Travel to Cuba? 10 Ways to not act like an American American while you are there

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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.

1READ 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!

Food For Thought, an American Palate in Cuba

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.

Quieres Cafe?

 

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Tyranny vs. Liberty. You Tell Me. The United States Makes Nice With Cuba.

“Only tyranny fears the full expression of liberty.”  ― José Martí

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This is my first chance to sit and read all the news since Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba on Wednesday.

Since my first trip to Cuba in 1999, I’ve worked to develop an analysis and understanding of the island that was not a static glorification of the revolution but a meaningful interpretation of Cuba’s legacy and what that means for all working people and people of color.

Over the years, attending conferences, debates, panel discussions, etc on Cuba-US relations, was to be a part of a very narrow and polarized dialogue. The politics around Cuba are extremely divisive, one reason why the US imposed embargo was able to survive for so long. (Even the word choice of blockade or embargo is enough to set off a never ending debate).

 

In 2011, when Jennifer Hernandez and I created UnBlock the Rock, it was largely, for me, a way to organize people who held widely different beliefs and would otherwise not work together towards a common goal. Jennifer and I hold extremely different views about Cuba, but we respect each other immensely and I consider her one of my closest friends. Again, for me, it was also a way to use our democratic right (duty?) to organize but in a way that wasn’t so not cool and depressing like many of the isolated movements I participated in.

The slogan of UBTR, “It’s our time”, reflected our belief that it was our time, us, people who weren’t 75 years or older, to determine what our world should look like and how we should interact with each other.

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I’ve only read the US fact sheet “Charting a New Course in Cuba”. Sadly, the travel ban isn’t lifted, I’m not sure if the travel ban was codified into law under the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 and must be overturned by Congress or if Obama has the power to lift it entirely.

I’m not necessarily excited about the United States bringing our brand of democracy anywhere, where some get a little and most get none; our democracy which has had, somehow, the words “rectal” and “forced” attached to it lately; our democracy that can proudly boast more and more people sleeping in train stations while luxury rentals are erected symbolically right next to City Hall in Jersey City seemingly overnight at a frequency that rivals only the frequency with which our democracy shuts down schools and builds prisons for profit…no, none of that democracy being imported or force fed anally into Cuba does not excite me. The highlight of all this for me is Obama openly telling the Republicans to go fuck themselves, because, really, fuck them.

UBTR won. We brought Cuban heavy metal to the states. But our responsibility and right to determine what our world should look like and how we should interact with each other is urgent. And possible. Restored relations with Cuba and world wide demonstrations against police murdering black people and Ras Baraka mayoring in Newark and Pope Francis doing his thing are great conditions to be working under.

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The most crucial thing, as I see it, is lifting the travel ban. Americans have no idea who Cuba is. Cuba has no idea who we are. It’s important we meet each other. It’s our time.

-December 20, 2014

A Letter to Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez

Dear Negro,IMG_7771

After the Vulcan show at the Blue Note, now, almost a month ago, I asked you “If I wrote you a letter about what I was thinking while Vulcan was playing would you read it?” You looked at me with the same earnesty I asked, Yes, you said, yes.

At that champagne and vodka and throbbing explosive flower pussy 3 am moment, everything I had to say was pulsing on the surface of my skin, fresh from the experience of live Vulcan but I was tired and it was loud.

First, know this: in January of 2010 when you came to perform in Cuba, when we saw each other. I was there, as you know, living in a budget hotel in Havana during a cold winter I had not prepared for. The shower in my room only had cold water, and when I went down to the front desk to ask if I could switch rooms, they would accompany me back up to my room, run the shower for like 10 minutes until it got a little less cold, and tell me it was hot.

I was into my 6th month of filming “They Will Be Heard” and trying to adjust to a daily existence of documenting a metal band within the context of not understanding anything. Not just the language, but why things were the way they were. Why cold was hot. Why free was not.

There was also a strange and difficult relationship with Escape, for me, as a first time director who had personal relationships with the band, trying to reconcile what my relationship as someone from a country where not having hot water in the middle of winter was something new.

I’m trying to condense a lot of what I was feeling and experiencing at that time, where general frustration was no longer something I experienced every now and then and could step back from, but it became part of my personality, it was how I woke up each morning and greeted the day. Escape could not understand this. They never expected things to get better, so they were never frustrated. I was unable to do that. I always wanted things to be better. For everyone.

On that morning when I met you and Jenny and Josefina at the hotel in Havana, and you were so happy, I realized I had forgotten to smile. And you just being there, arms open, “Traceeeeey!” So much weight was taken from me, I physically felt lighter. Without even knowing you taught me in that moment that it’s almost always in reach to be happy. It’s almost always easier to be happy. And I want you to know how powerful that was, your smile.

