerous. It is a culture, a belief system, which cannot be illegalized, it must be met with head to head combat, meaning, our victory is achieved in a battle against these ideas.
Trump may not win this election (fingers crossed!) but this political faction will find somebody more charming, more articulate, more polished to represent their agenda in 2020 if we don’t do our civic duty and organize for the next 4 years to build a viable 3rd party candidate.
Our only option on Tuesday is to elect an administration under which we can continue to organize, to speak out, to peacefully assemble and to creatively and effectively create new institutions with a vision towards a better world where the earth is not on fire and that the conditions that are festering that have allowed this human piece of garbage to become a savior to disenfranchised people no longer exist. A world where everyone is entitled to work that offers integrity, to schools that are not parasitic shell corporations for greedy immoral businesses…to a world free of never-ending war.
We cannot expect a magic wand to be waved under any administration where everything just becomes better. We must work for it. Many of you who say, “Oh I can’t vote for either party” or “I’m going to vote Jill Stein”, should really assess their understanding of the role the president plays, of what they are able to change and control. Under 8 years of Obama, things on the ground are daunting. Can you imagine, oh voters of conscience, what lives will be destroyed and lost under a Trump presidency? Under a man who has yet to say anything factual, or coherent, but yet still manages to promote the message that people of color, immigrants, and women are indeed second class citizens or even third class citizens and that if you stand against him, a violent response is appropriate, if not encouraged. On a side note, what is really magical about the Trump campaign is his support from working class people who are suffering economically when he doesn’t even pay his workers. Weird!
Under a Trump administration, what would you say? Would you be saying, I am so proud of that stand I took on November 8th! Look where we are now! At least I am at peace with my conscience!
To say that Clinton and Trump are the same is lazy political analysis at best.
In my opinion, you’re not entitled to your vote. In my house, my mother instilled in us to act not solely for the betterment of one, but for the good of all. Meaning we were always aware of how our actions impacted other people. When you vote your “conscience”, you’re voting against my personal safety. Especially when you don’t even actively organize on around any issues. People who post things on FaceBook and live an otherwise privileged and comfortable life without participating in political organizing or community organizing (no, signing online petitions don’t count) I’m letting you know now, your vote is not your personal choice, it’s a collective strategy. For the betterment of all.
I say Vote Your Vagina, not to necessarily say you are voting for a woman, but to celebrate the decline of the old patriarchal order and to usher in the new. We saw our collective power by getting a candidate like Bernie Sanders as far as we did. That was the first step. We didn’t lose, we began. But by Vote your Vagina, I mean vote the part of you that loves the planet, those things that have always been associated with the feminine, like kindness and butterflies and the moon. Vote with the part of you that loves love and your mother. Vote with the sharing collective part of you, not the fearful hoarder who is only protecting moldy garbage nobody wants. Don’t vote your conscience on Tuesday. Vote your vagina.
On September 11, 2001 I was teaching a fifth grade class at Thirteenth Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey. Mrs. Thompson, the teacher from across the hall, stuck her head into my classroom and said, “The twin towers have been hit by a plane.” My first thought was, “I can’t believe this is happening when George Bush is the President.”
My disbelief and anxiety grew over the next few weeks with each American flag that popped up, with each jingoistic commercial created to instill a sense of entitlement and superiority while gutting our democracy. The camera, below the podium angled upward at a seemingly human Giuliani, the patron saint of capitalism, “Go Shopping!” he declared, this is how you can help your country! With each compliant and alarmist headline, peace activists became criminals, those who questioned the government and the nature of the attacks were unpatriotic. The politics of 9-11 hid behind the heroism of the first-responders (George Bush called them rescuers) to justify a policy that would destroy an entire region and hundreds of thousands of lives while making Halliburton an ungodly profit. Communists were no longer the elusive phantom that justified illegal torture at home and abroad, now we could declare never-ending war on burqas and turbans without differentiating between Iraq and Afghanistan, between Shiite or Sunni. And the Patriot Act.
My second thought that day, which still makes my stomach lurch and my throat tighten even today, 14 years later, was along the lines of “This is what it’s like in Baghdad all the time.”1 This is what it’s like in many parts of the world every day who don’t have the resources to lose cell service for only a couple of hours during an emergency, who don’t have fire departments and rescue squads and blood donors flooding the phones to help, who don’t have crucial things that we take for granted like running water or readily available medicine.
That thought made me hopeful in a way I can’t explain. I believed the good people of America would see this as a new opportunity for peace. That we would consider ourselves not as a nation but as part of the whole human family and reassess our convenient distance from bombing and death, our desensitization and video gamification of war. I could not understand or accept that American lives were more valuable than any other country.
The mainstream press did a pretty great job during that time toting the party line, of not questioning authority or doing any real investigating into what led up to the attacks. 9-11 became a random act where Al-Qaeda just hated our way of life. Giuliani under scrutiny for his defense of police brutality, and George Bush, a Yale graduate who could not negotiate object and subject pronouns but who was able to steal the presidency of the most powerful nation in the world, were absolved from their sins and fitted for shiny new halos.
But, most people are good and righteous and the truth does matter. Despite a co-ordinated campaign on behalf of the press and government to rile everyone up into a red, white and blue frenzy, before and as the U.S. sent so many young men and women to perish and be destroyed physically and emotionally in Iraq (which again, had nothing to do with 9-11), there was a monumental movement against the impending invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets for peace and against an invasion, many of which carried signs that read, “I drink cabernet and I vote!” Because of France’s distinguished and correct position against the war, they almost lost their cultural right to french fries in this country.
Irregardless, the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a study published in National Geographic 2 years ago, 500,000 or half a million Iraqis are dead.4 This number only includes the deaths between 2003 and 2011 and not the frequent bombings before the 2003 invasion. In a report published by Physicians for Social Responsibility, between 72,500 and 116,000 civilians have been estimated to be casualties of the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011.5 On October 3rd, a hospital in Afghanistan was bombed, and nobody changed their FaceBook profile picture or even sent prayers. On November 14th, the day before the attacks in Paris, 40 people lost their lives in Beirut. I didn’t even know. And still I am asking why do American lives, or French lives matter so much more? I want someone to explain to me, the difference between a family who has the unfortunate circumstance of living in a country that the United States has decided to bomb, the terror that they feel and the terror that overcame Paris on November 13, 2015. What makes one life more valuable? What makes one attack more terrifying?
On Friday November 20th, at 9:30 in the morning, I read about hostages being taken in Mali. FaceBook was quiet. There were no fancy lights on any buildings. I read about the only American who was killed, Anita Ashok Datar of Takoma Park, Md. I didn’t put it together she might be the same Anita Datar from Flanders, New Jersey. Anita and I were friends in elementary school. Children, probably now divorced alcoholics in debt with terrible stretch marks and bad teeth called us names, teasing us. I was Lacey Klutz. Anita was “I need a guitar.” “That’s really clever,” I said one day. “It’s like a whole sentence and it totally rhymes.” Anita did not like that at all. Even then she was sensitive and sophisticated. “It’s not even mean!” I protested. But I still imagined her shredding in the secrecy of her bedroom, below the watchful gaze of Cabbage patch dolls and Strawberry Shortcake.
