Well-Versed in Exile
Cuban Emigre Bobby Jimenez Was a Famous Singer.
Until The Castro Government Decided He Shouldn't Be.
By Nicholas Day
If you saw him -- puff-haired, plump, polite -- in customer service at
Hechinger in Tenleytown, you wouldn't know about it, of course. You
wouldn't know about that horrible Havana winter of 1984.
He was a singer, but he was barred from performing. He was married, but
he was alone.
"The problem is, I was honest," he says. "I wasn't hypocritical. They
sometimes said, 'If you were a little wise, you could be higher than where
you are.' "
He'd performed in the best nightclubs and restaurants in Havana. But he'd
been prohibited from public appearances since 1981, a punishment for
asking permission to leave the island.
"Years of my life without any reason."
In a desperate attempt to get him out, his longtime Belgian fiancee flew
Cuba and they hastily married. Then she left and he stayed. It wasn't his
You wouldn't know that his story isn't singular but plural. That his past,
a sort of tropical telescope, could magnify the many unseen, and upsetting,
stories of other Cubans.
Your only clue to anything, if you were lucky, was that you could hear
singing -- not under his breath, but louder, because there was no one telling
him not to -- in Spanish, right there next to Hechinger's toilet display.
He'll be recording his second album soon. He's got to practice.
"It's very strange, my story," Bobby Jimenez says. Incredibly, that
otherworldly story does not seem to have entangled him in embitterment.
He's soft-spoken and reserved. But he has many reasons not to be.
"It's a long story. It's like a movie story, you know."
It opens in 1958, a year before the revolution, 20 years after Jimenez
born, in the basement of a building across from the Havana Hilton. It's the
basement where Jimenez performed in public for the first time. He sang
"Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" in a talent show and was hired
immediately to perform at Curly's Flamingo Bar-Nite Club -- a name that
hints at all the flamboyance of '50s pre-Castro Cuba. It was a time when
Cuba looked to the West, not the East, and foreign-financed development
was raging, often at the expense of the poorest Cubans. The insatiable
tourist trade demanded handsome, talented, English-speaking singers. It
was as if Jimenez, who grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole
and "Your Hit Parade," was answering a personal ad.
Like Cuban boys on sandlots looking to baseball for the future, Jimenez
always looked to music -- and, like those dusty kids, always to the United
States. During those first few years, he had increasing success, singing not
just in clubs, but on television as well. The '59 revolution -- which radically
restructured society and, a few years afterward, erased U.S.-based
tourism -- didn't affect his career immediately. He was named "best new
artist" in 1963 by a Cuban newspaper. He eventually would appear at all
the great and glorious Havana clubs: the Capri Hotel, Havana Riviera,
National Hotel Casino Parisien, Havana Hotel -- smack across the street
from the basement where he began. He sang in the swankest place in
Havana, the Tropicana. If you lived in Havana then, and you had not heard
of Jimenez, someone else you knew would have.
Jimenez was not a revolutionary. He was not a counterrevolutionary, either
-- not that it mattered. To the Castro regime, you were either with the
revolution or against it. The national tourism bureau, INIT, controlled the
schedules of the artists -- setting dates, places, pay -- and the officials
began to get antsy about Jimenez. He was asked to use "Roberto" instead
of "Bobby" -- "it was too Yankee, they said." And Jimenez, who sang in
English, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, was told "to be careful
about those American songs." He ignored both suggestions. Then,
suddenly, an apparent punishment came down, a giant foot crushing a
budding career: a total ban from radio or television. "They never explained
the reason," he says.
He's stopped trying to explain Cuba -- the theater of the absurd, he calls
"If you know Ionesco, you know Cuba."
He describes the period, with remarkable fortitude, as "just singing in
places and that's all." Shuffling through tattered papers from the time, he
mutters, "Que barbaridad" -- Good Lord, what a shame.
