Havana Does Not Believe in Tears

Prize-winning author Roberto Uria landed in hot water in Cuba. Granted refugee status in the U.S., he must now sink or swim.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in East Hialeah, a rooster crows in a shady, fenced-in yard located a few blocks from LeJeune Road. Across the street, in the carport of a pink stucco house, sits a truck emblazoned with a sign that reads "Efrain Box Lunch." Not far away is a 1981 Chevette painted a color that its owner, Roberto Uria, delightedly describes as "cockroach brown."

Like other homes in the neighborhood, the pink stucco number has no doorbell. A visitor raps on a barred window, and Roberto Uria comes quickly to the door, a slim man in his mid-thirties with salt-and-pepper hair. He wears blue Dockers shorts, a yellow Izod-style shirt, and deck shoes. Today, Uria is alone in the house, owned by two of his cousins. He has lived here with the owners plus two other cousins since he arrived in Miami from Cuba (after a monthlong stay in, of all places, Las Vegas) five months ago. Five small, short-haired dogs with puggish faces lie together on the bed in the master bedroom, while two larger, shaggier dogs are confined to the patio in the back yard.

Uria sleeps in an area that once served as a second kitchen. A pair of beige Levi's and two pressed oxford-cloth shirts hang from a handle on the stove. His black backpack sits in the aluminum sink, near the texts he uses for the two English classes he's taking at Miami-Dade Community College. Neat stacks of books and papers cover the counter: novels in Spanish, as well as several manuscripts of his own short stories, essays, and fables. In a bureau drawer, clear plastic bags protect the certificates for awards he won in short-story competitions in Cuba, back when he was still a student at the University of Havana. Here, too, are his immigration records, granting him status as a political refugee, and, at the bottom of the pile, the court papers from his trial in Cuba, something he describes as being "like a story by Milan Kundera."

In 1991, Uria sued the Cuban Ministry of Culture after he was fired from his job as a writer and editor at Casa de las Americas magazine for what ministry officials cited as "offenses against the Socialist moral" and "political and ideological disobedience." The charges were brought against him after a jester's hat was superimposed on a photograph of well-known magazine journalist Luis Sexto in an issue of the bimonthly Casa de las Americas. Sexto complained to the Secretary of Ideology, and, as a result, state security agents from the Ministry of the Interior questioned the magazine's four full-time staffers. Eventually all four were fired. Uria was branded untrustworthy. According to the written order calling for his dismissal, his "antecedents demonstrated serious ideological problems." Although he maintained he had no part in the practical joke and appealed his firing (the only staff member to do so), Uria would not be recommended for further employment in the cultural field.

A month later, Uria's case was tried by a military judge and a jury of three women, who, he says, had a tendency to fall asleep during his lawyer's arguments. He lost.

In 1987 Roberto Uria won first prize in the prestigious 13 de Marzo literary competition for young authors, sponsored by the University of Havana. He received the award -- which commemorates the March 13, 1957, armed student assault on Fulgencio Batista's presidential palace -- for a collection of short stories called ┬ĘPor que Llora Leslie Caron? (Why Does Leslie Caron Cry?). A brief tale that scarcely occupies four typed pages, the title story centers on a young gay man named Francisco. Nicknamed Panchito by his family, and called Panchy ("with a 'y' to make it sexier," Uria writes) by his friends, he chooses to refer to himself as Leslie Caron, noting his "great resemblance" to the impish French actress.

With a dry humor and a fatalist outlook that recalls J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, the story's narrator reflects on his family, his romantic adventures, and his solitude:

"The Meteorological Institute has said that today will be a hot and sunny day," the story begins. "But I got up feeling cold, the kind of cold that starts in your belly, and, with a fierce wind and a horrifying swell, runs through your body. I'm almost rainy. Wintery."

A bittersweet, stream-of-consciousness ramble, "Leslie Caron" describes Francisco's hanging out at bus stops, parks, stores, markets, and movie lines. He points out that he has "never had a public bath in my curriculum. I'm still too much of a hypochondriac and romantic." His favorite place is the beach -- what he terms "the magic island of handsome men" -- where he's approached by "men of every shape and color."

While Francisco at first characterizes his nuclear family as almost perfect, he soon reveals the mundane, dysfunctional truth about his womanizing father, his long-suffering mother, and his sister "who married a guy because he has a mansion in Miramar, and a car, and a VCR, and a long et cetera."

At the end of the story, Uria's sassy young narrator looks into the future and sees himself as a wrinkled, forgotten hag. "And if someone asks, 'Why does Leslie Caron cry,'" he asks in the narrative's last line, "I'd just reply, 'Because life sucks.'"

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