By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
"I knew it was a risk, but I wanted to pursue my dream in a free country," Gil says.
Seven years later, nothing has turned out as expected. From Cuba, Gorki became an international cause célèbre, admired abroad for attacking the Castros on their home turf. And in Miami, Gil toils in anonymity, working as a busboy on weekends and trying to make it as a Spanish-speaking, foulmouthed, middle-aged punk.
The two are chasing an elusive audience. While Gorki's politics have made him a commodity outside his country, he's been silenced at home, where he hasn't been able to play a show in years. Without a stage, he's just another discontented Habanero counting the days until the old man in charge is dead.
As for Gil, exile suggested possibilities, freedom, esperanza, but immigration has been a double cross. He has learned that all of those Pepsi-Cola, Technicolor promises also come with ugly truths: minimum wage, wounded pride, heartbreak.
Caught in the undertow of exile and home, present and past, it's unclear who'll manage the ultimate goal: making people finally listen to Cuban punk rock.
Gorki and Gil were born the same year, 1969, just a few boroughs apart from each other, and came of age as rock slowly seeped into the island. American and European music was banned, and only traditional national cha-cha and salsa, and later nueva trova or folk, blared from radio and television.
"The government ruled with an iron fist," says Raúl Murciano, a music professor at the University of Miami. "They understood how radical music could be. Anything that looked toward the North was censored. You could be put in jail for owning American records. You knew exactly what you could and couldn't do."
In the mid-'60s, Silvio Rodríguez, the father of nueva trova, was fired from his radio station job for mentioning the Beatles on the air.
"I grew up listening to boleros," Gorki says. "That's one of my earliest musical memories — my mother doing house chores with a bolero playing at full blast."
He and Gil absorbed rock by subterfuge. Friends passed around magazines and bootlegs in one long conga line of contraband, from one street block to the next. "I started doodling AC/DC and ZZ Top pictures in my notebooks even though I'd never heard them, just seen what they looked like," Gorki says. "The first time I got a Led Zeppelin record, I slept with it underneath my pillow. The sound quality was terrible, but I would play it on my mom's old record player over and over."
Punk infiltrated the scene following the fall of the Soviet Union, 20 years after it peaked stateside. Spanish and Canadian tourists smuggled in cassettes and music magazines, and Gil and his friends pored over them the way Kremlinologists once studied May Day photographs. By the early '90s, the country was knee-deep in an economic crisis dubbed "the Special Period," and young people were restless. Some young Cubans even slept with HIV-positive friends or injected themselves with infected needles as a form of protest. Others turned to music, filling abandoned warehouses such as El Patio de María, Havana's CBGB. One heavy metal concert turned into a riot — the mob of long-haired rockeros confronting cops, who responded with tear gas and gunshots. "Music," Gil says, "became counterrevolution."
In 1998, Porno Para Ricardo was one of the last punk bands to form. Gorki, whose parents had just left for Mexico, turned the fourth room in the family's 1950s apartment into a recording studio by stealing egg cartons — some 700 of them — to soundproof the walls. Gil, already the elder statesman, helped up-and-comers such as Gorki by lending them equipment from his job. "It was crazy," Gorki says. "I would bike from work to María's, grab an eight-channel Soundcraft console, bike to my house on the other side of Havana, rehearse, and then return it to Gilito to keep him from getting into trouble."
The prison was so remote it didn't even have a name. It was simply referred to by its location on Cuba's main highway: Kilometer 5 1/2. In the sloping, verdant valleys of western Cuba, Kilo 5 1/2 was an oasis of terror. In 1993, Human Rights Watch called it one of the worst in its "Global Report on Prisons." The sprawling complex included manual labor fields, five two-story cell blocks, and underground torture chambers. "Gray and surrounded by wire fences, it looked like a concentration camp," bandmate Ciro says.
When Gorki arrived in 2003, he didn't know what kind of prison 5 1/2 was or that it held hardened criminals and political dissidents. He knew only that if life outside was a hardscrabble purgatory, a Cuban prison would be the bottom rung of Hell. He entered the cinder-block gulag with nothing but a four-year sentence and the clothes he was wearing when he was arrested. "In prisons in Cuba, you have to bring everything," he says. "Blankets, soap, toothbrush, a bucket to wash yourself. The Ministry of the Interior gives you nothing."
He was assigned a cell that was no bigger than a petri dish to be shared with two other inmates. Six by ten feet, it had three cots, a small window, and a hole in the floor. "To take a shit, we did it in front of everybody," Gorki says. "There was no water. There was no privacy. To move, you had wait until the other inmate moved. It was physical and psychological torture."