But Will It Play in Peoria?

Is Willy Chirino's new video too controversial for local audiences? Nobody seems more worried than Willy Chirino.

For Rios, the most controversial scene occurs when Chirino is sitting at a table with a Cuban soldier and the two men clasp hands. Chirino describes the moment as an arm-wrestling competition. "It could be," responds Rios. "But because art is ambiguous, it also could be interpreted that he's giving the guy a hand to help him out of his problems." Rios believes Chirino should allow the video to be released and let viewers decide for themselves.

Jose Basulto, who heads Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), a volunteer group of pilots who scan the Florida Straits in search of stray rafts, was shown the video by Chirino and he advised the singer to shelve it. Basulto believes ambiguity could be dangerously exploited. "Willy Chirino is highly respected by the Cuban people," he explains. "There are many efforts by the Cuban government to distort the figure of Willy Chirino, and this tape might help create some confusion."

For the moment, the person most confused is Ernesto Fundora, the Cuban exile who directed the clip. (Fundora, who is living in Mexico, did not accompany the documentary team to Cuba.) "I couldn't make a tragic video about this song," Fundora asserts. "While the text condemns the problem of prostitution, musically the song is very happy, very upbeat. Salsa music is inherently happy. It's very hard to make a requiem with such music."

The 28-year-old filmmaker left the island in 1993, after spending three years making independent videos in Cuba. While still in Cuba, Fundora made music videos for rock singers Carlos Varela and Santiago Feliu, as well as salsa artist Issac Delgado. Since moving to Mexico, he has made videos for the rock group Mana; most recently he directed "No Se Parece a Nada" for exiled Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez.

"I don't criticize Willy Chirino," comments Fundora. "Willy Chirino is familiar with the way things work in Miami, and if he decided this, then he must have solid reasons. The same goes for Sony Discos," he adds, in reference to the Miami-based division of the Sony Corporation that commissioned the video.

"There's a joke about Cuba that I think explains everything: 'Why are Cubans like performing dolphins? Because we're up to our necks in water and we're still fooling around,'" the filmmaker goes on. "People in Miami don't want to accept that. It's true that the situation in Cuba is critical, that it's very hard. But people continue to laugh at themselves, and they keep dancing because it's their true nature."

By repeatedly using images of the Cuban flag, Fundora says, he sought to communicate the idea that the nation as a whole has been forced to prostitute itself because of the Cuban government's failure to adequately address economic problems.

"I think you have to make a clear distinction between the Cuban government and the Cuban people," Fundora emphasizes. "It's one thing to condemn the government of Fidel Castro and another to celebrate Cuban culture. Willy Chirino is just like any other Cuban, and if he appears astonished or happy to be back in Havana in the video, it's the astonishment or happiness of anyone who returns to his homeland."

Jose Antonio Evora, a Cuban writer and film critic who moved to Miami in 1994 after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, commented after viewing the video that its most receptive audience would be Cubans who live on the island. Ironically, he noted, the Cuban government would probably ban its showing because the images of young prostitutes cut too close to home.

"Those people in Miami who want to censor this clip lack real-life experience in Cuba," Evora observes. "If you lived in Cuba and someone in your family, or someone you knew, was a jinetera, you would be glad that Chirino has made this video. You would feel that Chirino has reached the point of identifying with the conflict experienced by these young girls."

That isn't the conclusion reached by many mature Cuban women in Miami who have been calling Spanish-language radio stations to complain that the song's lyrics are offensive. Jesus Salas, program director for El Nuevo Zol (WXDJ-FM 95), says he received dozens of calls when the station began promoting the song in November. He estimates that about half were from older women who were insulted by the lyrics. After market research showed that the song was unpopular with listeners, the station decided not to continue playing it. "La Jinetera" has not aired on El Nuevo Zol for at least a month and a half, he says. "There was no political reason behind the decision," Salas adds. "A lot of songs don't do well."

News of the song's lackluster performance in the U.S. is disappointing to Fundora. The filmmaker says that Cubans living on the island and in Mexico were so excited about making a video of "La Jinetera" that many volunteered their time and skills for free. "People on the island wanted to help just because they heard the video was for Willy Chirino. There was a really wonderful chemistry surrounding the whole process. There was a positive energy. All of that effort shouldn't be in vain.

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