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 ®Por 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.'"

Uria writes with a streetwise style that sounds nothing like the careful Castilian he speaks while discussing his work over lunch in a Bayside restaurant on a busy weekday afternoon. The conversational tone of his story brings validity to a character that the author says is a composite of people he often observed in Havana.

"I was influenced by the abundance of this type of person in Cuban society and especially in Havana," Uria recalls as he carefully approaches a steaming bowl of French onion soup, a dish he has never even seen before, much less eaten. "It was contradictory and interesting to me that such a macho culture produces the great number of gays that it does. The Cuban machismo is really more theatrical than it is real. Machismo is a great Cuban myth, and one that the government tries to promote. It's a very phallocentric culture. It's as if the phallus were the center of virility, of courage, of valor, of everything that creates this supposedly great macho. But he's not so macho and he's not so grand."

In reality, Uria explains, diverse sexual postures and practices have actually served as an anecdote to the rigid dogma of revolutionary Cuba. "In Cuba, sex in all of its manifestations ends up being a way to confront the regime, to reaffirm life, to look for the pleasure and the humor in things -- the things that the dictatorship has taken away," he notes. "You can define your personal identity through your sexual identity. You can't leave the country, you can't live as you like, you can't have the job that you want, but you can sleep with whoever you feel like sleeping with. With so much repression, so much misery, it's a way that you can feel better about yourself."

Although models for his narrator in "Leslie Caron" may have been common enough in everyday life, Uria found that they were not represented in contemporary literature published in Cuba. (The late writer Reinaldo Arenas and others had written previously about gay life in Cuba but their work was blatantly censored by the government.) "Until I wrote this story, homosexuals were forgotten in Cuban fiction," contends Uria, who, when asked if he is homosexual, retorts somewhat incredulously, "Are you a mammal?"

According to Cuban literary critic Salvador Redonet Cook, Uria's story "contemporized the theme of homosexuality. [It] reopened the subject." Writing about Uria and "Leslie Caron" in a 1993 issue of the magazine Revolucion y Cultura, Redonet states that, as a result of the story, "being gay now doesn't seem to be a taboo, in literature at least, and everyone wants to have a gay in their story. It's like an axiom, 'You too can have a gay in your book.'"

"®Por que Llora Leslie Caron?" which Uria wrote in 1986 when he was 27 years old, served as a catalyst for a wave of short stories with gay protagonists, including "El Lobo, el Bosque, y el Hombre Nuevo" ("The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man"), upon which the 1993 Academy Award-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) was based. That story's author, Senel Paz, was a member of the committee that awarded Uria the 13 de Marzo prize.

If Uria's story represented a breakthrough among Cuba's literary avant-garde, it was not so well received by the powers that be at the Cuban Ministry of Culture. Although the 13 de Marzo winner's manuscript is supposed to be published in book form, ®Por que Llora Leslie Caron? never was, even though the 13 de Marzo publishing house went so far as to pay Uria for the rights to his work. He says now he was never given an adequate reason why his book went unpublished. "Every time I asked about it, they had a different excuse," sighs the writer. "They kept saying, 'There's no paper,' or, 'It's not good enough to be published.' The contradiction occurs when a jury gives a prize to a book and they say they're going to publish it and they never do. And then they say it's a bad book. If it's so bad, why did they give it the prize?"

Uria believes that "Leslie Caron" and other stories in the collection were ignored because they featured marginal characters or espoused points of view that did not toe the government's party line. "They wouldn't publish my things because they said I had ideological problems," he relates. "I wanted my literature to reflect real life. I didn't invent the problems A the problems are there."

The writer's friend, Carmen Duarte, a Cuban playwright and actress who also now lives in Miami, says that Uria's frustrating situation is not uncommon. "In Cuba censorship is very ambiguous," she explains. "Some people are officially accepted and others are not. They recognize you for your work and then they try to block you, and then sometimes they accept you again. The official reaction to your work can depend on a lot of things. It can depend on international politics, on the image that Cuba is trying to project. It can even depend on if an individual bureaucrat favors you or not."

And yet several of Uria's short stories have been included in anthologies of new Cuban fiction published in Cuba. Here in the U.S., Faber and Faber included one of his stories, "Princess Caucubu Goes Shopping," in the 1992 collection Columbus' Egg: New Latin American Stories on the Conquest, published to jibe with the quincentennial of Columbus's voyage to America.