On March 18th, 2014, in NYC, I arrived with Jenny and Edgar at The Blue Note, and we were sat in an awkward spot until Jenny recognized a friend and who invited us to join them. I was sat up front, almost up against the stage. I had my camera, but when you shoot you immediately become an observer, a witness. I made the choice to become a participant in the performance, to allow myself to become mesmerized by each moment and not step outside what was happening. Yet each piece was compelling me to act, to be, to exist. I could not stop my mind from racing, trying to explain this music, these songs to someone else, what would I say? Over and over again, I thought, How did they know to get together and do that? Hearing Vulcan is hearing a battle cry, a spiritual, a message from our ancestors, something holy and sacrosanct, a ritual that involves fire and rebirth.

I woke up this morning to find the Blood Moon tonight. It was 3 am, and I didn’t want to roam the city streets by myself with my camera so I jumped into a taxi with an Egyptian taxi driver, Hamada. We drove around Jersey City, trying to find the light, trying to find the moon. The moon was no where to be found. “Maybe you come back earlier tomorrow night and you find it,” he told me. I got home and put on some coffee, thinking I would try again. But this letter was fighting me. It was insisting I let you know this now.

In my life, I decide to do something and I do it. This documentary, like everything Cuban, is unnecessarily complicated and taking too long.

When I began making “They Will Be Heard,” I believed with all my heart it would be completed and be successful. That I would be completed and successful. That if I followed my dream and was determined and committed that the “right people would show up at the right time.” That the “universe would conspire to help me.” I have learned, trying to finish this film, that belief and universe and the secret is all bullshit. The “law of attraction” works for people who are well connected or have awesome hair. I’ve learned over the last four years, not without a great deal of pain and sadness, which I suppose accompanies every transformation, that there is no special force outside of us, no level of energy that brings us material well being, no special thinking that brings us success. What there is, happily, is people. What’s made the last four years tolerable is the incredible support of my friends and family.

The best thing about the last four years is that it’s over and I heard the performance of Vulcan as both a goodbye to that era in my life and a hello to what is about to come. The music that isn’t a magic coming out of thin air, but a magic coming from the hearts and blood life and fingers and breath of who we all are. Vulcan isn’t born from a mystery, it is the story of what we know to be true, scientific and full of faith.

There was a Vulcan piece, in the beginning, that reminded me so much of when I was 8 years old. Our living room was small, there was a record player and the speakers were placed on top and below the record player. During the day, when my mother didn’t work, she would play Olivia Newton John or Linda Ronstadt or the soundtrack to Star Wars and she had a million things to do. I would grab on to her legs like they were an old lover and she would let me dance there. Listening to Vulcan at the Blue Note that night brought me exactly there. To where I knew I was safe, to where I was hearing what I was ready for, but there, in the back of my dreams, the sounds of what was to come. That is Vulcan.

Love you always,
Tracey

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Rock UnBlocked

Like most great revolutions, UnBlock the Rock (UBTR) was conceived in a kitchen by two women. A logo was designed, letters were written, phone calls were made, beers were bought and held up ceremoniously before being joyfully consumed. It was determined that we would bring metal band Escape from Cuba to the United States for the first Cuban metal concert on US soil.

Jennifer Hernandez and I, the women in that kitchen on a chilly morning in February of 2011, initially met in 2007, on a sweltering August afternoon in the apartment of Alejandro Padron, the drummer of Escape.

“Vamos hacer vecinos,” she told me, “We’re going to be neighbors.” She was referring to the fact that her father, world famous percussionist Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez lived in NJ, and she was in the process immigrating there, as part of a policy of family reunification. I thought she said something about a piscina, or a pool. Elated I replied, “Oh! Que rico!”

 

That fateful August, I was in Havana to photograph Escape. The month before, I was documenting a trip through the US with Pastors for Peace (PfP), an activist caravan comprised of donated school buses, stopping in cities all over the US, collecting medical equipment and educational things to bring to Cuba, openly challenging the US imposed travel ban. The travel ban, imposed in 1963, prohibits Americans from spending money in Cuba and receiving gifts from Cubans while there. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, (OFAC), considers the purchase of a ticket to Cuba spending money. Americans can travel to Cuba with a special license for what may be considered journalistic or religious reasons. In a move toward greater democracy, the Obama administration recently began to allow Americans to travel on chartered tours, controlling how you travel and who you talk to.

I would like to say here that I’ve traveled freely to many places with histories of human rights abuses and terrible leaders, like Cambodia and South Africa and Newark, NJ, without the hindrance of US government sanctions.

PfP organizes caravans against the travel ban, and has done so faithfully for the last 24 years. I was proud to be a part of a resistance movement that challenged a segregationalist, unevolved policy. However, even if I was on the bus, I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon that Cuba was the best place in the world ever.

