Longform

Cuba's Jackie Mason

Page 5 of 5

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.

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.

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Lissette Corsa