"®Por que Llora Leslie Caron?" which finally appeared in print in a 1988 issue of the cultural journal Letras Cubanas, garnered an underground following. But when an actor performed it as a one-man play in private homes and in a Havana theater, Uria says the public had a mixed response to the work. "People are always attracted to controversy, so they talked about it," shrugs Uria, who seems a trifle weary of being asked about what he calls "that gay story." "A lot of people liked it, a lot of people didn't like it. Some people couldn't understand the character's situation -- it's about a person in crisis who suddenly sees himself at odds with society and with his family. He stands in front of the mirror and says. 'Who am I? Where am I going? What have I done up to now?'

"Some people have found it tragic, some sad. Others have said that what the character really needs to do is dress up like a woman and march down the street and reaffirm his identity," he says with a laugh. "In the end everyone always writes their own story, no?"

For 35 years, Uria's life story unfolded in Old Havana. Once the city's majestic harborside colonial capital, marked by cathedrals, fortresses, and grand homes -- and later one of the city's major tourist magnets -- the neighborhood has undergone severe social and physical deterioration in the last two decades. Currently a layer of grime covers its labyrinth of historic buildings, which contain crowded encampments and collapsed beams. Residents hang out in groups in front of the area's faaades, or walk up and down the narrow sidewalks.

"Living in Old Havana is not the same as living in Havana," asserts Uria. "Not just from an urban point of view, not just because of its architecture, but from a sociological point of view, too."

Home for Uria was a colonial house near the Plaza del Cristo, the oldest plaza in Havana, where he lived with his mother (a secretary) and his younger sister, who married a police officer and now has a school-age daughter of her own. Uria's parents divorced when he was a child, and afterward he infrequently saw his father, who remarried and had another family.

"Old Havana is a very marginal place," Uria states. "There's a lot of delinquency and a lot of loneliness, too. It has a reputation as a problematic neighborhood -- drugs, guns, prostitution. Living there is an experience that marks you forever, in good ways and largely in bad ways. What I mean is I should have been a delinquent."

Instead he went to the theater. In addition to offering more prurient pleasures, the neighborhood was surrounded by theaters and movie houses that he began to attend by himself when he was nine years old. Books also fascinated him at a young age. In the early years of the revolution, bookstores abounded in downtown Havana, and novels could be had for a few pesos. The budding writer spent hours combing the stacks.

"If you didn't read in Cuba, it was because you didn't want to, not because the books weren't available," Uria says, going on to describe his own book collection -- most of which remains in his mother's house -- of hundreds of volumes by writers such as Cuban patriot Jose Marti, nineteenth-century Cuban author Julian del Casal, persecuted gay Cuban writer Virgilio Pinera, Spaniards Miguel de Unamuno and Federico Garcia Lorca, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Alejo Carpentier, Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Juan Jose Arreola.

But when asked to name his favorite book, Uria immediately mentions The Rubaiyat, a slim volume of epigrammatic quatrains written by Omar Khayyam, the eleventh-century Persian poet and mathematician. It may seem like a strange choice, but there are definite echoes of the symbolic characters and minimalist structure of Khayyam's philosophical parables in Uria's contemporary tales.

"My preoccupation has been a curiosity to discover what's behind people, my neighbors, especially those who are considered marginal," Uria explains. "In a certain way I've also felt like an outcast for philosophical or metaphysical reasons -- in my family, a preference for art and literature was always something a little weird. So you start to feel like an outcast, if you like to read and all that."

Uria found his niche when he entered the University of Havana in 1977. He studied literature and began composing short stories, always writing longhand in pencil, then marking his revisions in ink. He won several prizes in poetry and fiction before receiving the 13 de Marzo award, in the process becoming one of a handful of young authors recognized as leaders in new Cuban fiction.

The mid-Eighties marked a turning point in all of the arts on the island. In fiction changes were brought about by young writers who broke away from the literary precepts previously established under the Castro regime. While the officially sanctioned writers in the Seventies used fiction to create positive role models and put forth the lofty goals of the revolution, this younger generation turned to their grittier everyday reality for inspiration.

One of Uria's stories written during this period takes the reader inside the head of a young man dying in a public hospital, while another reveals the thoughts of a man and a woman preparing for a date in their separate homes. In a third, the writer orchestrates a comedy of errors in which a boy introduces a schoolmate to his parents as his "husband." And in a particularly fanciful tale, Uria turns an elderly mulatto woman's trip to the market into the journey of a Creole princess.

"I write about people with serious conflicts of integration," Uria explains, "be it for reasons that are ideological, sociopolitical, or within the family. This applies to a gay character as much as it does to the defiant character who's been placed in an interrogation room." That last allusion refers to a scene from Uria's "Inf centsrmese por favor," wherein the story's unnamed protagonist is being interviewed for military service. But the subtext touches on other kinds of interrogation. Uria structured the story as a dialogue in which a bureaucrat's voice reels off standard questions about political affiliation, religion, and sexual orientation. He is answered by an interviewee who philosophizes about homeopathic herbs; recites a love poem; remembers a bus ride; ponders the Venus de Milo, el Greco's View of Toledo, and a Bach cantata; and briefly acknowledges his dismal fear.

