The Hearts and Souls of Havana

A foreigner explores the city, falls in love, and discovers the limits of hope

Ferrer sang brilliantly about the Cuban condition, frustrations, and lack of possibilities, interspersing his songs with jokes and commentary. He alluded to a "space" that was opening in Cuba, a space of controlled artistic dissidence, and that it should be carefully cultivated and nurtured. The crowd went wild thinking of the possibilities of what this implied. But in broaching that subject, Ferrer had set up the crowd for the most important moment of the concert. "You demand too much from the artist in Cuba," he admonished. "You should do more yourselves." It was the only time the audience applauded uncertainly. But the moment passed and the show concluded to thunderous ovations.

I went on to the next event, just a few blocks away at the open-air amphitheater on the Malec centsn, where a huge throng of people had gathered -- masses of them, mostly young and almost entirely black. Carmen, even in perfect health, would not have wanted to come to this concert. Yaelis and Luis also would have avoided the scene. "Why would I go to a show that I know is going to be one big fight?" Carmen had said earlier that evening. Yaelis had added, "I know these people and I have no interest in them." Luis had simply pointed to his eye and rubbed the skin on his forearm, his often-used hand signal that translated as: "Look out for the blacks."

I had been warned by dozens of friends, dozens of times, to watch my back when I entered marginal Havana neighborhoods, which are heavily black, and discussions about racism were common among all my friends in Cuba. Yes, it exists, but on a level that is more cultural in orientation. Everyone has the same education. Most everyone lives in crowded conditions. And the society is more intermixed than nearly any other on Earth. But a segregation does persist. I, however, made it a point to cross over that cultural frontier on a regular basis. Carmen would tell me that my trusting naivete would get me hurt. It also tended to get me in the door of the places I wanted to see, both personally and professionally.

In contrast to the Pedro Luis Ferrer show, uniformed police were everywhere at this concert. Young officers whose accents revealed their origins as country peasants -- not yet old enough or cynical enough to have developed disdain for the system -- were stationed at the amphitheater entrance and frisked each and every individual, checking IDs, as well.

Anything that looked remotely odd on ID papers was cause for the person to be thrown into a nearby police van. One boy of about fifteen was nabbed because his carnet looked too tattered to be considered decent. Another because he had moved too many times recently and the sheets of paper identifying his residence were covered with abstract scribble. At the time I arrived, the van contained about seven young black men, and it was still early. All of them knew the routine: The neighborhood police station would allow for further review and temporary detention. And the reason cited would be la ley de peligrosidad (the danger law), an all-encompassing and deliberately vague regulation that makes it easy to arrest people for nearly any reason.

Filled to capacity and beyond, the amphitheater was a sea of gyrating hips and bouncing breasts set in motion by a salsa beat that blared nonstop from 9:00 p.m. to midnight. Tecate beer was being sold, in dollars only, to a crowd of about 3000 that collectively must have had no more than $100 to spend. But that didn't matter. Everybody was getting seriously drunk. Rum bought on the street did the job.

The fights began randomly, a volatile mix of undifferentiated anger exacerbated by alcohol. Crowds would part here and there to allow the fighters room, and the fists would fly for a few seconds before the ubiquitous police barged in and viciously broke it up. The leader of the security pack was a huge black man who simply trounced on the culprits and ripped them apart with such force that even aggressive combatants were caught off guard by the scary strength of the monster in front of them. Dragged off by the hair or in a head lock, the offenders wound up in the police van. Women fought each other as often as men. One girl spent the entire night shuffling about on the prowl for girlfriends of one of her boyfriends. When she spotted a target, she would let out a whoop and barge through the crowd until arms, legs, and hair became a blur.

The music was wonderful.
I woke up the next morning before Carmen, Yaelis, and Luis, but after Carmen's mother, who asked, "Still alive?"

"It was a great night," I replied. She smiled knowingly, confirmed in her belief that I was truly odd, beyond understanding.

Carmen, on the other hand, did understand my strange, rather esoteric perceptions of the world around me, even though she had only shared a few of the experiences that had formulated them. She had once written me, "I think that in the future I will see you, stripped bare, walking freely through these streets of Havana that we rediscovered together, or I will simply imagine you running your best path through the world."

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