Cuba's Jackie Mason

Alvarez Guedes: A Jewish existentialist philosopher trapped in a Cuban mind

Would he think of me as a sellout? After all, here was a politically conscious comedian who, in the style of Bob Hope and his Vietnam entertainment troupes, had spent two days in 1986 performing at Nicaraguan contra rebel camps and hospitals near the Honduran border.

I introduced myself at the Clasica 92 station, where Alvarez Guedes hosts Aquí Esta Alvarez Quedes. "I've been listening to you since I was a kid," I told him, something he has heard many times before, yet he expressed genuine delight, as if it were fresh.

But soon our conversation took an uneasy turn, when Alvarez Guedes expressed his belief that the media was infiltrated by communists. "Do you read New Times?" I asked him.

"Yes," he replied. "Very carefully."

"What do you think about it?"

"I think it's necessary." We both laughed.

"Vamos a refrescar con un chiste --Let's cool things down with a joke," Adrian Mesa shouted into the microphone, and Alvarez Guedes went on the air.

During another interview I asked Alvarez Guedes if he wanted to return to Cuba. "I would return with Fidel still in power but only upon invitation and with the condition that they didn't censor my show," he said. "But since that's never going to happen...."

Alvarez Guedes has lived more time out of Cuba than in it. Many of his friends from the Latin-American show-biz world have passed away. His estranged sister Eloisa died in Cuba in 1993. The renowned actress was a devout communist who considered those who left the island to be traitors. Eloisa's daughter defected from Cuba ten years ago. She lives in Miami, but, Alvarez Guedes reveals with a slight sadness in his voice, he hasn't been in touch with his niece.

Despite the dark yet subtle melancholy that lies beneath the man who makes everyone else laugh, his eyes light up at the thought that young Cuban Americans like myself have placed him on a pedestal that reminds us of our roots. Recently at the University of Miami's Rathskeller he performed in front of an audience composed of mostly Cuban-American students. Proceeds from the event went to UM's Federation of Cuban Students.

Maybe the best way to sum up what Alvarez Guedes means to the exile community is in an anecdote told by a journalist who tried to interview him a few years ago at the Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho. During the conversation Alvarez Guedes was continually interrupted by friends and strangers who wanted to meet him, shake his hand, or try out the latest joke on him. Then a Cuban mother brought her teenager before him, and as if in the presence of a wise man, she told her son: "This is the man who taught you how to be Cuban." And the boy saluted Alvarez Guedes as one would salute a flag.

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