I grieve for her family, but I take courage and inspiration from her brother, Sanjeev who told the Washington Post: “And while we are angry and saddened that she has been killed, we know that she would want to promote education and healthcare to prevent violence and poverty at home and abroad, not intolerance.”6
Anita lived her life helping others, she was recognized as a leader in her field, and worked to eliminate HIV/AIDS throughout developing countries, primarily sub-Saharan Africa. In a statement issued by Palladium, Anita’s employer, Ambassador Debbi Birx, is quoted as saying, “we were so fortunate to have such an extraordinary woman dedicated to ending HIV/AIDS and standing up for human rights. She inspires all of us to do better…we admired Anita’s compassion and sensitivity and true commitment to the cause.” As people from a privileged country, whose lives are somehow more precious when taken by an act of terror, we have a choice to either accept supreme status, or, forego a global caste system and use our temporary darkness to shed light on a brighter future. We can take the time to really analyze our own chauvinism which blinds us to the true nature of these attacks and work towards real peace. We can all do better. We have to.
About two weeks ago, my best friend Michael and I met up at a free concert at South Street Sea Port in NYC. The vintage post 30’s NY crowd was neatly arranged into hot lesbians making out for their own and everyone else’s pleasure and stubbled ink clad men in perfect fitting blue jeans with an array of interchangeable stefanish girlfriends with red red puckered lips and long black fingernails. We are all sinners and I was strutting around with my antique camera that screams, I’m shooting film! I’m the most vintage! in the face of everyone else lugging around their 5d’s.
As all the extras took their place as audience in this mellow drama, I adjusted my light meter, positioned my camera and, action!
But not really. The headlining band took the stage, although “took” might be too strong an action to describe what they were doing. The best thing they had going was the guitar player’s hair cut, (long on the sides, bangs in the front) and, as in most situations, the woman, the drummer, doing all the work, barely visible in the back. Something with distortion and long drawn out, lingery chords and the lead singer said, I mean, sang, some stuff, and it was all very boring.
What’s so important about you? I said, to the band or nobody in particular. And after a couple of songs, we left.
IF we travel back in time to 2006, “Back to Black” hits the United States.
Not what’s so important about you, but “Ms. Winehouse, you are so important.”
There is a space where we all get lost. We begin this journey for different reasons. Those of us without any positive relationship models or control of our hormones possibly took our first steps as adolescents or teenagers. Some may have smacked into this wall, completely unaware, convinced that their relationship to love and romance was infallible.
It’s an awful place. Full of pain and self doubt, suffering and heartache, other girl-women who are prettier than you and have no cellulite, vanilla vodka, American Spirits, and Amy Winehouse Songs.
It didn’t matter that she was 10 years younger than me, this skinny little bitch was belting out shit from I don’t know what, and what? I knew exactly what she was talking about and she took my lack of self-control and low self-esteem and made it, well, she made it sexy. All my indiscretions, all my indecipherables, all my indefensible actions… she made them cool.
I embraced my inner Amy Winehouse and wore my darkness like a badge of fucking honor, like anyone who ever had their heartbroken and smashed to pieces did post-2006. Her songs were a weapon to fight off the darkness, a tool you could use to begin to climb yourself out.
And I feel like we all drink a little too much to try and cushion the blow when we somehow fall, stumble, careen into love with an unwitting rival who can’t or won’t reciprocate our misguided advances, right?
Except, on my way out of the darkness I could graduate from my inner Amy Winehouse and evolve, slowly, finding strength in my inner Mallory Knox, and then solace in my inner PJ Harvey, until I reached the light and could see myself again.
It’s easy to say Amy didn’t like what she saw when she found herself again, but I can’t help but think about some mitigating circumstances, about some meddlesome parties who maybe wouldn’t give her the right mirrors so she could see herself as the light of the sun that she was.
Manic and hungry, she was assaulted by an unforgiving media, comprised of unevolved and unvisionary spokespeople against anything useful or pretty who made easy jabs at a young girl who was really, a prodigy, and had a problem with drugs.
Probably the worst thing is to watch someone you love be consumed by drugs. I can’t imagine what this time means to her family and friends and fans. Addicts are the only ones who can control themselves and get sober. But sometimes it helps when someone is shining a light into the darkness and giving you some direction so you can figure how to get the fuck out.
The media who now lament her passing, who as recently as Belgrade masked petty opportunistic gossip for music news, relished her in her self destruction, needed Amy sprawled on the ground bleeding from her fingers and starving from her belly so they could justify their existence.
And I can’t help but think whenever something was posted on youtube or with every comment on late night comedy disparaging this young woman who was doing something truly amazing, who was shining a light in our darkness, they were looking at all of us, right in the eyes, asking, “What’s so important about you?”
Now that travel restrictions have eased, Americans from across the country have been posting their travel plans all over FaceBook and Twitter about how they are going to fly to Havana. I am really enthralled by the new developments, the travel ban is political segregation that allows both the US and Cuban governments to promote false ideas about who we are to each other. However, I know Americans too well. I am an American. And while I love us, I know that most of you are complete morons when it comes to traveling to another country because you say you want an authentic experience and then complain the whole time because it’s not exactly like where you live and work every day.
You can secretly confess to yourself this is you and in the spirit of the new year take this advice to heart so when you buy your roundtrip ticket to Havana you don’t make Cuba rethink their decision to normalize relations with the US.
1. READ A BOOK. NO, READ TWO.
The relationship between Cuba and the US is one that is presented in the US media as a black and white issue from both the left and the right perspective. Meaning, that any documentary or film you’ve seen on Cuba is presented as “Fidel is the devil, Cuba is a prison,” or “Fidel is an angel, Cuba is a socialist paradise.” Neither of these are true. Both of these are true. But before you go, really do some research. Even a rudimentary look into the complex and multi-layered history will make your trip worthwhile and make you look like less of a goofball.
2. GO PREPARED.
Do not expect to find tampons, batteries, aspirin, shampoo, fresh panties, socks, rain ponchos, pens, disc cards for your camera, anything for your camera, shoes, clothes, medicine, books, whatever other things you think you will need. They do have clothes, obviously, but the selection is little, the quality is poor, and the price is expensive. Batteries are probably expired. When I first arrived in Havana to shoot “They Will Be Heard,” a doc on Cuban heavy metal, Jennifer Hernandez and Yando Coy and I walked around for no less than 4 hours going to each “mall” to find a pillow. They didn’t have any pillow for less than $25 dollars and they were used or dirty or flat or whatever. I took to rolling up my jeans or drooling on my arm. One day, I am not exaggerating, I walked around for 4 hours looking for toilet paper. They do have books in the book stores but they are either about the Cuban revolution, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or surprisingly, written by Wayne Dyer and in spanish.
3. GO PREPARED.
Bring tampons, batteries, aspirin, shampoo, fresh panties, socks, rain ponchos, pens, t-shirts, especially band t-shirts, any old digital camera you don’t use anymore preferably with a rechargeable battery, clothes, medicine and books to give away to all the awesome Cuban people you meet. I brought all my cd’s to give away since anything I want I can access digitally.