"The story shows the absurd vision that I have of life," says Uria. "It's an encounter between the tragic and the comic. My perspective of life is that it's not tragic, it's absurd, and the absurd ends up being comic. It's amusing. People laugh about what happens but it's really tragic. Cuba is a country that's absolutely delirious. The absurd is our daily bread."

A prestigious cultural institution in Havana, the Casa de las Americas (House of the Americas) hosts academic conferences and theatrical performances. Additionally, it edits publications to promote the culture of Cuba and that of other Latin American countries. Uria started working at the institution's self-titled magazine in 1988. His job was to write book reviews and informational copy on cultural conferences and prizes. He was not given a byline. "I had a reputation for being difficult, of being critical of the government and the system," Uria recalls, leaning forward in a rocking chair in the spotless living room of his cousins' Hialeah house. "Because of what I wrote, because of what I said, because of what I did or didn't do."

Uria was already considered untrustworthy enough that he had been forbidden by government officials from taking part in the so-called "voluntary jobs" -- actually an obligatory work detail in which Cuban citizens toil in the fields or on construction sites, clean buildings, or build bomb shelters. It didn't help his reputation when on an especially trying day he stood up from his office desk and announced that he was not a communist. "I didn't have a good reputation there," he admits, laughing. "But there was no real excuse to get rid of me until this incident occurred A this absurd incident in which I had no direct participation. It was Kafkaesque."

Uria claims it was his editor, Arturo Arango, who had the idea of putting a fool's cap on a photograph of Luis Sexto, a writer for the newsweekly Bohemia. The two men were known to be feuding, and Sexto had previously criticized Arango in one of his columns. Clowns constituted the graphic theme for the entire May-June 1990 issue of Casa de las Americas. Cesar Ernesto, the magazine's art director, had placed drawings and photographs of clowns on every page, a fact the state security agents did not find amusing when the case was investigated almost a year later. To make matters worse for Uria, he finally had a byline in that issue -- on an article that passionately vindicated the work of gay writer Virgilio Pinera.

"'[Uria demonstrates] hostile conduct toward the principles of the Socialist state,'" Uria pronounces, reading from the edict that ended his livelihood in Cuba. "'We do not recommend him for another job with the Ministry of Culture due to his untrustworthiness.'"

After his appeal failed, he sought out jobs at various publications and institutions but was turned down each time. (Meanwhile, Arango, a high-level party member, was given a prestigious job at another publication.) Uria tried to leave the country, applying for visas to Mexico and Venezuela; he also received invitations to writers' conferences outside of Cuba and won a grant for a six-month writing residency in Ecuador. However, he was not permitted to leave the country.

To make money to buy food, Uria resorted to selling his rations of rum and cigarettes on the black market; he supplemented that meager amount with some financial support from his family. With time on his hands, he began to write essays that analyzed the Cuban government and the contradictions of the Cuban psyche. He also wrote fables, animal stories that were cynical allegories for human behavior. Most of the intellectuals and academics who had courted his friendship when he worked at the magazine would no longer speak to him. He had become an undesirable, and says he was beaten up in public several times.

After Uria spent three years in a kind of limbo, a friend with diplomatic contacts was able to get him an application for refugee status in the United States. (Cuban citizens cannot just walk into the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; instead they must apply for an appointment by mail.) As a last resort, Uria filled out the form. "I made that form a work of art," he remembers, pantomiming how he pressed out the wrinkled application with an iron and carefully composed the answers to each question. "I didn't become a writer in vain."

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., requires that foreign nationals applying for refugee status prove that they are "being persecuted or that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religion, nationality, race, political beliefs, or association with a certain group or class of people." Explains INS spokesman Russ Bergeron, "They have to establish a credible claim that they have been persecuted. That can mean a loss of employment, being deprived of a certain standard of living. They have to show that they've experienced or have reason to believe they will experience persecution that results in an individual being unjustly treated compared to others within that state." (INS statistics show that so far in 1995, 7199 Cubans have been awarded refugee status.)

Uria received a letter from the U.S. government informing him that his application had been accepted for consideration. He put his court records, his stories, his 13 de Marzo award certificate, and other personal papers in a plastic bag and went to the office of the U.S. Interests Section, housed in the old U.S. Embassy building. After his interview with a young American woman, he was accepted for refugee status on August 2, 1994. Three days later, on August 5, the rafter crisis began in earnest, considerably delaying Uria's departure.

