I was playing a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy....
-- Bob Dylan, "Caribbean Wind"
A tailgate party with teeth is the best way to describe the protest of more than 4000 Cuban exiles, all screaming themselves hoarse outside the Miami Arena, while many of their fellow Cuban Americans made their way through police-cordoned aisles into this past Saturday's Los Van Van show. With time to kill before the start of the concert, behind enemy lines seemed an interesting place to venture. So Kulchur carefully forded his way into the mass of demonstrators penned behind police barricades, passing hot dog and beer stands, camouflage-clad frugging Alpha 66 members, and a sign that read "Long Live General Pinochet," which seemed to aptly describe the neo-fascist spirit on display. Suddenly Kulchur was grabbed from behind by a beefy gentleman who narrowed his eyes and barked, "Where are you going? Do you have Los Van Van tickets?" Kulchur had been outed as a heathen concertgoer (perhaps the giveaway was the Prada belt).
Near-beatings aside, it was fascinating to watch the wannabe paramilitaries present working out their pathology: Witness the members of Comandos F4 in all black, from their leather boots on up to their dashing berets. The group's youngest member, a baby-faced fourteen-year-old George Lopez, had only arrived in Miami from Cuba three months ago, but he'd already received the requisite brainwashing from his elder comrades. The people going inside the Miami Arena amidst a chorus of boos and taunts of jinotera? "They are all communists," said Lopez. "They were given free tickets by Castro." From the mouths of babes...
Inside the arena, the show most definitely went on. Call it timba, songo, or simply premillennium salsa -- Havana-style, Los Van Van tore through a bliss-inducing, nearly three-hour set of swaying rhythms that had the audience burning up the dance floor among gleeful stage-led cries of "Cuba!" It was hard not to see the swirling dancers as a joyous rally with an implicit political statement of its own.
"We should be considered no less Cuban because we are here," said David Garcia, age twenty, as he finished a cigarette on a second-floor outdoor patio before heading back inside the arena to the concert. Motioning to the demonstrators on the sidewalk below, he added, "We can't change what happened. We can only move on. Thirty years of standing on the street hasn't done anything."
For decades now, sentiments such as Garcia's were uttered only in private, and even then not without first looking over one's shoulder. Ironically, the pure power of music has done what four generations of brave activists could not: convince several thousand Cuban-American Miamians to publicly break with the cultural commissars of the exile community. The self-realization of this turning point came at the end of the Los Van Van show, as the 3000 concertgoers waited anxiously to exit the arena's glass front doors. The massing crowd was held inside as SWAT team officers readied tear gas launchers and a squad of riot police fixed their shields and marched into formation in front of the now feverish demonstrators outside.
"This is ridiculous!" cried one concertgoer to the police, "Just let us go!" The crowd inside began fervently chanting "Libertad! Libertad!" only to discover as the police finally opened the arena's doors that the anti-Van Van protesters outside were intoning the same exact word. As they surged forward, out, and down the arena's steps, the concertgoers confidently took up a new cry, one that summed up the event's true importance: "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"
By Brett Sokol
The scene outside the Miami Arena looked at first like some sick Cuban Miami awards ceremony. As attendees approached, protected by police escorts, the crowd behind barricades called out insults instead of adoration. Newspaper reporters and evening-news crews mutated into one paparazzi horde, rushing ticket holders, demanding to know why they had come to see Los Van Van. Most gave a simple answer: Because they wanted to.
For the concertgoers, the climb up the broad flight of stairs to the arena doors was a small but significant freedom march. For the protesters watching from across the street, it was nothing less than a massive perp walk.
Screaming into megaphones and Madonna-style headsets, they called out, ironically, the same names familiar to anyone who has been subject to an act of repudiation on the island of Cuba itself: "traitor, faggot, scum." Some went quietly inside, while others embraced their moment in the limelight. At the top step, they turned and waved, gave their adversaries the finger, or goaded them to come inside as well. Three boys in red Che Guevara T-shirts loped along in glum teenage defiance. Several protesters broke away, charging at the concertgoers with Cuban flags until police grabbed them. Altogether it was at once a moving show of human conviction -- from both sides -- and a sight so absurd that police officers were seen giggling as they watched from their mounted horses.
The night was orchestrated by Los Van Van, but it belonged to the people of Miami. If the Cuban band was upstaged for the first time in its 30-year run, it was not its fault. After being searched by police, sniffed by bomb dogs, and repeatedly interrogated by reporters, the group put on an impeccable show. They played a special set that included old songs for the emigrants who had grown up with their music in Cuba. Even as the crowd danced in celebration, the air was redolent with bittersweet melancholy. It was nostalgia, not the longing for prerevolutionary times that usually pervades Miami, but for the more recent memories of the island, which the band evoked in their songs.
Ever the diplomat, band leader Juan Formell advocated détente between Cuba and the United States, and refused to speak out against his detractors. He left it to upstart singer Mayito Rivera to crack jokes about Miami and giddily improvise lines like "And the police arrived, yes sir, the police arrived" and "The people who are outside missed the boat!" before leading the crowd in a poignant chorus of "Mercy, for God's sake, mercy."
Outside the protesters stood fast. Groups of exile musicians played rousing renditions of classic Cuban songs from atop a flatbed truck, proving they deserved a better gig than this.
When the two-and-a-half-hour concert ended, a sea of people suddenly began to flow down the arena steps. For a second there was stunned silence. Then the protesters resumed their screams and drum-beating. Pumped up by the concert, the Van Van fans shouted back. Journalists close to the barricades were caught in the melee, hit with eggs, rocks, soda cans and, one cameraman reported, baggies full of shit. At 11:00 p.m. police in riot gear dispersed the demonstrators.
Groups of elderly white people in sensible shoes began walking toward designated bus stops for the trip back to Hialeah. Mulatto couples in glitzy evening wear passed them, headed for their rented limo. No one said a word. A die-hard family wearing "Cuba si, Castro no" T-shirts sat on their car, yelling insults at departing concertgoers as they drove past. One group of Van Van fans stopped to ask the family for directions. The foes were soon engaged in a friendly debate over whether it was better to take I-95 or the Palmetto. As they talked on, a bare-chested homeless man strolled up behind them with a shopping cart, looking for empty cans. The pickings were plentiful, and he smiled as he tossed them into his cart.
By Judy Cantor
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