It's showtime at Miami Beach's Club Tropigala on a recent Saturday night, and Cuban comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes is headlining. He's half an hour late for his stand-up routine, and the audience is starting to squirm. Finally, at midnight, he ambles onstage -- even that is funny. His top two shirt buttons are undone, and his pot belly protrudes from his otherwise long, skinny frame. He wears a black jacket, black pants, and matching pointy shoes with heels. For about an hour, Alvarez Guedes stolidly delivers mostly raunchy jokes, one after another, in a manner so natural he makes it seem like breathing. His delivery is rapid-fire, no time for pauses or crowd interaction; before you finish laughing at one joke, he's told two more.
"A drunk guy gets on the expressway, and he's going against traffic. Someone who sees him calls a local radio station so the DJ can alert other drivers. Those driving on 836 be careful,' the DJ announces. There's a car going in the opposite direction.' The inebriated driver, who is also tuned in, says to himself, One car! Coño, no jodas, there are about a thousand."
The audience laughs hysterically.
Toward the end of the show, the 73-year-old Alvarez Guedes offers a few words about getting old. "You shouldn't go against the laws of nature," he warns audience members. "You should obey the laws of nature. There are people who shit on the laws. There are laws we don't like, for example getting old. Who the hell likes getting old? But everybody gets old. The other day, coming from Los Angeles, there was an elderly woman on the plane. No jodas coño, I don't know how old she was, but I imagine she was somewhere between menopause and Medicare."
The audience again bursts into frenzied laughter, but Alvarez Guedes stops for no one.
"Coño she was fighting outside of her weight; she was dressed like a teenager, with tight-fitting pants. I imagine that when she took them off, her body said, Thank you, God.'" More laughter, but the comic is sober: "The war against years is always a losing battle."
For months my colleague Gaspar and I had been planning to see Alvarez Guedes perform live. "Okay, time to iron la guayabera, bring out those shoes I have with the Cuban heels, the Sansabelt pants.... It's gonna be hot ... oh, excuse me, I was just getting into character," Gaspar e-mailed me.
We grew up in the United States and, like most Cuban Americans, on high doses of Alvarez Guedes, the only Cuban comedian -- the only Cuban for that matter -- with a license to freely criticize the exile community in Miami and face nothing but laughter in response. Neither of us had ever seen Alvarez Guedes perform live, and we looked forward to it.
"Oye, don't forget to shine those shoes," I e-mailed back. "And the guayabera better be steam ironed. Oh and don't get too funny in the presence of Don Guillermo. You know that when it involves Cubans there's only room for one comedian, and Alvarez Guedes is king."
He's also a living legend. Alvarez Guedes has been able to capture and preserve Cuban national humor on foreign soil without having set foot in his homeland for 40 years. At the same time, his humor is universal. No matter where he performs in Latin America, using Cuban Spanish and dirty words, he leaves audiences with abdominal cramps from laughing so hard.
The State University of New York at Stony Brook professor Roman de la Campa considers Alvarez Guedes to be a figure of great cultural and intellectual significance. The comedian's use of language and the experiences he relates through his jokes, de la Campa says, are historical markers of the Cuban-American exile experience, el exilio. Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), agrees. Not only is Alvarez Guedes hilarious, Garcia opines, but his jokes are topical and very particular to Cuban-American reality. "He followed our social and economic climb." For example Garcia relates a joke that follows wealthy Cuban Americans on a ski trip to Colorado: "There they are in Aspen, roasting a pig."
De la Campa also gives Alvarez Guedes credit for bringing Cuban vulgarity out of the closet. "Vulgarity is part of Cuban culture, and there has always been an interesting dichotomy between the sacred and profane," explains the professor, who is chairman of the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook. "But despite this Cubans have tried to hide their vulgar side. Alvarez Guedes has removed it from our collective subconscious and inserted it into the mainstream."
Emilio Ichikawa, a former philosophy professor at the University of Havana who recently left Cuba and now lives in Miami, goes so far as to label Alvarez Guedes as the island's greatest anthropologist. "He's the person who has best been able to understand the psychology of Cubans," says Ichikawa, who wrote the introduction to Alvarez Guedes's latest novel, Cadillac '59. "He has a certain intuition." This perceptiveness, Ichikawa says, has enabled the comedian to tune in to Cuban society, both in and out of Cuba.
