Carlos Cruz's Second Act

In his native Cuba he was a film star. Here in the States he's just another car salesman with a dream.

At a crucial moment in the Cuban movie Alicia in the Land of Wonders, a communist government bureaucrat looks into the camera and shouts at the top of his lungs: "¡Yo soy un hijo de puta!" ("I'm a son of a bitch!")

The 1991 film, a surreal, nightmarish satire of Cuban revolutionary society, shocked the crowd at a Berlin film festival, where it premiered. Neither the audience nor the rest of the world was accustomed to such self-criticism from the cultural apparatus of Fidel Castro's Cuba. In some corners of the island's artistic community, the movie raised hopes for a more critical Cuban cinema, one that might respond to the tough times after the end of Soviet economic support.

The actor who uttered the hijo de puta line was Carlos Cruz, then 40 years old and a veteran of scores of plays and more than a dozen movies made in Cuba. Trained in classical drama at the nation's most prestigious art schools, Cruz had worked steadily since his early twenties and evolved into a leading actor in Cuban cinema, at times living a much more comfortable life than most people on the island owing to the dollars he earned from coproductions with foreign film companies.

These days Cruz sells Fords and teaches drama while he tries to crank up his acting career
Steve Satterwhite
These days Cruz sells Fords and teaches drama while he tries to crank up his acting career

But for years, he says, he harbored grievances for the Castro government, especially the repression of actors and other artists because they were either homosexual or religious. Some of his friends were intimidated, blacklisted, and at times forced by party apparatchiks to change the form and content of their art. Yet during those years Cruz didn't defect, despite opportunities to do so. He says he hoped he and his friends eventually would be free to represent the reality of Cuba.

Four years after starring in Alicia, Cruz took top billing in another Cuban film that satirized the revolution. In the critically acclaimed Guantanamera, he played a pompous, sometimes brutal bureaucrat. "Guantanamera was important to my career in Cuba, because it was the film that ended my career in Cuba," says the actor during a recent interview in Miami.

Now 51 years old, Cruz finally defected in Miami in September 1999, after the Cuban government granted him permission to collaborate with a New York City theater group. He left behind his mother, whom he says he is trying to bring here. These days he shares a house in Hialeah with an aunt and uncle, and sells cars at Maroone Ford on the Palmetto Expressway, where Cuban customers often recognize him. He also teaches drama at La Academia, a private school in Coral Gables, while trying to resurrect his acting career. Univision gave him one small role in a telenovela last year. He has auditioned, unsuccessfully, for a few commercials. Spanish-language theater opportunities are few in Miami, and it has been slow going.

"When you had the fame I had in Cuba, you can't just take anything," he explains. "You have to choose the right project or projects to begin again." Cruz occasionally gets together with other noted Cuban actors now living in exile, among them Reynaldo Miravalles, Ramoncito Veloz, Orlando Casin, and Gilberto Reyes.

"It isn't easy, because we were all making our livings at different things, not acting, but we try to stay in touch," he says.

Many actors have fled the island in recent years, moving to the United States, for example, or Mexico or Spain. Some have left for political reasons, others because of the dearth of work in an economically ravaged society that cannot sustain a film industry without outside financing. But few were as successful as Cruz. For years the chameleon nature of the acting profession served him well. He played roles not only onstage but off, by keeping quiet about his disillusionment with the government. All the while his career advanced.

But during his final, difficult years on the island, Cruz became increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the regime. The Communist Party eventually accused him of biting the hand that had fed him, and he no longer was allowed to work. Did Carlos Cruz the actor tolerate the Cuban revolution as long as it was going well for him and then abandon the cause? Or was he deceived and persecuted by a revolution in which he says he still believes but which has lost its bearings? Like many Cubans who have lived the revolution on the island, his motivations and attitudes toward the system and its ideals are mixed.

In the Fifties the Salon Rey movie theater in the Havana suburb of Marianao filled its single screen mostly with dubbed and subtitled American films. Every Saturday afternoon at about one o'clock, Evaristo Cruz dropped off his only child, Carlos, who sat through six hours of cartoons and serials, and at least two full-length features, including Disney flicks, science-fiction movies, and Westerns.

"My favorites at first were Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry," says Cruz. "Later I liked Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda very much. Bogart made 77 films, I think, and I've seen most of them. By the time I walked out of that theater every Saturday evening, I was those heroes I'd seen on the screen. I walked like them, felt like them. I knew very, very young that I wanted to be an actor."

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