Riptide Rides Van Van Protest Bus

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Los Van Van landed in Miami like a lit match on an ancient anthill.

On Sunday, hundreds of grizzled Cubans came out of the woodwork -- Westchester, Little Havana, Hialeah -- to protest the popular band's concert at the James L. Knight Center.

They came bearing all the ardor of Tea Party organizers and stayed well into the night, despite a persistent drizzle. A City of Miami cop estimated there were nearly 400 of them.

The protests began three hours earlier in front of Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho. I had read that organizers would bus old-timers and blue-haired ladies from there to downtown.

My plan: Somehow hitch a ride on one of those buses.

When I arrived, the crowd that greeted me was no bigger than a "Fire Letterman" rally.

Some 50 white-haired heads bobbed along with massive Cuban flags and picket signs that read "Salsa Con Sangre" and "Castro's Bang Bang Go Home."

Cigar smoke permeated the air, a danzon blared from nearby speakers, and the cantankerous protesters hollered at passing cars with the vigor of people half their age. The youngest face in the crowd was a 40-year-old Honduran woman who, unfinished with September's anti-Zelaya rallies, came here to yell some more.

On the opposite side of the street, bemused restaurant patrons took in the spectacle between pastelito bites and cafecitos. Everybody had a grievance to air -- about the band and about America TeVe, but mostly about the Cuban government.

"As soon as we heard Los Van Van were coming, we asked the city for a permit to protest," said Laura Vianello, a waifish 50-year-old who hid devil eyes behind her big Jackie O. sunglasses.

Vianello, the spitting image of Sissy Spacek's mother in Carrie, was here with Vigilia Mambisa, one of the many Cuban exile groups that organized the protest.

"These musicians represent the communist Castro regime!" she told me as she finished scrawling "No Appeasement" on a cardboard placard twice her size.

Joan Didion once said Havana vanities come to dust in Miami, but exile passions about Fidel here have yet to disintegrate. "Cuba's past is our present," said sexagenarian Maria Luisa Morales, a tall, intimidating blonde wearing a Cuban flag tracksuit and shotgun makeup.

"Look," she said. "I like to dance just as much as the next person. I lose it when the music comes on -- it's in my roots. But I'm not going to spend a penny on one of [bandleader Juan] Formell's records."

Two yellow school buses arrived an hour into the fracas, and, improbably, I latched on. Vianello said buses left from three other locations in the city, but later at the venue I saw only two.

Even before I got on the bus, the geezers eyed me with a mixture of derision and suspicion, like an infiltrated spook in their midst. Once I was on the bus, they called my Cuban bona fides into question.

"Check out this guy!" one said. "He's not even Cuban. He looks Honduran. Don't believe a word he says." 

"No, no, he's a gallego, a Spaniard," said 52-year-old Roberto Giraldo, who then made fun of my accent.

This was the Magic School Bus gone horribly, horribly wrong. Protesters hollered, hooted, and pontificated in unison for the full half-hour ride, spent entirely on SW Eighth Street.

A 77-year-old in an all-white suit and plastic hat said he'd driven to the restaurant from the southwest because he wanted to have his say.

"They say this is a cultural exchange, but it only goes one way: from there to here," Santiago Portal said from his tiny seat at the back of the bus. "It would be honorable for Cuban-American artists to play over there."

At the venue, protesters from the buses mixed in with a larger group already there, and for the next three hours, they heckled anybody who passed them, including unbiased guests at the Hyatt.

Miami Police Maj. Dave Magnuson estimated the crowd to be nearly 400 by the time concert began at 7 p.m.

If the dress code outside was a scowl-on-guayabera ensemble, inside the Knight Center, tight T-shirts, gold jewelry, and cologne were de rigueur.

Alexis Lopez, a 31-year-old Cuban émigré who hadn't seen the band live in a little more than a decade, couldn't care less about the brouhaha outside.

"It's a world apart from mine," he said. "They can spend all day out there protesting; it doesn't bother me."

Lopez, who paid $110 for a ticket, said he'd spend that much only for Los Van Van or Celine Dion. 

Twenty-year-old Arnold Fernandez, also in a white suit, arrived with his girlfriend, a slender blonde in a purple mini who was Snooki personified. He bought his Van Van tickets in December, and has been counting the days since.

"That generation went through a lot of oppression," he said. "My generation didn't, and we yearn for any little thing that comes from Cuba. We want music, not politics."

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