Jimenez signed contracts to sing at clubs in Mexico and Canada but never
got off the island. In the most galling incident, Alex Cardini, the owner of a
Mexican club called Cardini's -- where Sinatra was then performing --
came to Cuba to recruit Jimenez. "He said, 'I need someone different for
the people, a different artist, someone unknown.' " Jimenez said he would
be denied permission. "Why are you so pessimistic?" asked Cardini. "I'm
not pessimistic," Jimenez answered. He was realistic. He never got to
He was like a dog. That's how he terms it. "Listen. You have a dog, you
put your string to the dog and the beautiful dog, he runs and he plays. Oh,
what a beautiful dog!" His voice is high with mockery. "But if he wants to
go there, he can't! Because he has a string. You understand? Up to a
certain point. No more."
Bobby Jimenez's story is about more than a might-have-been-famous
singer's frustrated career. It's about the choices that Cubans, artists or not,
have been making for the last 40 years.
To illuminate such choices, it's instructive to look at Jimenez's former
friendship with Pablo Milanes, the world-famous Cuban revolutionary folk
singer. What happened to their friendship is "normal," according to
Years ago, Milanes was, Jimenez says, like "my younger brother. He lived
in my home and he used to sleep in my own bed like brothers together."
Their break came after Milanes was released from prison in the '60s. He'd
been put there by Castro for "anti-revolutionary" activities. "I think -- and
I'm not sure of this, because after that I didn't see any more of Pablo --
that among the things they told him was that he had to stop being friends
with me. From that time on, Pablo was never at my house again."
Now Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez, who also was imprisoned and then
released, are the voices of the revolution -- stunningly beautiful voices,
extraordinarily talented composers. Castro has said, "The success of Silvio
and Pablo is the success of the revolution."
There's the abrupt annulment of a friendship. There's the transformation
anti-revolutionary prisoners into revolutionary heroes. There's the choice
that each man made.
As an artist in Cuba, by all accounts, you capitulated, compromised, lied
or were shut out. That's what these lives suggest. That's why the view from
Bobby Jimenez's apartment on Wisconsin Avenue is of the street, not the
The story of Bobby Jimenez and Pablo Milanes is of lives determined not
just by talent and fortune. Perhaps the choices that they made were morally
loaded. Perhaps they were not really choices at all.
Perhaps only Cubans, those who've experienced it, can understand, can
Bibiana Borroto, who brilliantly accompanies Jimenez on guitar on his
recent recording, immigrated to Miami a decade ago. Her father was a
political prisoner for five years in Cuba, and because of that her future as a
classical guitarist was stymied. But like Jimenez, she is not mired in
resentment. On the subject of Milanes and Rodriguez she says: "They just
gave up. I don't think they wanted to leave Cuba. I'm not trying to say that
they weren't good.
"Everybody has the right to do whatever they want."
Jimenez finally got back on radio and television in the '70s -- just as
mysteriously as he'd been taken off. He was relegated to second-rate clubs
and shows, beginner stuff. Never the good stuff.
He cut a handful of 45s, contributed songs to a couple of full-length
compilations but couldn't buy copies of any; his records were sold only in
stores for foreigners and tourists. He tried to buy one once but it was
snatched away by the store owner. "I asked him, 'Did you see who's this?
That's me!' " It didn't matter.
The only 45 he has was a present from a friend who bought it in Moscow.
He was itching to get out. But he says he refused to flee illegally and
refused to lie to gain the trust of the government. "I said, 'If I go, everyone
will know that I am leaving.' "
Enter Francoise Joris, an official at the Belgian Embassy in Havana, who
met Jimenez at a party in 1978, a year after she arrived in Cuba. They
were engaged within two years. She left Cuba in 1981 -- transferred out.
So he asked the Cuban government for permission to leave, too.
He was stripped of his profession -- prohibited from singing, from
appearing on television and radio, from everything. He was sent to the
national tourism bureau, INIT -- his employer for more than two decades
-- to clean the restrooms. "Like an example for the other artists." He
refused. In a sense, he did not exist in Cuba anymore; he had essentially
left the country. Problem was, he was still there.