4. BE HUMBLE.
Joan of Arc was a martyr. You are not. Cubans have endured 50 years of bullying by America and not only have they resisted, they have risen and in very difficult circumstances achieved amazing accomplishments in sports, education, literacy, medicine and culture. The ordinary Cuban deals with difficulties and inconveniences on a daily basis. No one wants to hear you complain about the condition of your hotel room. Many times while filming “They Will Be Heard“, the band was like, “You should make a movie about you trying to make the movie!” I knew that any difficulties or obstacles I was facing were temporary. I knew that I could always leave, I was leaving. And when I did get frustrated or impatient, it was immediately followed by a crushing sense of shame since all the Cubans I was in contact with were always positive and upbeat even though they dealt with water shortages and rolling black outs all the time. Let me put it this way: things are so horrible in Cuba that when members of Escape came to Jersey City, they thought the PATH train was the best thing ever.
5. IF YOU’RE NOT THAT GOOD LOOKING HERE, YOU’RE NOT THAT GOOD LOOKING IN CUBA.
While we all like to have our international love affairs when we travel, Cubans bring it to a whole new level. My first Cuban love was dreamy. He was a bass player for one of the emerging bands at the time, he was spiritual, like rasta spiritual, sensitive, his dreadlocks were perfect…our week long affair wasn’t just a wonderful memory we shared, it was marked by an emotional goodbye at the airport, promises of eternal love, yes, our love would bring down the blockade. Of course I wired him $300 a month later.
Listen, in New York, I’m probably like a four, maybe on a good day a five and a half. This guy was smoking hot. If you find yourself in a hot romance with a severe mismatch, stay focused, Enjoy yourself, but don’t get embroiled in some kind of Cuban romance. You are a walking ticket to financial freedom, a means to get a new color television or visa. Cubans, ever practical, aren’t just looking to hook up, they are maximizing how much they can get out of the relationship. These people are called, “jinoteros” or horse jockeys. You are the horse.
On that note, you want to socialize with Cubans. Beers are a dollar. Buy everyone a beer. Cigarettes are a dollar. Share your cigarettes. Cubans will give you whatever they have. No matter who I approached on the street, they would immediately offer whatever they had in their hands to me, a piece a cake, a sip of rum. They are experts in the field of sharing. Be generous.
6. DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT THE FOOD.
My father left our family when I was 11 years old. My mother basically raised us by herself. She worked all the time. When I came home from school, I had to cook for myself. That’s why, when I ordered a spaghetti dinner and got some spaghetti with melted butter on top with a side of sliced cucumber, it was very familiar to me and brought back all of the abandonment issues I thought I left behind with my EMDR therapy.
When my Cuban friends and I met up with another American in the plaza, we decided to celebrate and we ordered lobster. I always thought there was just one way to make lobster, to boil it. Apparently, there is another way where you prepare it so it is rubbery and hard to chew. Don’t complain, do not send it back, just plan on having a terrible culinary experience so that if it’s just relatively not tasty, it will seem like a gourmet meal!
On a side note, since the food is so terrible, you always have room for dessert and you can get delicious pastries almost anywhere!
7. NOTHING THERE MAKES SENSE.
Half the time I was shooting in Havana, I was like “Am I understanding you correctly or is my spanish just completely terrible?” When immigration discovered that I was staying at my friend Justo’s house, the lady said, “You better be here at 8 am tomorrow morning!” At 8 am we arrived and no one knew why we were there but we were told to wait. Three hours later some one came to see us.
When I went to the office to renew my visa that the travel guide to Cuba published the year before told me to go to, (an hour away by bus), the guy at that place said, “No, you need to go to the office that is located 5 minutes away from where you are staying!” (Smiling, always smiling. Somehow everyone there is always in a good mood.)
When I finally got my visa from the Cuban Music Institute to film, I was told to get two id photos before going to the office. I got to the office and they said, “Why do you have these photos?”
When you are on a bus coming back from somewhere and the bus breaks down, do not ask how you will get home. Just do what the other Cubans are doing, sitting there waiting. Do not be the only person complaining (American) and yelling out “What’s going on? What’s going on?”
If you are on a bus and the bus driver pulls over to talk to a friend of his, just sit in your seat and wait. Think of Cuba as a big DMV pre-2000. Expect to wait. Expect to be inconvenienced. Bring a Wayne Dyer book to read and practice your spanish.
8. BRING CONDOMS
People are posting online that Cuba gives aways condoms for free. This is true. These condoms are for Cubans who don’t have access to every single type of condom in the world in an aisle of their grocery store. Bring your own condoms.
9. JUST UNPLUG FOR THE WEEK.
Don’t bother with trying to instragram or tweet. Just be in the moment. Use the internet sparingly. The internet is very slow and very expensive. Like my friend Michele said, spend less time with FaceBook, and more time with faces and books.
10. GO TO MAXIM ROCK!
My film, “They Will Be Heard” is mainly about Cuban metal band Escape. But the entire metal scene in Cuba is pretty serious business. Maxim Rock embodies that metal scene which you can read all about in David Peisner’s article, “The Red Menace”. After you shake your ass in salsa class, go bang your head to some Cuban metal!
The following, “Food For Thought” was originally published in August of 2009 as part of “The Great Escape; Tales from when I left my mediocre existence to make a movie about Cuban metal band Escape.”
To compensate for my terrible taste in men, I’ve been granted the uncanny ability to go to third world countries, infamous for food shortages, where people having been wearing the same underwear for 6 years, and get a heaping plate of food as soon as I walk in the door. I’m in a country where each family is allocated a small portion of ground coffee each month, and yet the first two words I hear every morning are “Quieres cafe? Quieres cafe?” Invites became so frequent, that in a short time I was insulted, curious, indignant when I wasn’t fed at someone’s house. Is something wrong? I thought. Maybe they forgot. Maybe they forgot my four-course meal. With coffee at the end. The kind they get only once a month.
I don’t know if it’s my (¡terrible!) spanish that leads my Cuban friends to think I am completely incapable of feeding myself, or if this kindness and hospitality is typical. I am walked across the street, fed, nourished, hugged, burped, encouraged, changed, and fed again. This kindness stripped me not only of my defenses, but also of common sense. I didn’t need to do anything. Julian, poppy, the daddy of the house I live in, got sick for three days. I was rendered defenseless. Me, the New Yorker with the “Hi, this is Tracey and I’m out doing whatever I want,” voice mail message looked in his kitchen at the stove and pans with wonder and bewilderment. I was like three-year old Helen Keller, with the spatula in my hand, with no one to spell it out (in spanish) on my palm.
I am grateful for this kindness. Cuba is a tough country. The men on the street are aggressive. Sometimes there just is “No Hay.” The Spanish is rapid and relentless. It’s a wonderful thing to go to a country other than your own and have a community there that has somehow collaborated in the maintenance of your well-being. But I am unable, really, to eat any more meat. When a heaping plate of food is placed in front of me, there is invariably a huge chunk of pig right in the middle of it. I’m a buddhist! I whine internally, which comes out like, “Muchas, gracias! Que rico!” Ten years ago, I would have been content to suck on dirty cardboard to affirm my support of the Cuban revolution. I would have been extolling the virtues of free education and health care happily shoving dog shit into my mouth. In my older age, I am the gloomy taco bell of Cuba, remixing the same four ingredients in a different pile trying to create the illusion of a new dish to sustain me over the next 5 months. Sure, fresh mango juice every day sounds delicious until you’ve lived it for like 4 weeks. And you become aware that this is all there is. Kombucha anyone? Carrot juice with spirulina?
