My father left Cuba in June of 1962. The revolution was intensifying and as part of “Operation Peter Pan,” a program developed by the Catholic Church of which the church still denies ever existed, my grandparents placed him on the last Lufthansa flight out of Havana one morning. A young boy, my father wouldn’t see his parents for years to come. He has never returned. After decades, I became the first of my family to return to the island nation and left to my desires, I would have stayed. I’ll get to that in a minute.
My father is proud, PROUD, of his homeland in the same way that I am PROUD of being a member of the LGBT community. Pride runs deep with Cubans and with us Verdugos. Over the last several years my father has opened up about the Cuba he once knew more than 50 years ago, and often shares his memories of Camaguey, the town in which he grew up. He spills stories about our cousins, but mostly he speaks of the beauty of this massive island. The crystal waters, the undisturbed beaches, the fishing, the music, and la gente. Our people.
I grew up in Miami (aka Little Havana) surrounded by the vibrant and colorful, musical, passionate, sexy cultura of my people. However, something didn’t click for me. My parents divorced when I was two and so I had very little knowledge of my Cuban heritage at home. While soulfully drawn to it, it felt equally foreign. Something was amiss. There was a disconnect.
As the plane approached Habana on a sunny Monday morning this past March, a nervous, anticipatory energy coursed through me. I was coming home but to no home I had ever been. As I wandered through Habana those first few days, I was overwhelmed and I felt something I hadn’t before — I felt Cubano.
The monuments to Communism stand alongside decaying Spanish colonial architecture with new construction sprinkled in that will one day stand as a testament to this new era. The streets, sidewalks and impressive galleries are filled with art that is bold, daring, confusing and unequivocally outspoken while musicians in the plazas play songs from the motherland and top 40 salsa hits. You can dance in the streets, it’s expected. The Fabrica De Arte Cubano — La Fabrica — is the most modern art space in Cuba, where you can relish in Cuban jazz, modern art, dance, photography, classical piano and people. Yes, la gente de Cuba, no matter their age, understand and cherish art.
An unforgettable moment happened while visting the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, spending time with his wife Jennifer, and Bruce Kleiner, the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy. During our dynamic meeting, we conversed about the impact of art and music to affect change in society, especially the Cuban culture and shared our thoughts on the new, emerging Cuba and the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. I felt posibilidad y esperanza (possibility and hope).
In many ways Cuba is paradise lost, and by no means perfect. It’s still a communist country. It still practices surveillance in neighborhoods, arrests dissidents for speaking out against the government, holds political prisoners, and has a list of human rights abuses. There is still more communicated in between words or silence, than ever fully expressed. It’s a nuanced dialogue. And it’s hard not to have your heart broken when a young gay men tells you he dreams of living in America and that he is building a boat to float to Florida — because on his first try he was captured by the Coast Guard four miles off the shore.
Cuba is changing though. The LGBT community is blossoming with Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, championing equality, combating transphobia and working to create safer workplaces. There are fantastic gay-owned and operated Paladares — small restaurants, often in people's homes — and plenty of drag bars and nightclubs to keep you busy all week long. Mano a Mano is the first ever, state recognized gay men’s chorus and on weekends, the younger gays spill onto the sidewalks outside bars and El Malecon with their boxed wine reminding me more of being in a European city than a third-world country.
What gave me the greatest pause though was as oppressed as Cubans have been for over 50 years, surviving on average salaries of $20 a month with just enough rations of food, living in shambles of homes, some of them with no roofs, even with this, they smile. No, they more than smile, they laugh and exude that inexplicable resilience, the strength to resolve the current situation with joy. It’s possible that in the way of the spirit, the Cuban people are happier and freer than many of us.
As they wait for the embargo to be lifted and begin to write a new chapter in the storied and tragic history that is Cuba, they place their hopes and dreams on us, on America, and at the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles we are helping to pen that chapter. Our most recent endeavor is an international program with Mano a Mano and this summer the incredibly talented ensemble will travel to Los Angeles to jointly celebrate the richness of Cuba’s music and heritage in a show titled, “Oye Mi Canto” (Hear My Voice) and to glimpse its future.
In many ways the Cuban people want what I always wanted, to belong to a something greater than myself. I found that first with my gay brothers and sisters and I found it again in Cuba.
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CHRIS VERDUGO is the CEO of Gay Men's Chorus LA.