In American mainstream media, Cuba is a prison/paradise, Fidel is a saint/the devil. There is only this tired dialogue of left and right, volleying back and forth frozen in history. In major publications, documentaries, literature this is the range of expression, the only 2 options to understand Cuba-US relations, presented as democratic debate.

The US provokes Cuba and thrives on this drama, causing crisis on the island all the time, their actions making the Cuban government’s grasp on their people tighter. The US portrays itself in American media as victorious, benevolent, and magnanimous by offering Cubans immigration policies ensuring that just by arriving, (unlike Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans or Guatamalans, Belgians, Japonese, etc. etc.) Cubans are eligible for citizenship within a year.

Any real objective presentation of truth regarding Cuba is lost in the narrative that is necessary for both governments to perpetuate their policies. Where is their justification for either policy, US or Cuban, when it is widely reported that in a friendship that was born in mutual illegality, two women made a decision while eating breakfast on a chilly February morning to proceed according to love and friendship? That, one born in Cuba, and one born in NJ, under systems that both propagated ill will towards the other’s government, would come together, and with no money or resources, fight to bring a heavy metal band from Havana to the United States. And that people would join them. Lots of people. Good looking, interesting, talented people. What political purpose does that serve?

When I first met Escape in the summer of 2007, I was a recovering leftist. I was emerging from an immersion in Marxist politics that stifled debate and made everything relatively unfun. I was introduced to the members of Escape, and to the burgeoning metal movement in Havana when Patio Maria (Cuba’s CBGB’s) was shut down and Maxim Rock had not yet opened up. I spent a month photographing Escape, and our friendship, illegal in two countries, would prevail, with limited contact for the next 2 years.

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When you arrive in Cuba, you must stay in a state sanctioned hotel or pension. To live with a Cuban, if you are a foreigner, you must obtain what is referred to as “A Declaration of Friendship”. To prove you are friends, you cannot go to the immigration office and say, “Alejandro’s father makes me coffee every morning”, or “Justo’s mom taught me how to make Pan de Rico” or “Yando said something funny and it gave me great joy.” This is not sufficient proof of friendship. The presentation of photographs, smiles wide and gleaming do not qualify.

Jenny and I applied for a “Declaration of Friendship” in 2009 when I returned to Havana to shoot “They Will Be Heard”, a documentary about Escape. At the immigration office in Havana, after her address and personal information were dutifully written down and recorded, surely to be presented to the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, to ensure I did not live in her home, it was declared we were not friends enough.

So this is what we did.

We campaigned for Cuban metal for the last 2 years. We used FaceBook. Twitter. YouTube and Vimeo. And you know what? The right people showed up at exactly the right time. The ultimate rock and roll liberator, Monica Hampton, producer of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”, brought in legendary guitar player Alex Skolnick of Testament and both organized tirelessly without any compensation. Local bands like Darkness Descends and BroHammer and Iratetion played benefits to raise money. Awesome bartenders hooked us up with metalicious venues like Three of Cups to host cocktail contests. We ROCKUPIED City Hall in Jersey City. Tomato and Karina and Faisal and Alex and Dean and Ismael learned “Simbolos de Libertad” by Escape (Faisal learned spanish!) and they rocked the shit out of it in City Hall, where all the photography of the band was hung. (I was told months later by someone who attended, “It was LOUD! You could hear it from blocks away.”)

 

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UnBlock the Rock with members of Alex Skolnick, Faisal Talal, Monica Hampton, members of Iratetion and Darkness Descends, and Firehaze.

 

Elan Trybuch appeared at a bar stool next to me one night and graciously and amazingly designed our beautiful website. (Look at it, here! www.unblocktherock.com) David Peisner, the author of The Red Menace, an article about Cuban metal in Spin, solicited great tracks for our benefit CD, “The Red Album” and was instrumental in getting visas for Escape to perform at SXSW. Alicia Zertuche performed the herculean feat of organizing frikis, or Cuban metalheads via email, (virtually impossible) and US congressmen to make the visas manifest the week before the SXSW. The Supersuckers, Black Tusk, Eyehategod, and other killer bands donated tracks for “The Red Album” to raise money. Bill Martinez advised. Talented people photographed and shot and edited our amazing propaganda. WSOU joined forces with us. ShitKill and Dave Dreiwitz and FireHaze performed at various venues. All in the name of Cuban metal.

Democracy wants to be born.

UBTR is a new voice, championing those Cubans, true visionaries, who adopted a language of resistance that was born out of the blues and transformed by disgruntled working class kids through out the western hemisphere and translated it into their own, embodying metal riffs with Cuban history and identity so complex that even Alex Skolnick and Chris “Tomato” Harfenist, both accomplished musicians, had a hard time mastering the rhythm of “Simbolos de Libertad.”