I never liked chicken. And fish is out of the question since the fiery god of hellfire food poisoning bestowed upon me a wrath so great that I was expunging from every orifice, okay, both orifices, of my body. I don’t know if you’ve ever shared the toilet with your mouth and your ass but the pornography of it all has left me dependent on Omega 3’s.
Cuban markets are full of mangos, avocados, pinas and papayas mixed in with other vegetables I don’t recognize. Sometimes eggs. The string beans are always the color of string beans in a can. Gone are the days of Aki’s cooking, of “just a taste” of her Japanese curry. Gone are the nights of left over pasta dishes contrived by Micheal and purchased at Trader Joes. Of heavenly whorish imperialist isles of Whole Foods.
Like any good lefty, I took to the streets. If you want to eat street food, there is an assortment of ham like things. Hammish? Hammy? Ham-oriented. Of pig origin. Once I bought a croquette sandwich, and then I was pretty sure I saw Julian feed the same croquettes to his cats. I realized that I could be eating something very similar to the meat like substances served to poor black children in Newark, the biological warfare against our youth, masked as school lunch, and, viewed through that lens, I swore off any street meat. Which left me the option of pizza and batidos, or milkshakes. Yay! My 12 year old dreams come true. But I saw my skin pallor change. Pallor, I thought. I’m too young to have pallor. But that’s what happens when you eat something pizza-y or pizza-ish and milkshakes every day.
Like any good American, I looked to buy my way out of the situation. There are stores just for tourist money. Very expensive stores. Very expensive stores that sell brands that aren’t exactly tomato sauce or peanut butter or spaghetti but something like it. A representation. Red And White. The color of your blood cells before consuming these foods injected with an unnecessary and gratuitous amount of sugar. To mask the taste of chemicals. Red and White. Red no. 6. White no. 9.
The last time I saw a generic brand like Red and White that has emerged somehow unmolested by the FDA, actually the last time that I asked “Isn’t this how you get colon cancer?” with regards to my eating habits, was when I lived in Newark, NJ. Where there is no blockade I am aware of. The economic blockade against Cuba not only prevents any trade between the US and Cuba, except for symbolic gestures between farmers facilitated by Jimmy Carter or something like that, but if you are a company trading with Cuba from another country, you cannot enter American ports for three months. And a whole bunch of other punitive measures as included by the Helms-Burton act.
So Cuban stores have really shitty food. At least they have an excuse. One of the strongest countries in the world has waged a prolonged, deliberate, malicious, inhumane expensive campaign aimed at toppling their government. Or maybe Newark, like Detroit, like Camden, like all those other cities in the US with their store shelves lined with representations of food and vegetables, maybe they have an excuse too.
The carrot and the stick policy doesn’t work usually, and it certainly doesn’t work in terms of toppling a government. Fifty years after the blockade, Cubans aren’t rallying in the streets for American style democracy (Hello Florida, 2000) or begging us to come and save them and erect StarBucks all along the Malecon. Politics isn’t a big issue in most households, where families eat dinner together and watch (¡terrible!) novellas. And Animal Planet. And wear Converse All Stars. And listen to the Beatles and Barbara Streisand. They drink beer. They eat meat. They share. Their food. That they don’t have. And in the morning, when they wake up, they sweep the floors and make breakfast.
I tried to find my zen initially in July of 2003, at a meditation camp in Thailand. At this world renowned Buddhist training camp, you cannot talk, you cannot write, you cannot read. You meditate for 10 days straight. It supposedly changes your life.
The night before I left for meditation, I went out with a man I had been traveling with, a man I now believe to be the one who got away, and drank my whole face off. In Chang Mai somewhere.
His name was Brett and he was, besides my sister, the funniest person I ever met. I don’t have specific memories of us together, per se. Looking back, I see myself hinged at the waist, mouth stretched back, eyes clenched tight, tears streaming down my cheeks and him by my side.
I met Brett on the train to Chang Mai. He was accompanied by a Belgian girl who had the affectations of a drunk heiress; her arms were forever bent at the elbows, at any moment you could pop a long fancy cigarette holder into her crooked fingers, her head was eternally engaged in an lolly neck roll. At any given moment, she might be facing the ground directly, or resting her forehead on her shoulder. There was also a french existentialist in our little group. In the movie of my memory, he is wearing a black beret.
We ventured out to a monkey park together because one night, eating our pad thai and drinking our Thai iced coffee, we bumped into a daddy tourist who told us he took his young son to the monkey park where the monkeys played basketball. Monkeys playing basketball! I envisioned an arangutan dribbling the ball down the court with another arangutan about to steal the ball, and then the first arangutan, in a black and green sleeveless jersey of course, does a spin and twists in the air, lay up, Score! How big were they? I thought. How high was the net?
“It’s great,” the daddy tourist said, peeling a three year old off his shoulder and trying to stand. “You’ll love it.”
That’s not really how monkey basketball is played. The monkey is on a chain, nightmarish techno pounds in the background and a pretty young Thai girl is the sports commentator. There are no teams. There is one monkey. The monkey’s name, a spider monkey with a metal collar chained to what looks like a hot dog cart, bleeding from the ass, is Oscar, and the young woman is not commentating, she is screaming into the microphone over the techno, “Osca, go trow ball Osca!” The monkey approaches the basket, which is not that far away, and not that high, and nonchalantly tosses the ball more or less in the general direction of the basket. He wants to die. He is depressed. His ass is on fire. The Thai woman shakes her head yes, excitedly clapping with the mike in one hand, encouraging us with smiling eyes, her overzealous cheer telling us this is ok. “Ok Osca!” In the bleachers, there’s an apparently inebriated Belgian woman having a hard time sitting up straight with her rolly skull and a morose french guy disdaining Brett and I in his journal when we are trying to catch our breath. We have succumbed to a severe case of the giggles because it’s really the most horrific thing in the whole world.
They left our little travel group and Brett and I went on to take Thai cooking classes together, go to discos, get Thai massage and facials, ride elephants. I bought him an ethnic hat at the market that was a red, blue and fluorescent green thimble with a dangly sash bumping his nose. Ha ha ha. People in Thailand wear silly clothes! Ha ha ha. Ancient traditions are funny.
It came time for me to go to my meditation camp and change my life. A bender was in order. The night itself wasn’t so memorable, but the amount of beer we drank was.
Brett and I platonically shared a room that particular evening. I might have even left the festivities early the night before, in any event, I was the first one to wake up in the morning and I went for my breakfast that was included in my 7$ a night room. Eggs, tomato, toast, coffee. I remembered thinking, “Oh, my malaria pill. Let me take that now.” I popped one in my mouth.
