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!

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.

 

 

It Explodes, An Open Letter to My Students at Thirteenth Avenue

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Flanders – Havana Connection

Growing up in Flanders, NJ in the 1980’s was a lot like living in Cuba in the first decade of the new millennium. In both epochs of my life, my friends and I ate copious amounts of pizza. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. There was no internet, and no one had cell phones. Our pot was lame. We finagled beer and vodka and drank on the streets. We were made stronger by the Power of Metal. When I write that, it is said like thunder and each syllable is very important. The Power of Metal.

Except, in the 80’s, in Flanders, I was a very young teenager. I had no control over my circumstances. At the age of 11, my father would finally leave, which was a good thing because he took his out of control temper with him. The judge awarded custody to my mother, forcing my father to contribute the legal equivalent of pitching in here and there. We were struggling financially, and the absence of a father, not necessarily mine, made adolescence even more difficult. Heavy metal was a natural outlet. Metal united me with all the other misfits of society, and we loved the Misfits. The voice of my frustration against the injustice of my circumstances, against the suffocating feeling of adolescence, of being controlled by adults who stood in the way of my fierce determination to be self destructive, was heard through Metallica, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Testament, Anthrax.

 

To live in Cuba means to be isolated from the world. Kind of like living in Flanders in the 80’s. There are three television channels that show Friends, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls, courtesy of the state. There are three newspapers. To have access to internet, you must have permission from the government. Most Cubans do not have access to the internet.

Living in Cuba is the eternal suffocating feeling of adolescence, even when you’re a grown up. You have no control over your external circumstances. You live with your parents. In most cases, your bedroom, when you have one, the guitar player Yanio does not, bears the same decorating savvy as it did when I ripped my first centerfold out of Circus Magazine.

In Flanders, in the 80’s, when I lived with my mother, and I was angry, pictures from metal magazines, right angle to right angle, joined forces to create a motley montage of hair and heavy metal hands. Ratt, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Queensryche, with an occasional intruder like Chief Seattle because he was also righteous and had long hair. Alejandro,the drummer of Escape, has this wall, with Scarlett Johansen looking completely comfortable out of place because she knew, if given the chance, that Slipknot and Megadeath would love to be her boyfriend. She had no fear on the wall of metal.

I ripped down my photos when I became more sophisticated and slightly gothy and punk rocky and wrote poetry like most ugly girls in high school. My hair was thankful. So was my vagina, in lieu of skin tight jeans, I started wearing loose anti-objectification garb. But, I had options. There were choices. Even in culturally vapid Flanders, I could land my hands on DK and Black Flag and go through my whole Sid and Nancy worship phase. (I kid you not, I saw that movie no less than 20 times and still confuse Sid Vicious with Gary Oldman. Watching JFK was a complete mind fuck.)

Metal came to the island poco a poco after the ban against John Lennon was lifted in 1966, after the first wave of rock music came to Cuba. Cubans who had the opportunity to travel to Germany or other countries of the USSR came back toting Metallica and Judas Priest. Metal did not come to Cuba from the US, as the majority of US tourists go to see old cars and marvel at the musicians in the square who play Guantanamera or Hotel California. The activists who travel there on some humanitarian mission or another tend to cling to the hip hop movement, also state controlled, extolling Martin Luther King who can’t get any peace where ever he is trying to rest, since Cubans aren’t permitted in hotels, nor or they permitted to demonstrate against these segregationist policies. Todavia.

Metal is an expression of individual liberty, explosive and furious, passionate. For these Cubans, born into the successes of the revolution and the suffering of the Special Period, they are finding their own way, despite all odds, to define who they are.

 

 

In Cuba, this is especially difficult. In Cuba, this is especially courageous. Access to instruments, practice space, electricity, social acceptance, accessories, is difficult. You are not permitted to speak freely. Escape, the band featured in this documentary, shouts, growls, screams what they feel, explosively, forcing people to listen.

