Tall, slim, with long dark hair and a beard, he roamed around Old Havana in the 1950s. Dressed in black, a cape fluttering behind his dignified stride, he wrote and recited poetry and always carried flowers, which he'd present to women he saw on the streets. Clearly cultured and more than a bit crazy, he was a gentle eccentric who slept in the city's parks, often favoring the tree-filled scenic one on Prado Avenue near the capitol building. Havana denizens knew him only as El Caballero de Paris (The Gentleman of Paris), a legendary colorful character, so much a fixture of Cuba past that he was immortalized in paintings and statues and even songs.
More than 50 years later in Miami, El Caballero touched Alonso Mendez too. For the past eight months as part of Miami Light Project's Here & Now: 2004, Mendez has been refining his multimedia stage work that takes its cues from the quirky street person. In addition to Mendez, six emerging artists and filmmakers were commissioned to create projects that examine society and culture with an offbeat lens clearly understood by those who live in South Florida. Other pieces to be presented during the six-year-old festival include films by Silvina Soto, Nathan Rausch, and David Cirone, plus performer Nancy Garcia's exploration of voyeurism and surveillance, Watchers Watching Those Being Watched Watching the Watchers; Rafael Roig's optimistic improvisation Canal Crossing; and Natasha Tsakos's Up Wake, a hallucinatory journey through an ordinary day.
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After many years spent on the Havana streets, El Caballero de Paris, discovered to be a wealthy Spanish émigré named José Maria Lopez Lledin, died in 1985. Nostalgic Cubans agree the cosmopolitan city wouldn't have been quite the same without him. Perhaps one day Miami residents will harbor the same fond feelings about the artists and works of Here & Now: 2004.