Ichikawa says he first heard Alvarez Guedes's jokes as a child on the island. "It was a bad recording on an Orwo cassette tape, a brand from East Germany," he recalls. "Ironically [because Alvarez Guedes is anti-communist] his first jokes began circulating in Cuba on those cassettes. In every neighborhood there was someone with an Alvarez Guedes cassette. To this day his latest jokes -- which include plenty of anti-Castro swipes -- are commented on in Cuba."
In fact anti-Castro jokes are Alvarez Guedes's specialty. For instance there's the one about Fidel meeting with top officials to determine the mood of the Cuban people. One Cuban official says, "There are two categories in which Cubans fall: the pessimists and the optimists. The optimists say that in six months the only thing left to eat in Cuba will be shit."
"What do the pessimists say?" Fidel asks.
"The pessimists say there won't be enough of it to go around."
CANF executive director Joe Garcia also got his first taste of Alvarez Guedes as a child growing up in Miami. "I remember being a preteenager and us sitting around a record player and my father and mother crying with laughter," Garcia recounts. "We had a friend that had every single one of his records. When we visited he would play them for us. I could imitate his delivery as a kid."
Garcia finally met Alvarez Guedes a few years ago, when the comic did volunteer work for CANF. "I find him to be one of the funniest people in the world. He's got it. He makes these absurdities that are part of our character funny. His jokes are fast and furious, yet when you meet him he's so damn stoic. He looks like a Jewish existentialist philosopher trapped in a Cuban mind. It's weird when he smiles. You don't recognize him with a smile."
Authentic Cuban humor -- brazenly crude, rich in popular flavor, and laced with the resentment of being in exile -- is just one of the many layers with which Cuban Americans relate to Alvarez Guedes. For gusanos, worms, as Castro detractors in and out of Cuba are known, Alvarez Guedes evokes nostalgia for the Cuba of old and a more lighthearted approach to life. "If you can laugh at yourself and at your own countrymen, then you know things could be worse," says Garcia. "Even though we're living this tragedy, there's a guy walking around being funny."
We waited for Alvarez Guedes's stand-up routine at the Fontainebleau Hilton's Club Tropigala, drinking mojitos-- rum, sugar, and mint leaves--while sitting at a front-row corner table. The opening acts were sociology studies in their own right. One was a Las Vegas-meets-Havana revue that seemed frozen in time, so kitsch it was enthralling. "It's everything I dreamed of," my friend Gaspar admitted. Second-rate showgirls twirled in hot pink, green, and orange rumba ruffles while their shirtless male dance partners mostly struck poses behind them. One leggy dancer did a little number in a palm-tree costume complete with a crown of cascading leaves on her head. Gabbie Gabriel performed Frank Sinatra covers in oversize suits, and audience members, mostly Cuban old-timers -- bankers, lawyers, and funeral directors, Gaspar assured me -- danced with their wives to the music of a ten-piece orchestra. Candy Caramelo, an overweight burlesque queen from Havana, rocked the crowd in her red-hot teddy and blond wig. She literally sent tremors throughout the five-tier showroom as she shook her saggy breasts. In the process Candy managed to dunk the heads of several hapless men from the audience between her tired melons.
In a strange, surreal way, the scene at Club Tropigala is reminiscent of the smoky ambiance of Fifties Havana cabarets where Alvarez Guedes began performing, but in reverse. In his day the culture wasn't schmaltz or nostalgia for irony's sake. Now it is.
Born in Union de Reyes, a small town in Matanzas, in 1927, under the astrological sign of Gemini, Guillermo Alvarez Guedes made his artistic debut in theater at age five. As a kid he was a lion tamer for a while and traveled Cuba with the circus. His next gig was as a singer for small-time orchestras.
In 1946, inspired by the movie Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, who played a gigolo, Alvarez Guedes left Cuba for New York; he was nineteen years old. In a 1988 New Times interview, he told a reporter that back then he aspired to become Ford's character. Instead he ended up washing dishes in a restaurant and performing other odd jobs until immigration authorities caught up with him, sent him to Ellis Island, and deported him back to Cuba in 1949.
During the Fifties Alvarez Guedes worked in radio and television. His big break came when a program director from Cadena Azul, a radio-station chain started by a Cuban cigarette mogul named Amado Trinidad, asked him to audition for a show. But Violeta Casals, a trained actress who was directing, was aghast at the young man's spontaneity and turned him down. Alvarez Guedes persisted and eventually landed a role on Union Radio for a show called Red Chronicles.