Finally he was given a ticket by the U.S. government for a flight scheduled to leave Cuba on April 5, 1995, exactly four years to the day after he was expelled from the Casa de Las Americas. He was being sent to Las Vegas, where he would be resettled under the auspices of the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada refugee program.

On the morning of April 5, he went with his family to the airport, still uncertain whether the Cuban government would allow him to leave. "I said goodbye to my family, but I told them to wait. I didn't know if I was getting on the plane or going to prison. In any case I didn't know if I would ever see them again," he says, tears welling up in his eyes. "If you haven't lived through it, you really can't imagine what it's like. You're at God's mercy."

After an odyssey that took him to airports in Cancun, Miami, and Dallas, Uria finally reached Las Vegas. "I had never been so oversaturated with fatigue and pain A physical and moral pain," he recalls. "I was dizzy for several days, that dizzy sensation of unreality. Well, I arrived in an unreal place."

Uria's case had been referred by the INS to the United States Catholic Conference, which in turn handed it over to Catholic Charities in Las Vegas. "Our goal is to empower and enable refugees to become productive American citizens," says Katherine Haisan, director of resource development and communication at the Nevada agency. A representative of the group was supposed to meet Uria at the airport, but no one showed up. A couple who spoke Spanish, at the airport to meet someone else, agreed to give him a ride to the address written down for him at the U.S. Interests Section office in Havana. Uria found himself in a shabby efficiency in a rooming house in downtown Las Vegas, a place residents commonly refer to as the Cucarachera (the Roach Motel). It was surrounded by a high chainlink fence because of the violence in the neighborhood.

"There were a lot of drugs, shootings, police sirens all the time," Uria notes with a shudder. "It was a nightmare."

"Well, it is probably not an area that the elite would move into," Haisan confirms.

Uria stayed in his room for two days before daring to check out the city. "I spent hours at the supermarket with a dictionary looking at labels," he says. "In the beginning I started to keep a record of all of the absurd things that happened to me. It was like my culture-shock diary. I bought some grapes and started to eat them, but the last time I had eaten grapes, grapes had seeds. So I put the first grape in my mouth and I start chewing and I swallowed it. And I realized that I must have swallowed a seed. So I spent the rest of the time tearing the grapes open and looking for the seeds until it finally dawned on me that maybe there are seedless grapes. My first night in Las Vegas I couldn't take a shower because I couldn't turn on the faucet. Every electrical appliance is new for me A the TV remote control, the gas pumps. I learned that in this country tires have steel belts instead of inner tubes A incredible. And that the movie theaters have a lot of little theaters inside -- in Cuba it's just one big theater and that's it. It was a fascinating new world. I'd see something and say, 'Now what could that be?' Hey, it could be a can of dog food, but for me it was new."

Uria stuck it out in Las Vegas for a little more than a month, then came to Miami in May of this year after his cousins sent him a one-way plane ticket. "This is the best place for a Cuban to come," he says, admiring the avocado tree in his cousins' back yard. "It's not exactly the best place to learn English, but it's the place where you feel the least like a foreigner."

Besides attending his English classes three mornings a week at MDCC's Wolfson Campus, Uria has spent much of his time in Miami looking for a job. He has applied for positions as a bag boy, as a vacuum cleaner salesman, and for a job at the airport A all with no luck. "I may have come on a plane, but people see me as a balsero," he says frowning. Then he goes on to relate a conversation he overheard between two Cuban-American women in which one said to the other, "Don't invite a balsero for dinner. They have old hunger. They eat everything."

Finally, just last week, Uria was offered a job as a clerk in a Miami insurance office. And for the first time he will receive some local recognition for his writing. He has been invited to read his work at the Miami Book Fair International, as part of the Ibero-American Authors Program. "Uria represents the young talent in Cuba that's unknown here and that has had no choice but to emigrate," notes Alejandro Rios, a member of the program's organizing committee. "His inspiration has been Cuban society. Now the drama begins of getting to know another country."

Uria gets up from the rocking chair and goes out into the house's yard. He points out the mango and grapefruit trees that shade the house, then starts to walk down the block. An ice cream truck drives by. Rap music blares from the window of a home with a weight bench in the yard, while salsa music pours from a passing car. He strides by four old men playing dominos on a patio, then continues on, passing a pharmacy, a bakery, the Hialeah Barber Shop, Rene's Unisex Beauty Salon, and a house that sports a cardboard sign advertising pork sandwiches and barbecued chickens for sale.

"It hasn't been great, but I don't regret having experienced all this," Uria muses. "I have a car. I go to class. I've been lucky. There are some great stories to be written in Hialeah.

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