Metal, the white, working class equivalent of hip hop, the trumpet, I mean electric guitar, for collective frustrations, was identified with western values and ideals by the Cuban government and seen as contraband. Cuban metalheads, frikis, were arrested for having long hair only 15 years ago. Patio Maria, Havana’s equivalent of CBGB’s, gave a home to those early bands, Zeus, Agonizer, Escape, and Hipnosis and a birthplace for metal until it was shut down in 2000.

What is so ironic, so fucking ironic, about that, is that metal led me down the path to my commitment to social and political justice. I found a deep correlation in the injustice of my parent’s relationship, the subsequent lousy divorce settlement, our financial struggle, in the themes explored in my favorite metal songs. And I loved Stephen King. (See Among the Living) I emphasized with the plight of native americans (Chief Seattle, again, righteous and long hair. The first metal head ever! Run to the HIlls, brothers!) I was concerned about the nature of good and evil, I also wanted to bring the noise. Metal, when you scratch the surface, is against the status quo. I wanted to rock and roll all night, and party every day. That first act of resistance, of realizing you had choices, you didn’t have to participate in the capitalist 80’s culture of cocaine and bad hair, yes, Cuba, the worst tenets of capitalism, were born into the consciousness through metal.

It was through metal, and punk, and hip hop, through Dee Snider and John Denver and NWA, that I became politicized and took my first steps towards becoming anti -imperialist. It was because of the PMRC (Parent’s Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore) and “Tales of the Witch Trials”, cassettes by Jello Biafra on his political views and why pot was really illegal, it was because of “Injustice for All”, that I became a “revolutionary” in college. It was really because my sister bought “Back in Black” on vinyl when I was 11 that I would arrive with hungry eyes and narrow perspective in Havana 15 years later. To find other metal heads, despondent and discouraged by their own society’s shortcomings, just like me. Just like me.

Two years ago, visionary and metalhead, Yuri Max Avila rallied the Cuban government for support, and Maxim Rock, the premiere (and only!) metal venue was born in Havana. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Escape, Combat Noise, Zeus, Agonizer, or Hipnosis play. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the club closes and frikis trudge on down to the park at G and 23rd. Five or 6 people contribute towards purchasing a bottle of vodka and the night begins. Again. The same way it did the night before. A week before. Years ago.

And the Award Goes to…

A documentary film maker records the present to present the past in the future. We are the Billy Pilgrims of film making. Our schizophrenia doesn’t become apparent until the editing process, if at all.

When I set out to document Cuban heavy metal band Escape, I had every intention of approaching the film with the sterility of a German dental assistant. I wasn’t going to chug vodka with the band, for example. I certainly wasn’t going to sleep with anyone. I was going to love them from afar, like a sick relative in the hospital you don’t want to touch. I would admire, observe, cringe, document.

But, I do not have the clinical approach of a German. I possess more the unbounded love of a German Shepard. Let’s be friends, let’s be friends, let’s be friends. It’s not entirely my lack of discipline, the band was really, if I have one memory, the band was really giving to me. So, when a handful of people who have nothing except but an Olympic sense of sharing are constantly giving to you, any objective purpose is lost between “Muchas gracias!” and “Ay! Que bueno!”

And so Escape and I were friends for 9 long months. This is tremendous and rare. Americans are not legally allowed to travel to Cuba. Once they arrive, the Cuban government does not allow Americans to live with Cubans. Often, Cubans and Americans fall in love. There are countless stories of how these predestined love affairs crumble once somebody gets a green card. But true international love? Tremendous and rare.

After you shoot a documentary, you have to edit it. I am trying to “manifest” the perfect editor by abandoning responsibility. I imagine leaving hard drives on someone’s doorstep wrapped in a blanket with a note. It’s a horrendous act, and even the kindest, shyest young editors will confront you with your actions. You need to look at the footage too, they say. It’s your movie.

So you look at the footage. It’s an interview with the guitar player who came with you to every bureaucratic ordeal possible. Whose mother, struck with Lupus and missing one leg, travels with you to immigration so you can live at their house legally. Everything he says is amazing. While you’re editing, you try to email someone in Cuba to pass along a message. “Oh, I love you all so much, not a day passes where I am not thinking of you.” Instead of returning to edit, you bask in the depth of your love, “It’s amazing I can feel this much! My heart has no limits!” Maybe you go clear your head and watch Law and Order, lost in the wonderment of it all.