It didn’t take long for my malaria medication to have a serious discussion with the alcohol careening through my blood stream. The label specifically said not to mix the two, they don’t play well together. Until that point, I had always interpreted warning labels on medication as suggestions. Waiting until the last day of antibiotics to start drinking, for example, was like using a dental dam. It’s a good idea but nobody does that.
Malaria pills and alcohol meeting each other has the same chemical reaction of a baking soda vinegar volcano. Except, in your ass. I was still at the breakfast table when the patron saint of puke gave me a sign. I ran upstairs to my room. Thankfully, Brett had emerged from the bed and I could pass on the warning.
“You should leave now,” I told him. I locked my self in the bathroom and was, is, eternally grateful the sink and the toilet were so close to each other.
This type of two way would happen to me only one other time; after eating seafood at Wakamba, a restaurant in Cuba, 7 years later. No malaria or excessive drinking required.
I left the bathroom, took a few steps and collapsed on the bed. Brett returned. I warned him, never, under any circumstances, go into that bathroom. From my pillow, I groaned, “Brett, my malaria pills made me so sick.”
“You might as well just get malaria then,” he said. This seemed logical, and I left my medication on the dresser.
When I left for meditation, perhaps Brett when back to bed. Perhaps he went into the bathroom. He never tried to contact me again.
This particular meditation group was free. Donations were accepted. It was 10 days long, and you meditated all day. There were occasional breaks where you could walk, but there was no speaking, writing, or reading. There were instructional videos we would watch at night. About how to detach. Aside from not being accustomed to meditation at all, I couldn’t find a comfortable position to sit in for eight hours. My back hurt. My knees hurt. My ADD was killing me.
My stomach was killing me. I tried to endure it, for three days. I thought I could meditate myself to better health. Then, on the third night, I thought maybe I was really sick, maybe there was internal bleeding. Maybe my intestines had burst. I had taken a detour on my journey to spiritual enlightenment.
To leave, you had to ask permission from the head yogi. This was kind of embarrassing. Something I would certainly scoff at had it been someone else. They called a taxi and sent me back to Bangkok. I went to the emergency room. It cost me 15$ for the visit and for the medicine. Apparently, I tore my stomache lining with my emmy worthy exhumation in the bathroom.
I got some medicine and a room in a hotel with a little pool in the front in city center. I was down, but not out. I spent a day in the pool and read a book by Jose Saramango. I watched BBC. There is something really special about watching the BBC news in a hotel room. It makes me feel fancy.
I left for Cambodia the next day. I think, for the most part, I was either complacent enough in my depression or content enough with my actual life, that I left any Buddhist aspirations to the side.
Six years later, it would occur to me that Buddhism might just be my salvation when the school where I worked for 9 years was collapsing. I was finding it really hard not to strangle 95% of my co- workers. I sat down and thought to myself, what can I do before I strangle that woman to death and go to prison? What alternatives do I have? I found a Buddhist retreat, for three and not 10 days, that was not so austere. We could talk to each other. We could read. There was coffee.
Kadampa changed my life, and I began practicing, irregularly, but still, practicing, at Dharma Punx in the East Village. Any one who has not died by my hands at my old school owes Josh Korda their lives.
I tell you all that to tell you this. I made a movie about heavy metal. I cashed in my pension, which probably would not be there in 30 years thanks to mismanagement by the state government for the last 25 years. I may or may not be here in 30 years. I quit my job, gave away all my stuff, said goodbye and left for Cuba.
Before I left Jersey City in June 2009, the very last thing I did was go visit my friend Hamlet. Hamlet has been living with HIV for over 20 years, with full blown AIDS for the last 6 or 7. He has been ready to die for a while, but life is fighting him. He lives in a hospice up the street. He has lived there, maybe 5 years. My darling friend Michael was driving me to my sister’s where I would live for the next 4 days. The car was packed. I had an hour to see Hamlet before I left.
Walking into the hospice center, you are accosted by the scent of decay and piss and ammonia. I hate that place. Somehow, it brings out the best in me. I am forced to be happy there. I am not rotting away on a gurney. When I am there as a tenant and not a visitor, push me down the stairs, pull the plug, drive me into the river. I am totally on Hamlet’s side. He is ready to go.
I have seen Hamlet corpse-like in an ICU. I have sat and read to him when he was a 60 lb shell, plugged into so many devices. This was different somehow.
Hamlet was in the bed, barely propped up. It was July 1st. It was hot and sunny. He was in the bed, with the curtains drawn tight. The room was dark. The room is always dark. Hamlet was in the fetal position with chalky remains of his insides all over his lips and the garbage strategically placed near the bed. Maybe he would lift his head and spit and it would land somewhere in the vicinity of the mouth of the garbage can. Not necessarily.
Hi honey, how are you, I ask.
Exquisite, he says. He was.
I wish now I had remembered that moment more while I was in Cuba. On my to do list of making a documentary, I didn’t put: #4. Confront my own limitations of discipline and/or patience. I didn’t know. When I left for Cuba, I loved Cuba. I wish, after being there for 6 months, I didn’t hate Cuba for being Cuba.
It wasn’t that the country was poor. It was. Or that things were difficult. They were. My biggest problem was accepting a whole cultural system which includes making everything a really difficult process. Es un processo, people would tell me, shaking their heads, like, I don’t know, martyrs in the Bible or something. Like time consuming, unnecessary procedures were like the the horizon separating sun and sea. That’s how it is. Man has no control, no agency. Cubans are resolved to believe that bureacracy and wasting your time is as inevitable as the next crisis of imperialism. Or sunsets.
I waited 6 hours to buy bus tickets! I would tell my adopted family. No es facile, the mommy, replied, shaking her head. But in regards to easy things. Like buying bus tickets. For some reason that is a really difficult, time consuming process. No es facile is the Cuban equivalent of in God we Trust. It’s engraved in the capital and imprinted on currency.
And I think, if I was in Guatemala, and it took a long time, I wouldn’t have been so annoyed. (and it does not take a long time in Guatemala, or anywhere else to buy bus tickets. And then they tell you that you cannot travel together because there are different busses for Cubans and foreigners. Ha! Martin Luther King Center my ass.) But this is in a country that posits itself as the vanguard in human development and progress. Well, I think your hepatitis vaccine is awesome. Why does it take an eternity to buy a fucking bus ticket?
I tried to be joyful. I tried to embrace everything I had and not focus on what I did not. I feel as though I cultivated more Buddhist zen in Havana in 9 months than I would have in India over a life time. My gurus: Escape. Do you want to hear something funny? Jenny would tell me, smacking her hands together and laughing. She tells me a story about how they waited for a bus for an hour at 2 am in the morning. Once it came, it only travelled one or two more stops until it made everybody get out and wait another hour for another bus. Isn’t that funny? she asks again. No, I say. No, that’s awful.
But in Cuba, awful must be funny. Because if you don’t laugh, well, you have no alternative. You can’t just walk around being angry all the time, because you will just be angry all the time. You certainly can’t protest. You can’t be funny and complain on video, because you will end up under house arrest. Maybe you can write a letter and complain to the CDR, if you can find a piece of paper and something to sharpen the pencil you’ve been holding on to for the last 2 years.
When I think about how I explained to Jenny, Yando and Alejandro how I was studying Buddhism when I first arrived in July, I laugh. They must think American buddhists have a strict diet of vodka and cigarettes and curse words.