 

Listen: The US erected a fake wall in the middle of the ocean in 1963, the Cubans retaliated with their own fake wall banning The Beatles (!) Cubans who heard Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” in 1986 didn’t necessarily speak English but they understood completely the language of rebellion. Young Cubans start to emulate and adopt and transform metal culture in the mid ’80s and early 90’s when Brothers to the Rescue was shot down over Havana and Bill Clinton signed the Helms Burton Act tightening the embargo, the USSR falls and the Special Period ensues. The walls grow taller and that infamous 90 mile stretch of Atlantic Ocean becomes a vast graveyard where most likely, the original sound engineer for Escape, Bryant Rodriguez was buried a year ago when he tried to take advantage of America’s favorable immigration policies.

On March 10th, 2013, Jenny and I took a taxi to LaGuardia airport to fly into Miami and greet Escape. It’s hard to convey the sensation of walking in communion with your dreams.  Even now, reflecting on seeing Escape walk through those doors into the Miami airport, my skin is jumping, I feel electric. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for 3 years,” I told Yando, lead singer of Escape. “Tracey, I’ve been waiting for this moment for 28 years,” he replied.

What a beautiful thing we all did.

 

My hope is that Obama, in his last term, will just lift the blockade altogether. If the US isn’t provoking Cuba, the Cuban government has no pretense to demand Declarations of Friendship, they have no enemy to protect the revolution from.

As of now, Escape, along with Ancestor and Agonizer, is in Miami, doing what they have always dreamed of doing, performing live in front of new audiences. UBTR is in the process of bringing them to NYC before the band, all or some, return to Havana. Alejandro called me yesterday about performing in NYC, “Is it possible?” he asked, then, immediately, responding to his own question “Of course, everything is possible!”

Of course everything is possible. It’s our time.

 

Tracey Noelle Luz

March 31, 2013

 

 

Communism and the Art of Detachment

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.

Statement for Briant, Rockupation of City Hall, June 1, 2012

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.

http://www.theywillbeheard.com

 

 

Cuba, Heavy Metal and Pope Benedict

Benedict said the “ambition and selfishness of certain powers” took “little account of the true good of individuals and families,” and added that it was impossible to “continue in the same cultural and moral direction which has caused the painful situation that many suffer.” (Wall Street Journal, on the Pope arriving in Cuba)

As the director of They Will Be Heard, and the Executive Director of UnBlock the Rock, I read these words and felt compelled to share my thoughts regarding Cuban heavy metal band Escape and the Cuban heavy metal movement in general.

Alejandro Padron, practice at Casa de Cultura
Alejandro Padron, practice at Casa de Cultura

I don’t think it can be stated clearly enough that the US imposed blockade against Cuba and the internal Cuban blockade against anything “that smelled American” effectively segregated two nations of people for the last 62 years.

 When heavy metal arrived on the island, and was warmly received circa 1986, it signified a population of Cubans who were hearing and understanding and embracing the language of resistance and rebellion young Americans had the privilege of accessing at our local record store or recording on to cassettes from the radio, or purchasing from those record clubs where you got 10 albums for a penny, or MTV, or U68 so easily.

It signified a major breakthrough between two communities who were deliberately politically and culturally isolated from each other. Beyond enjoying heavy metal, young Cubans, continued against all odds, to emulate heavy metal, to create and develop heavy metal, putting themselves under great scrutiny of the Cuban government, with little or no interaction, much less support of the international metal community, with the exception of Sepultura and Audio Slave performing in Havana.“

They Will Be Heard” is testimony from those courageous Cubans who have been fighting for their dreams for the last 10 years, who have been fighting to be heard.

Escape with John Lennon in Havana.
Escape with John Lennon in Havana.

UnBlock the Rock is our movement to bring Cuban metal band Escape here to perform with their head banging neighbors in the United States.

While I was filming in Cuba, I had the great honor to be there when Jennifer Hernandez’s father, El Negro Hernandez, came to perform at the Gran Teatro. When asked, “What do you think about this type of cultural exchange,” Negro, who defected from Cuba in 1989, replied, “The reason Cuban musicians and American musicians don’t perform together has nothing to do with musicians. We want to be together.”

For all of us, music is the way we externalize how we feel. It is the loudness of our love, the silence of our sorrow. It’s time for Cuban musicians and American musicians to be together. It’s our time.

For more information, contact traceynoelleluz@gmail.com or             (973) 868-6393.

 

 

Socialism is Lame, Capitalism Sucks

*Originally written in January 2012.

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.

 

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

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.

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

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.

First day meeting Escape in 2007. Cayo Oeste, Havana
First day meeting Escape in 2007. Cayo Oeste, Havana

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.

Jennifer Hernandez at the Atelier, 8/2007
Jennifer Hernandez at the Atelier, 8/2007

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.

Alejandro and his son Jorgito.
Alejandro and his son Jorgito.

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.

Move over. It’s our time.

 www.theywillbeheard.com