So you look at the footage again. It’s another interview with a friki you mistook for the man of your dreams, your soul mate, after you decided to never sleep together again. What a douche bag. Everything he says is stupid. You check your email to see if he sent you an apology yet, and he has not. Maybe you go ahead and watch Law and Order, fuming in the unfairness of it all.

The first months of editing were like that for me. Great Adventure could not conceive of dipping and rising, careening, turning twisting, upside downing and right side upping going on in the roller coaster of my psyche. I defied physics. Meanwhile, my life was passing me by. Spring was ending, but my May was still January. Since July of 2009 and March of 2010, Mexico was my home, my sanctuary when my Cuban visas ran out. I was anticipating another trip. There was no trip to Mexico. There was no more life savings. Only passionate cover letters about working in restaurants. In Jersey City, for better, for worse.

Thankfully, in June, I flew to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. I was reminded that an entire world existed outside of my computer screen. My friend got married, and I took pictures. Freezing moments in time that she had anticipated for the last 6 months, so she too could travel back in time and remember cake and kindness and cousins.

I returned, and my editor and I, one of the best people possible I could have expected to assist me, Anna, finished our grant proposal for Sundance. We took a period of 9 months and made it 26 minutes and 37 seconds in 6 weeks. We are amazing.

In my time travel, I write letters to the future. One, in particular, I post it future Facebook, announcing a huge amount of money that we have procured for the film. The letter is poetic, touching. Many people “like” this post.

I am so happy to have this grant done, I see it as the foundation of our fundraising to procur money, but I realize that I wouldn’t have been able to be here, in this moment, without some very important people. Whether or not we are successful with this particular grant, I am sure we will be successful with many of our other fundraising efforts and I want to say thank you now, because it’s not the money so much. The money is awesome, and necessary, like water, but it is the support of everyone who has allowed me, in the worst economy since the depression, to leave my stupid job and do whatever I want, to make a movie about a Cuban heavy metal band called Escape.

I am trying to stick to a chronological order, so nobody gets jealous of when they were thanked, but please forgive me if you are further down on the list than you think you should be. Thank you to the gorgeous people at 248 who encouraged me to make this decision. Thank you Aki for my beautiful amazing camera necklace and all your encouraging words! Thank you Dan Stafford for helping me pack. Thank you Ms. Macaroni and Danikins and Nikki for storing all my stuff for me. Thank you Michael Colluci for driving me to my sister’s house and sending me a cable one year ago. Thank you Judie for changing my ticket so we could spend extra time together before I left. Thank you Pat Lambe for driving me to the airport one year ago to begin this journey. Thank you High Mountain Mama’s for all your support while I was away. Thank you Nikki for sending me green stuff so I could survive. Thank you so much Escape, but especially Jenny for being my best friend and sister while I was trying to find my way. Thank you so much Judie for flying me to Puerta Vallarta! And thank you Judie and Cliff for letting me live at your house, and for letting me live in your house when it was stocked with Whole Foods! Thank you Esteban for letting me stay in your beautiful home and being my mentor. Thank you Anjelika for buying me and Jenny my first dinner in New York after almost a year. Thank you Sinem for letting me live in your living room while I collected my thoughts and watched Law and Order basking in the insanity of it all. Thank you Nikki and Drew for amazing dinner when I got back. Thank you Negro for all your help and support. Thank you Jen for correcting my submission. Thank you LE for always keeping me in the back of your mind. Thank you Darren for finding someone to brew Escape Beer for a fundraiser and thanks to Marty, the brew guy. Thank you Chiqui for the tattoo time and the Patio Maria video and for being pretty much the reason I was able to make this film. Thank you Alioth for letting me live on your couch. Thank you Kate for help with my free money! Suzy, thank you for website advice. Thank you Diana for being an amazing roommate and friend. Thank you Eric for lending me a camera so I can breathe. Thank you Anna for not killing me. Thank you Mom. Of course. For everything.