But Will It Play in Peoria?

The Cuban flag parts down the middle like a curtain, opening onto sunlit scenes of Havana. A bus driver in a spanking red and white uniform sits patiently on a concrete stoop. A man takes a gusty toke from his cigar and a smoky haze envelops the Capitolio, the former seat of the Cuban Congress. Salsa music swells, and a 1957 De Soto eases into view, driven by Willy Chirino.

Chirino, Miami's premier salsa singer, darling of the Cuban-American community, champion of balseros, author of the unofficial national hymn of the island, "Nuestro Dia (Ya Viene Llegando)" ("Our Day Will Arrive," a reference to Cuban liberty), has come home.

That, at least, was the impression Chirino initially hoped to convey with the music video for his new single "La Jinetera" ("The Streetwalker"), produced by Sony Discos to promote Chirino's new CD Asere (a slang term for friend). The video superimposed images of Chirino onto documentary-style street scenes captured by a team of filmmakers that had been sent to work clandestinely on the island last year. The Cuban footage includes shots of real-life jineteras, young Cuban women who sell their bodies to foreigners. Chirino's song, a lively dance tune that combines social criticism with infectious rhythm, is about one such woman, a seventeen-year-old girl he calls Eva.

By setting his video in Cuba, Chirino intended to underscore his condemnation of a regime under which desperate citizens -- men and women alike -- are driven to prostitution. It was a straightforward idea, and by all accounts he was happy with the result -- until he screened the finished product for friends in Miami. Viewed in the feverish context of exile politics, what had seemed like an inspiration took on ominous overtones, and Chirino fretted that people might interpret his simulated presence in Cuba as some sort of advertisement done at the behest of the Cuban government. Last week he told the Miami Herald he planned to shelve the video indefinitely.

The move incited rampant speculation about the content of the video; debate was heard on Spanish-language radio airwaves, some of it decrying Chirino's move as censorship. Within two days, the artist had a change of heart, a story that both Spanish-language television networks carried on their 11:00 p.m. newscasts Tuesday.

"It's very well made. The video is fabulous, the cinematography is excellent, the quality is tremendous, but there are a few scenes that are written in a way that is a little surrealistic," Chirino sheepishly explained to Telemundo. "When one touches the open wound of the Cuban tragedy, one has to be very specific and say things very clearly. And there are a few images that I have decided to change. That's it."

In its current form, the video superimposes Chirino and his De Soto onto the Malec centsn, Havana's famed seaside boulevard. Chirino's eyes open wide in astonishment. He smiles. He sings. "O, Habana, O, Habana, O, Habana." Cubans filmed by the clandestine team echo the refrain, grinning widely for the camera. Two young women playfully circle their hips on a Havana balcony. An old man in a straw hat improvises a rumba in Havana's celebrated Plaza de las Armas. A group of boys salsa around an old car. Not everyone joins in the fun, though. A middle-age woman waiting in line for food frowns at the camera and waves three fingers in front of her mouth, a well-known gesture that Cubans use to express hunger and frustration. But most blithely dismiss their grinding poverty, the numbing circumstances of their daily life, as they exult in the rhythm of the song.

Included among the documentary shots of joyous Cubans are scenes with more critical content: women scantily clad in the colors of the Cuban flag, a jinetera applying makeup while her baby cries on a bed, a soldier who forces himself to look the other way as teenage girls walk the streets, and an often-repeated scene of a man hurling an inner-tube raft over Havana's seawall and then vaulting after it.

Already an underground hit on the island only two months after its release, the song is heard by Cubans as a testament to their resilience, a foot-stomping demonstration that no amount of tragedy will dim their spirit or corrode their legendary good humor.

But Chirino thinks the video's message is too upbeat, especially for a stateside audience. "I am 'in Cuba' in the context of the video," he explains. "It [makes it seem] like I'm part of the problem. I should be narrating the problem [of prostitution], I shouldn't be driving a car. People might think I'm promoting tourism in Havana." Chirino also says the video shows him flirting with a prostitute, apparently referring to a two-second scene in which a woman walks out of an apartment and appears to twirl into the singer's arms.

Alejandro Rios, who heads the Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus Cuban Cinema Series and who has seen the video, scoffs at the notion that Chirino appears to be encouraging prostitution or embargo-busting Havana vacations. "I saw him as a storyteller, as an eyewitness with a certain distance on the things that he's seeing. It's true that he's driving along in a car on the Malec centsn, but everyone dreams of being in Cuba, and that image has an unreal, dreamlike quality."

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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