In 1959 he began working with legendary producer Gaspar Pumarejo and performed the first comedy sketch ever broadcast on Cuban television. But it was his "little drunkard" character on a show called Casino de la Alegria that made him famous in Cuba. "It became very popular," Alvarez Guedes says, while sitting on a black reclining chair at the Clasica 92 (WCMQ-FM 92.3) studio, where every weekday from noon to 2:00 p.m. he hosts a show called Aquí Esta Alvarez Quedes with Adrian Mesa. The original character of the drunkard, from La Vida Es Así, a radio soap, Alvarez Guedes relates, was a mean and mischievous young man who would steal from his mother and cheated his way through life. "He was cruel," the comedian says, expressing abhorrence by furrowing his face. So he transformed the character by keeping him inebriated most of the time, smoothing out his hard edges, and giving him the ability to make others laugh. "Everybody in Cuba loved him."
In October of 1960, more than a year after the triumph of Fidel Castro, Alvarez Guedes and his wife boarded a National Airlines plane and headed for New York. Legendary salsa queen Celia Cruz and her husband, Pedro, were on the same flight. The moment Castro and his barbudos stomped through the streets of Havana, Alvarez Guedes says it smelled of communism, and he didn't like it. But like most Cubans who left at the beginning of the revolution, he believed life in exile would be short-lived. "We thought we wouldn't be gone for long," he says in a low voice. "But we're still here," he adds after a short pause. Alvarez Guedes, who in 1957 had begun producing records for other artists under his own label, Gema, took his company to New York and Puerto Rico. But he soon tired of New York winters. "The winter of 1961 in New York was cruel," he says, wrinkling his forehead. "As soon as it got up to 23 inches of snow, I left." He headed for Puerto Rico and from there jumped to Miami in 1964. He began doing stand-up comedy at the Flagler Theater, where Cuban artists in exile tended to regroup and fine-tune their talent after the 1959 revolution. In 1965 Alvarez Guedes produced and directed his first film, which also was the first Cuban made in exile, Dios te Salve Siquíatra (God Save the Psychiatrist).
In 1971 he moved to Madrid. "Franco [the right-wing Spanish dictator] was in power, and it was great," he recalls. "The streets were safe. My teenage daughters could go out at night, and I had no worries." In 1973 he reached a turning point in his career when in Madrid he premiered a routine using malas palabras, bad words, during a private dinner in honor of Spanish diva Pastora Imperio. Alvarez Guedes had found the style that would mark the rest of his career. Shortly thereafter he recorded his first album, Alvarez Guedes 1; another 29 would follow. "The other day," the comedian says "a Spaniard stopped to talk to me and said, I have the entire collection of your CDs.' I said, Oh, really.'
"Yes, I have all five.' I told him: Well you're missing 25, because there are 30.'"
In the following joke from Alvarez Guedes 1, a barbershop interaction between two Cuban men in Miami is a window into how Cuban men relate to one another. In this joke, as Roman de la Campa suggests, vulgarity and religion naturally go hand in hand, a humoristic device often used by Alvarez Guedes:
A Miami Cuban goes to the barbershop for a haircut. He sits down and when the barber, also Cuban, begins cutting the man's hair, he says to him: "Give me a good cut, hermano, because I'm going to Europe."
"Which country in Europe are you visiting?" the barber asks.
"Italy," the man responds.
"Italy! Why go to Italy, chico. You're leaving Miami to travel to Italy, to spend money for nothing, pa que chico."
"It's not for nothing, hermano. I've spent my life planning for this trip, and I have much desire to see Italy. Don't try to talk me out of it."
"And what about Italy has caught your attention?" the barber asks.
"Mainly the Vatican, because I'm very religious. First I want to visit the Vatican. Then I want to see the Sistine Chapel. And finally I want to pay a visit to the pope."
"I've been to Italy, hermano, and I tell you that the women are ugly, the men are rude, you're not going to see the pope. You think you're going to see him, you're not, and the Sistine Chapel is never open. I tell you this because I've been there."
"Bueno, mi hermano, let me be, I've spent a lot of time planning this. I've always wanted to go to Italy so don't try to ruin my trip. Shut up and cut my hair."
"Bueno, I'll cut your hair but I warn you, you're not going to have a good time."
The guy goes to Italy, and two months later he walks into the barbershop. The same barber starts cutting his hair and recognizes the man. "How was your trip?" he asks.
"Marvelous. You told me the women were ugly, the men were rude, that I wasn't going to meet the pope, that the Sistine Chapel would be closed. I found that to the contrary the women were beautiful, the men were caballeros. I went to the Vatican, and I met the pope. I kneeled before him, kissed the ring on his finger, and bowed my head. Do you know what he asked me?"