I am not sure if it’s because everything here is easier, or if because we are allowed to complain when it is not. I am not sure if it’s because I learned the futility of complaint over there. I don’t like who I am when I am complaining. Even if I am right. But I have noticed that I don’t get stressed out anymore, that I am usually calm, or at least calmer, after my Cuban escapade. Namaste, Havana. Namaste.
In dreams I see myself flying… –Invisible Wounds (Dark Bodies), Fear Factory
I know introducing a photo exhibit on Cuban metal with a Fear Factory song is strange. I know.
I actually discovered Fear Factory in Havana after spending a month with Escape in 2007. And when I hear Fear Factory, I remember Alejandro Padron, the drummer of Escape, in a larger way, in a way that transcends any kind of sadness I might feel from missing him, from missing everyone in Escape. If I am out somewhere, at a club in NYC, and Fear Factory comes on, I remember Julian in the kitchen, Alejandro’s father, serving me coffee from his rations while music blared down the hallway from Alej’s bedroom. I remember nights at Madriguera, an outside music venue in Havana, where DeLa and Jenny and I got drunk and banged our heads to live metal. I remember the paralyzing swelter of Havana, the slow motion of our days together, the evening pilgrimages to Calle G where all the frikis convened with communal bottles of vodka that could blind the sun, the birds in the morning and again, Julian’s cafe.
Closer to the sun and I’m climbing
When I met Jennifer Hernandez in Alejandro’s apartment in 2007, she told me, “Vamos hacer vecinas.” It means, “We’re going to be neighbors.” I thought she said something about going to a pool. I was grateful. The heat was oppressive. “Great!” I told her. “I can’t wait! When?” This type of misunderstanding would characterize the entire process of documenting Escape and filming They Will Be Heard.
Tried to touch the sun but the brightness burned my eyes
Two years later, I filmed Jenny as she walked through the doors of the airport check-in toward her terminal, waving one last time to her family, her boyfriend at the time, Yando Coy, who is the lead singer of Escape, and her friends, before reuniting with her father in New Jersey. Briant Garcia Rodriquez was there, waving goodbye.
Briant had worked with Escape for several years as their sound engineer. And he was an avid Escape fan, he had Escape tattooed on his arm.
As Jenny’s waving hand, seen above the crowd of people at the airport checking their luggage and getting their boarding passes, disappeared behind a red door, Briant turned to me and said, “The next time I come to the airport, I’m going to be the one leaving.”
Briant had three options. He could wait for normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, he could become an international artist right away and get invited to another country, or he could get married to someone else outside of Cuba.
Unconscious or am I conscious?
Briant couldn’t wait to get married or become famous. Who can? Briant chose the fourth option: to get on a balsa and try and float 90 miles to Miami.
And I saw my own face in the dark and loneliness
Briant went missing in October. Jenny and I were hopeful, but there are instances in your life where the words being conveyed to you carry their truth, undeniable like the weight of the ocean. I thought of Briant in his last moments often, succumbing to that weight, as the truth of what was about to happen became certain…sometimes I think of it scientifically, when I am swimming; I am aware of how heavy the ocean is. Sometimes I can’t think of it, but I feel it in my chest and my face becomes frozen.
and I saw my own face like a spark frozen in heaven
One of the problems when someone you love goes missing is that there is no ritual of closure. You are aware of what has happened, you are aware they are gone, but there’s this window, this impossible window, and you think anything is possible.
Jenny and I have been very lucky in many ways. One, she came to New Jersey, and we were able to build and continue our friendship. We’ve been fortunate enough to meet and know and love incredible people who saw the potential of Escape and the entire Cuban metal community and understand the necessity of changing the world through heavy metal. We’ve been able to develop and build UnBlock the Rock with an amazing team of artists and organizers.
Jenny and I decided that we would dedicate June 1st, UnBlock the Rock Occupies City Hall, to Briant as our memorial for him. He is in these photos, immortalized with a smile and surrounded by friends. Tonight you will hear “Simbolo de Libertad” by Escape, performed by musicians from Venezuela, Cuba, Iraq, and the US, and we can remember Briant in a larger way, in a way that transcends missing him.
Everyone will tell you “No”. People have been telling me “No” for the last two years. For the last 38 years. And people you would expect to be your allies, aren’t necessarily your allies. Don’t worry about them, they don’t understand what we are doing.
I never intended to become a teacher. In high school, I came equipped with a distinct set of beliefs about myself; that I was ugly, that I was worthless. That I was an outsider. That it was my privilege to be a spectator. But I loved learning.
I didn’t know anything about teaching, I didn’t know anything about children. Which was the same message you got walking into Thirteenth Avenue School in October of 1999. All I knew was that I was going to get dental insurance, so my life’s ambitions had been pretty much met. What else was there?
I had the privilege to teach at Thirteenth Avenue School for 9 years. Because no one at the Board of Education cared about our school or the children who went there, the staff and a new principal, the Mr. Lenny Kopacz, were able to create an educational oasis founded on love and imagination and creativity. We created a learning environment for the children and their families, and I would like to say publicly that I attribute all of my personal successes as a 6th grade teacher to never doing anything required by No Child Left Behind. Why? Because I was teaching them. And I refused to accept public education doctrine from a president who had every educational opportunity at his fingertips and squandered it, emerging as a grown man unable to negotiate the difference between an object and subject pronoun.
I discovered that I loved children. And that the children of Newark are amazing and courageous and loving and resilient. Much like, I imagine, Trayvon Martin was.
And so for 9 years, I would pass out copies of “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” by Langston Hughes. “Boys and girls, who would like to read this poem out loud?”
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore– And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
No one told me to do it. It wasn’t a part of staff development. The poem wasn’t in any curriculum but, when we are fortunate enough to listen, what is beautiful instructs us.
Soon enough, it occurred to me that I had dreams too. I saw myself in the not so distant future wearing a lime green gown, steadying myself with the desk, pearls swaying to and fro, with a martini glass half filled with olives and vodka, “Boys and girls, tell me about your dreams,” I sneered. “I had dreams, I know the answer to the question Langston is posing.” Olives swishing to and fro.
I did want to be a photographer. I lamented the fact I didn’t study photography in college. Somewhere along the way it became embedded in my consciousness that being a photojournalist was something other people did, people who grew up in nice houses and didn’t suffer the constant chaos of being poor. Even afterwards, I allowed myself to shoot as long as it was a hobby. “I can’t imagine where I would be right now,” I told my sister, “if I had gotten some encouragement to do what I wanted to do when I was growing up.” Growing up, the mantra in my home wasn’t, Hold Fast to Dreams! but like most working class families, Make sure you find a job with dental insurance!
Certainly, no one wants you to consider and think about your dreams when you are growing up in Newark, NJ. You aren’t entitled to dreams. The Newark Board of Education is run by empty headed ghouls who lack vision or creativity, or love. (Incidentally, where is the line by line itemization of what happened and is going to happen with the notorious and well choreographed millon trillion dollar donation to Newark via Face Book and if that money is going to Charter Schools where do you go to school if you don’t win the lottery?)
