How I met Pablo Neruda, Celia Cruz,
Trinidad Torregrossa and Benny Moré
by George Nelson Preston
In my senior year at CCNY I had become deeply interested in the events that were unfolding in Cuba. I joined Fair Play for Cuba. The Fidelistas were ensconced in Habana and the roles of important student activists who had not been guerillas such as Frank País — who had been assasinated by the deposed President Fulgesncio Batista — were already appearing less visible.
When I landed in Miami on 20th December the transit corridor between my domestic flight and the Cubana connecting flight to Habana was a gauntlet of anti-Castristas hurling invectives. A man in his fifties approached me. “Why are you going to Cuba?”
He spat at me. I have always had respect for the elderly but it would not be on that occasion I will not tell you what ensued. The touchdown and disembarcation at Habana was different from the Miami confrontation. A welcoming conjunto greeted us on the tarmac.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy the hospitality of a government approved room in a private home. I lived at Mazon 20 from December through January 1962. In the mornings I had café con leche y pan tostado at the house. Then I would explore the city and around lunch time find myself at El Tazo de oro on the corner of San Miguel and Infanta or at the bodegita al Medio. A place of fascination was La Zigaruta, a building as you would imagine, inspired by the Zigarut at Ur. At the top of the Zigaruta were restaurants with spectacular views over parts of the city. The street level consisted of slaughter houses and everything on the floors between the terrero and El Techo had to do with how produce and other things gradually got processed floor by floor on the way to being fit for table or consumer.
El Tazo de Oro was one of the coolest places that I had ever been. Its eventual reincarnation in New York City first on Broadway at 138th Street and subsequently other locations would become a mere shade of the original. But it was at the parent location that I got an inspiring dose of the casual orchestrations of Habanero hang-out-in-the-street life.
It was at Taza that I met the living legend José Brindís, his surname being the eponym of the English equivalent of ‘cheers’. Jose asked me if I personally knew Leroy Jones which he pronunced “Hones.” He asked me if I believed that the Americans were going to invade; did I know that the Cuban people condemned the United States government and not its people; and what did I think about “Lo Yanqui (MLB ); and had I seen the Willie Mays catch in dead center off the bat of Victor Wirtz; did I know who was Luis Tiant the elder and Luis Tiant junior? One morning Brindís quaffed down his cafe con leche and asked had I met Fidel yet.
“I am going to take you to meet Fidel, Preston,” he said.
When we arrived opposite the Presidential Palace, noticing my skepticism and reluctance he said, “Preston, we have to go in there. Do you know that we Blacks used to not even be allowed to walk on this street?”
We jaywalked into a contingent of four or five guards with submachine guns. They were actually lounging — literally sprawled across the steps, their weapons cradled loosely in their laps. José addressed them as if they were his personal friends although I quickly realized that this could hardly be the case.
“This Americano wants to meet Fidel,” he said with confidence.
“Wait a moment,” said one of the guards who right away disappeared inside. After several minutes he reappeared and said, “No Fidel but you can meet the Vice President. do you know who that is?” And so I quickly flashed a little knowledge.
“You mean Oswaldo Dórticos?”
“Sí, claro que sí compañero.”
So there I was at the desk of the Vice President of Cuba introduced by a grease gun toting miliciano and an ordinary citizen. “I hope you enjoy Cuba,” said the VP. “And please tell your people we want jazz and baseball, no war. Have a good trip.”
I still wasn’t convinced of an invasion and I loved the way everyone was greeted as compañero.
But Cuban preparations for an invasion were everywhere.
There were anti-aircraft batteries on rooftops and every adult was armed. There were Garand M1s, bolt action Springfields, and Russian submachine guns in the hands of just about anyone who looked like they could pull a trigger. I wondered what would have happened if everyone in New York City was walking around packed.
What a sensation to be on a bus packed like fish in a tin, all passengers ‘packing’ and no casualties. How come even you ordinary people are all loaded up, I asked?
“Not you, not you,” was the reply of a beautifully plump woman of about 18 years of age. But if the Americanos and the gusanos (worms) come, Venceremos!