"What did he ask you?"
"He asked, Who's the son of a bitch from Miami who cut your hair?'"
Alvarez Guedes has made an art out of using "bad" words. He's even sold beer using a mala palabra. He brought cojones, once a forbidden word in the Cuban lexicon, back into popular use among his countrymen. He figured if former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could use it in a speech addressing the United Nations, then the time had come to insert it into the Cuban mainstream. (In 1997, about a year after the Cuban government ordered the shootdown of two Florida-based Brothers to the Rescue planes, Albright denounced Fidel Castro for displaying "cowardice, not cojones.")
And when Alvarez Guedes chopped coño in half, making it ño, he gave it more strength than ever before.
When the mysterious chupacabra --goatsucker -- hit Miami in 1996, as reported by El Nuevo Herald, Alvarez Guedes seized the opportunity to make fun of las cubanitas from Hialeah and Westchester who were calling Miami-Dade County police to report sightings of the creature. ("Eyewitnesses" have described el chupacabra as an exotic mix, something between an alien and a reptile. It's said to have claws, elongated red eyes, a pointy tongue, and spikes running down its back. And it allegedly has sucked the blood from hundreds of animals, leaving their carcasses dry. The Chimera's vampirelike exploits have reached mythic proportions in Puerto Rico, where it first made headlines in 1995, and it has since been causing a buzz in Latin communities across the United States.) Alvarez Guedes caught the wave and composed a merengue song in honor of el chupacabra. It became a local hit.
His love for the absurd even branched into astrology. In 1998 he hosted a radio show in the style of Walter Mercado, except that Alvarez Guedes's advice and predictions were meant to be laughed at. On Alvarez Guedes 27 he lists a collection of the best advice he has given on the air. Some of his astrological readings include: "Aries of Eighth Street: Don't be a comemierda [shit eater] and get your ass to work. Taurus of Westchester: Stop jodiendo [jerking off] and buy your own astrology book. Gemini of Hialeah: Siempre la cagas [you always fuck up] and that's what you get for being foolish. Cancer of Miami Beach: Don't marry again because eres muy puta [you're too much of a slut]. Leo of West Kendall: The best cure for diarrhea is eating boiled plantains. Pisces of Biscayne Boulevard: There is no cure for your hemorrhoids, so consider getting an ass transplant."
My first memory of Alvarez Guedes is a bit blurry. I saw him on a video doing stand-up in some cabaret. It was during one of many family trips to Miami during the early Eighties. Usually we came during Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, and visited my aunt and uncle and two cousins who were the same ages as my brother and I. (We gave thanks for the pork instead of the turkey.) Alvarez Guedes almost always closed the evenings for us on a lighter note after the magnificent feasts, the thick Cuban coffee, and the political mumbo jumbo.
I still have images of that video, no longer in circulation. Fragmented snapshots of the audience roaring, drinks atop small round tables, and of dancer/choreographer Maria Magdalena's svelte silhouette linger in my mind. The tape opened with her sitting on a chair. Once Alvarez Guedes's classic piano tune began playing -- the one he still uses to open his shows -- she would get up and begin dancing. I can still visualize her honey-brown hair and stiletto heels. Maria Magdalena to me symbolized femininity. The video was recorded in Puerto Rico in 1976. She is still alive and well in Argentina.
As a teenager and during my college years, our family trips to Miami became less frequent. We celebrated Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves at home in Tampa. Pork, moros, and yuca began to fade out and were replaced by turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pie. And for a while Alvarez Guedes faded for me, too; he'd become a kind of dusty old book, forgotten on the shelf.
But after moving to Miami, I connected with him again. An aunt let me borrow some of his recordings: Alvarez Guedes 1, 13, 17, and 27. I was hooked. On my CD player, I'd go from disc 13 to NG La Banda, a popular timba band from Cuba, to disc 27. Suddenly I began questioning what Alvarez Guedes would think about my love for the great art currently coming out of Cuba, about my longing to visit the land where I was born (who cares if Fidel Castro is still president), about my liberal views, about my having lived in a commune in Chile with a bunch of pot-smoking hippies, about my lifelong admiration for my leftist uncle who lives in Miami and once published a commie periodiquito in the Eighties (before someone planted a bomb in his mailbox).... Despite my past I think Alvarez Guedes is so cool because he's always gone against the status quo of el exilio. But what would he think about my working for New Times?
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.
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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.