Recently, I sat across my mother, who has worked hard all her life. We were sharing a sundae at a Friendly’s. In a moment that could have been stolen from a depressing and terrifying Joyce Carol Oates novella, she told me she was watching a craft show on television and she almost starting crying. “I could have done that,” she said. “I can’t imagine what I could have done with my life if I had someone encouraging me.”
No one read her Langston Hughes when she was little.
Some truths are irrefutable, smashing you in the face like a well-deserved hang over. Some truths wait for you before they open up, like a flower to a bee. That’s what I’m dealing in now, truth. I am addicted to it. And I don’t believe that those who are in power of controlling access to the truth necessarily have our best interests at heart.
In the two years of production for “They Will Be Heard“, I’ve found myself with all my resources invested in and drained by random footage on a hard drive. I don’t even have dental insurance.
There are times where I wake up and think, I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard. And I think, just walk away. To this a more terrifying question: what will you do then? Now the question has become an answer. I’m obligated to live my dreams. I’m obligated to finish the film.
Young poets and dreamers of Newark who I had the privilege of teaching: Everyone will tell you no. They will tell you no because you’re not ready yet, or because they don’t know any better. In the pursuit of your dreams you will find yourself discouraged, depressed, elated, anxious, alone, empty. You will give everything you have and then be told it’s not good enough yet. Give more. Give again.
I thought, pursuing the dream would be enough. I thought that the fact that leaving my job to pursue the lucrative field of documentary photography and film making during the worst economic depression since the, well, The Depression, would entitle me to immediate success. Leap! Leap! Buddha said. And the net will appear. The net does appear, but it’s not comfortable. The purpose of the net is just that you almost die but you don’t.
After living in a closet-sized room for a year and a half, which was ironic because I didn’t have a closet, I moved across the street into a crooked apartment with an upstairs neighbor who is constantly puking. This is nice, my friends said. Don’t talk to me like I’m rebuilding my life after a terrible mistake, I told them. I made a documentary, I didn’t burn my babies in a homemade meth lab.
Be tenacious. Remember when the gangs kept spray painting the side of our school and every morning Mr. K would paint over it. And they would come back and tag the school again, and the next morning Mr. K would paint over it. One morning, they just stopped coming.
Remember, it’s all on you. People will help you out along the way, but even, hypothetically speaking, if you have a rock and roll fantasy threesome with an executive producer from MTV who should for all intensive purposes be slightly curious about your rock and roll documentary, it doesn’t mean he’ll like your FaceBook page.
Don’t worry, this only makes you better. It only makes you brighter. And you will always be able to find a decent bottle of tempranillo for $8. You will wake up in the morning and it will still be dark, it will be dark for days, but there is no turning back. You will feel jealous and resentful of those people who pass by you because they have the right contacts or better luck, but don’t worry about them. You will feel grateful for and honored to have those people who stand by you and tell you to keep going. They are out there. They are with me all the time. Keep going. Keep fighting. Ask questions. Find mentors. It’s not easy, but then again, nothing for you has ever been easy. You have always done twice as much with half as much. I know the light you possessed when you were 11, it’s only gotten brighter, stronger. Your time is now, take it.
When I was 25, my second first true love of my life and I broke up and moved out of our 1 bedroom apartment with the closet that was too shallow and the kitchen with linoleum floors. I was convinced that the psychosis driving us apart stemmed from the fact that we were organizers in a well meaning but misguided organization that plotted to overthrow the capitalist system and usher in a new society based on austerity and justice for all.
As the organization came crumbling down around us, because we were too annoying to deal with our own political posturing, I was sure, with time, my true love and I would realize we were not the jerk offs we had been for the last two years. When the dust cleared, we would find ourselves embraced, rolling around on the ground, like a bad soap commercial, which is how we ended up moving in together in the first place.
Late at night, we didn’t discuss white picket fences and what we would name our children (thank god, because based on collective cat names at the time, Steinbeck would have been the most socially accepted, but would have gotten his ass beat twice as much as his cousins Mao and Lenin). Lying in each other’s arms, with the moonlight streaming in the window, we debated whether or not Chairman Gonzalez was correct in his assessment of the Cuban revolution having made a complete right wing error while glamorizing the fact that he said that in a striped jail suit from a cage. We dreamed not of moving to a “good neighborhood” with a strong public school system, but of how we would collectively raise our kids while forging a new society and how even the men, even the men! would participate in day care.
And our relationship, and our organization, was a result of well meaning and sensitive young people coming to consciousness of the atrocities of our own government.
Once you understand that Christopher Columbus killed all those defenseless people and that we commemorate it with sales at Macy’s, once you find out where your Nike’s come from, once you find out exactly why you are forced to sit down with your relatives every 4th Thursday of November, (blankets with what!) and then, somehow, always soon after, you understand that it it was written in our Bill of Rights, that we had the right, nay, the duty, to alter, reform or abolish the government, well, you grab your copy of the People’s History, and it’s on.
I can’t stand liars. I’ve lied. But I don’t lie as a matter of fact or as a matter of public policy that gets people’s legs blown off. I try to be accountable. We’ve all found ourselves in those situations where we’ve made bad decisions. But, I’ve never been like, “Let’s go to war because that country will randomly attack us with weapons of mass destruction, send us your sons!” because I wanted oil. George Bush is a liar. And Dick Cheney’s heart has failed us all.
And so this kind of outrage, and I suppose these are evolutionary baby steps we all take as human beings, occurs because we realize our government has been lying to us. And we hate them for it.
Many of us come to this kind of consciousness, and immediately bypass Dr. Martin Luther King, running straight for Malcolm X, white girl from Flanders that you are, because Malcolm doesn’t confront the oppressor out of love, love! He is ready to kick oppressor ass. And it’s true that violence only begets more violence, but the people who told you that see nothing wrong with Columbus Day.
When you come to this kind of consciousness, either through Rage Against the Machine, or Gael Garcia Bernal, or because you are crazy about guys with long hair, somehow, Che Guevera is going to land in your path. Because you loved Tupac Shakur, Assata is going to end up on your coffee table. And because Fidel Castro is the man most despised by the lyingest of liars ever, the demon evoked by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Bush I and the sequel, which never needed to be made, Bush II, then clearly, clearly, Fidel is the man.
When I was 25, my second first true love and I broke up and I was sure the psychosis of our well intentioned but misguided organization that dreamed of overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with each according to his need, each according to his ability, the masculine pronoun of which was excused by the women in organization because Marx didn’t have the correct vocabulary at that time, that psychosis would dissipate and we would realize we really did love each other. The failure of our relationship was because he was an infantile leftist and I was a chauvinist missionary. And in time, we would grow back together, tectonically, like plates.
A few days after commencing our trial separation, a few days later after moving out of our apartment with the closets that upheld my clothes at a right or left wing angle, depending on how you looked at them, and the shower head that didn’t not shower us with water, but dribbled down upon us, he appeared at my new apartment’s door, to tell me he had met someone else. Someone who wrote better poetry. Someone who was taller. Thinner. Younger. I was too young to be -erred out. But there I was. Older. Shorter. Less metaphoric/er.