“Venceremos” was a cry that I constantly heard. Cuba was a beehive of armed citizens, milicianos and regulars. I knew of the invasion talk back home and I wondered how in the world a country armed in this fashion could be subdued. Little did I know that the debacle of the disastrously failed CIA sponsored beach-head at Bahia de Cochinos and La Cienega de Zapata would be a total route with Fidel himself commanding from the turret of a former Cuban Army battle tank.
One morning José asked, “Do you know about José Martí, Nicolás Guillen and Pablo Neruda?” I knew of them all. I had read Martí’s memoire of his visit to the USA, North American Vistas, Guille’s Songoro Cosongo and could recite much of Neruda, whom I adored by heart. I had bought their books at the Las Americas bookstore then located on the north side of West 14th Street between Seventh and Eight Avenues.
“Well, compañero Pablo Neruda is in the Habana Hilton today, Preston, so you better go.”
I got to the Hilton and had been wandering around the vast lobby having no idea how to proceed when a scruffy Americano with non-descript gray hair, a beard and ‘lefty’ written all over his demeanor of studied neglect, walked up to me and straight away said, “…do you want to meet Pablo Neruda?”
We took the elevator up to a penthouse. Inside the apartment several equally obvious American ‘lefties’ were sitting tailor fashion or sprawled on the floor listening in rapture.
Neruda was reading works of a political nature. After a while he asked, is there something someone wants to hear? I said, what about romance? How about something from your collection, Viente Poemas de Amore y Una Poema de Desesperacion? (20 Poems of Love and a Poem of Despair)?
He marcando con cruces de fuego el atlas blanco de tu cuerpo……
After the reading Neruda escaped several of his devotees and came directly to me. “I see you are a Negro American and you know about my poems? Do you know that when I try to read about la politica to the workers that they get bored and start asking just like you for the 20 Poems?” I asked, what workers?
“In the tabacco factiruesm, the roladeros.” (Cigar rollers.)
“You read to people on the job?”
“I read on the job. I go to the factories and read while they are rolling cigars, I go to the bakery and read right there while they are kneading bread in the hotel kitchen, even in the cane fields. You probably know that I read anywhere, anytime.” I knew about the reading in São Paulo to thousands of people under the auspices of communist banners, but reading in a cane field? This caught me by surprise. I had never heard of such a thing. But Neruda explained that this was a Cuban tradition that did not only consist of music, as in our folk tradition. This prompted me to sing to Neruda one of our gandy dancers’ track-laying ditties,
He responded enthusiastically and explained how in the 19th century “readers” in the cane fields spread coded messages from the cabildos (ethnic/religious fraternities). He was proud to follow this historic revolutionary tradition.
Short as our meeting was, it was nonetheless the perfect coda to the night before: New Year’s Eve. The government had sponsored a huge outdoor party with several professional artists including Benny Moré performing. I recognized Celia Cruz, Mercedes Valdez and Trinidad Torregrossa, the legendary bata drummer from the Coro Folklorico. After the concert I wasted no time. I was stunned at my own easy access to the stage. After some cordial small talk, Cruz and Valdez invited me to a rite dedicated to the patron saint of Havana, Our Lady of Charity , that would take place in the month of September. “Eight months from now,” I asked? “Yes, in Mexico City.”
Eight months later, I stepped out of my pension on Calle Tacuba and hailed a taxi. We drove for what seemed like an eternity and eventually, over a long straight causeway finally stopping in a desolate outskirts of Mexico City that yielded profiles of abandoned warehouses. I knocked on the door. No answer. I turned the knob and was greeted by an elaborate altar dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Virgin de la Caridad, coros and batas in full tilt.
About the author:
George Nelson Preston is an artist, writer, activist, and more. He is the founder & director of the Museum of Art and Origins in New York City (www.museumofartandorigins.org). You can read more about him in a profile by Dr. Petra Richterova here: http://old.ragazine.cc/2013/04/george-nelson-prestonprofile/