The decision was made. I would commit myself to the only man who ever loved me: Karl Marx. I would travel to Cuba. Maybe my ex boyfriend’s revolutionary fervor could be quelled by some CPUSA bombshell grappling with the nature of contradictions, but I was going to the motherland. I had outgrown all the foolishness of our local movement and would commit myself to building the true people’s movement, regardless of race or class, something that would have the diverse multi racial composition of a busy Saturday afternoon at IKEAs. To commemorate this great event, I would cut my hair and dye it blonde, descending on Cuba like a furious Billie Jean, a woman scorned.
That’s when I met Chiqui.
Over a decade ago, I traveled to Havana. I lived with a family for a couple of days and then, it was decided, I would move, in what was the first step of my long career as a fag hag, a talent I neither asked for nor deliberately honed, into an apartment closer to the city center with two gay men.
After a celibate but fabulous 9 week introduction to socialism, I prepared myself to return to the belly of the beast. I went, by myself, to UNEAC, a beautiful house in Vedado that hosted a weekly musical performance of trova or rhumba.
It was one of those moments that you never forget, but considering the events afterwards, I’ll spare you the eyes locking, the stomache butterflies, the first touch of our fingers, blah blah blah. What is important about me meeting Julio, aside from the fact that the fucker still owes me money, is that he was the bass player for a Garage H. He brought me to Patio Maria, which is where I met, I am convinced I met Alejandro Padron, and the lead singer, Chiqui.
Mind you, I was young. Mind you, I wasn’t interested in metal bands in Cuba at that time. I was over metal. I was discovering jazz. Participating in weekly study groups left me with a sense of enlightenment, and I was confused why these young men would cling to such a petty bourgeois cultural expression when they lived in paradise, the beacon for all humanity. I mused that their outrage must be against imperialism. I wanted these men to know that I may be a North American, but I was a good one, and I was aware of What Was to be Done.
Understand I had organized and taught in Newark, I saw the diseased and infected intestines of the belly of the beast. I saw the politics of food, adorned on the mustaches and double d cups of 12 year old girls. I saw the politics of race in photos of our governor, Christie Whitman, frisking black men in Camden for folly; Abu Grab lite. I had gotten my ass out of bed to go to demonstrations on cold Saturday mornings in DC for whatever civilian bridges we were bombing at the time. I would have taken over a building to protest George Bush stealing the presidency, but I think the left was too busy blaming Ralph Nader for that.
Havana, on the other hand, was peaceful. There were no drive- bys, children could play in the street unattended, there was no Amadou Diallo in Havana, there were no universities and public institutions being bankrupted for corporate greed, abortion was free and legal, the medical system has been lauded by world renowned organizations, and, in the streets, there was a constant historical record of Cuba’s independence from the United States, a claim very few nations can make.
Back to Chiqui. I spent about three weeks in Miami filming frikis with connections to Escape in February 2010. Chiqui was the original lead singer for Problema, founded with Alejandro and Justo, who would go on to form Escape.
I love Chiqui. If I was People magazine, he’d be one of the top ten personalities of the new millienium. Chiqui and I have drank together in Havana, Topas de los Criantes, Vitoria (Spain) Miami and New York. Our friendship has spanned about 12 years. He is a huge part of this film, he put me in touch with Escape in 2007.
In all the interviews, friquis talk about the beginning of metal in Habana, Patio Maria, how they encountered metal despite a blockade against Cuba and a cultural blockade within. In all the interviews, in Cuba and Miami, they talk about losing friends and band members because of immigration. When I ask Chiqui how he feels when he goes back, the pace starts out very calm, but sad.
“It bothered me to go back and see the people without any power to do anything different. The streets were a little worse, the people a little more poor…I’d prefer to go to Haiti,” he says. “Even though Haiti is in terrible condition right now. But when you see your people suffering, it hurts you more.” As he considers the question, his mouth turns upside down, his forehead wrinkles, he leans forward in his chair. “You are a thief, you are a jinitero” he snarls into the camera. He is louder, he is angry. “The divided family is a business,” he says into the camera. Knowing Chiqui for the last 12 years, where he has been and where he has gone, it’s a beautiful interview.
In a rough cut of the film, I place the interview, intermittently, with Jenny’s (the original keyboard player of Escape) departure at the airport. She is leaving her family, her friends. Even if Jenny had a million dollars, she cannot return to Cuba for three years, and her mother or her boyfriend, Yando, cannot leave the island without an invitation. Her mother can be invited by Jenny in three years. Yando cannot, unless his brother, who left, many years ago and has been out of contact, somehow resurfaces and goes through the very lengthy and expensive process of inviting him.
I am watching this cut with a Cuban editor. The discussion of Chiqui’s testimony lasts for a long time. Which is good. Democracy is messy and should take a long time. It is the form of the discussion around the interview which leaves me exhausted and confused, tired and overwhelmed. I want to hand someone the hard drive and go wait tables off the coast of Oaxaca.
Because the conversation goes like this. The cuban editor argues that I am making Cuba look bad. That what Chiqui is saying is exactly what the right wing in Miami has been saying for the last 40 years. That the film won’t show in Havana if I include that part of the interview.
I argue that I won’t include it if what Chiqui is saying is unoriginal, but I am not going to censor the film so it can be shown in Havana. But the discussion decays into the United States versus Cuba. The discussion has somehow become capitalism versus socialism. We argue about freedom of speech. We argue about civil rights. We argue about segregation. And this has been the problem for the last 51 years. The dialogue is bi-polar, either you are left, or you are right. I don’t want to align myself with either because their fanaticism obscures the truth. And, even though I love Chiqui and I know he is being sincere, I don’t want to put out a film, where one sentence will brand the whole film as right wing propaganda for a population I despise.
Maybe the heartache of my second first love leaving left me lazy. Maybe I just found the most convenient enemy of my enemy, and latched on to the forbidden island. But, after living in Havana for 9 months, I know my love for the island is predicated on my ability to leave. I am also aware that the freedoms I have here come at a cost. Someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s mother harvests my coffee. If I want to buy clothes, I have to pay more money to make sure a grown up got paid for their labor. It is because of an underpaid Mexican day laborer who cannot support his or her family, that I can get strawberries in December. My freedom of speech is different than freedom of speech for a day laborer in the south. Or a black person in Newark.
Maybe we can just accept the fact that under capitalism, people are taught to be a little too selfish. And that this selfishness can manifest very ugly and violent things. Like Rudolph Guiliani or Donald Trump. On the other hand, is that if it sucks for one person in Cuba, then it sucks for everyone else in Cuba.
In arguing with the Cuban editor, he refers to Chiqui’s interview again. “I don’t think this is going to change anything. It’s going to add to the hate.” And now we’re getting somewhere.
And so maybe there’s an answer for all of us, living here on planet earth. Not in the middle, but in taking the best parts of both ideas…we should have free health care and education, but we should also be able to protest and speak freely. Two things synonymous with rock and roll.
I consider these kids creating a heavy metal culture in Havana their declaration of independence. I consider the blockades that separate Americans from Cuba ridiculous and obscene. I consider this our moment to reshape the world based on the values we consider important. Like music and humanity. I consider this a message to the people who have been in charge for the last century or so and have fucked things up.