Then Jimenez had an epiphany of sorts: "I was desperate, because I was
waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing happened, so I wrote a letter
to the queen." The Queen of Belgium, that is. Queen Fabiola.
Remarkably, he received a response. His situation was intriguing, the letter
read, and they would do their best. The Belgian ambassador promised
Hoping that a legal bond would help spring Jimenez, Joris flew back to
Cuba in December 1983. In that Cuban winter both horrible and
wonderful, they were wed. Then she left, on orders from the Cuban
government. "They told me I could go with her. They promised."
January passed. February, March. One day in April, of that sweet, sweet
spring of 1984, he got the word: Free to leave. He was at the airport the
following day in a shirt and a tie, carrying a suitcase.
The shirt and the tie were mandatory: Cuban citizens had to look
respectable arriving in a foreign country. The suitcase was mandatory:
Cuban citizens could not look as if they had left the country with nothing.
Although they had. That suitcase was empty. Everything Jimenez now has
of his life in Cuba had been smuggled out by Joris in the years before.
On the flight, a stranger, who knew that a fleeing Cuban was a penniless
Cuban, bought him a beer.
Sometimes Jimenez wonders if there's any record of him back in Cuba.
Used to be, when you left Cuba, you disappeared from Cuban history. In
effect, you had never been there. You ceased to exist.
For a singer, that meant your name was erased from your albums. "The
people who were born when I left, they don't know anything about me,"
Jimenez says. He fears that someday he'll find a record of his labeled "artist
Over the last decade, however, policies have changed. The Cuban
government has realized that it may not be advantageous to deny Cuban
heritage to those who bring fame to the country. For instance, Celia Cruz,
a prominent exiled anti-Castro singer, is now called a Cuban musician and
her work is sold in Havana. There is increasing cultural exchange between
the United States and Cuba, slipping its way around the embargo. This
year, an ad hoc group of older Cuban musicians -- all of whom still live in
Cuba -- called Buena Vista Social Club won a Grammy Award for their
eponymous album, produced by an American for an American label.
Earlier this month, they performed to a sold-out Carnegie Hall.
To Cuban Americans who left in desperation and despair, the message
now being preached by the regime is of forgiveness. Come back, come
All of which would seem to change Jimenez's situation -- essentially an
exile's situation. Or maybe, from his perspective, it doesn't change it at all.
"When you go from Cuba, you are worse than a murderer in that time,"
says Jimenez, speaking of when he left. "Now I'm not a traitor, nor a
gusano, a worm. Now I'm a Cuban, like those that are there. We're all the
same, like brothers."
He doesn't think he'll return. His father died nine years ago, his mother
He has got only a few uncles left. What's the point? he asks. "Almost
everyone is dead. Forever."
After a year in Switzerland, where Joris was working at the Belgian
Embassy, Jimenez found himself in Miami. He'd been invited to sing at a
concert. Little Havana. How could he not go?
"When I came, I said, 'I stay.' "
He was expecting a lot from Miami. Like many Cuban emigres, he went
there with vague hopes -- a feeling, yet again, that something was coming,
something good. He found a community caught up in infighting. He found
that of all the things they could not take away from him in Cuba, they did
manage to take one thing away: youth.
"Maybe I was dreaming but I thought that Miami could be the place to
start again, but maybe it was too late," he says.
"I was disappointed; I felt cheated. It was so different. The Cubans don't
seem Cuban. There's a lot of fighting. There's fighting with those who come
from Cuba and with everything that happens in Cuba -- fighting, fighting,
fighting, all the time. I can't live like that."
He and his wife got by. She did "this and that." He "worked in different
places" that mostly did not pay. He sang on television programs for free to
get exposure. He was paid for club shows with checks on accounts that
were empty. He worked in a shoe store.
If nothing was happening in Miami, nothing might as well be happening in
Washington, especially when his wife got a job at the Belgian Embassy.
They moved almost a decade ago. Then something happened.
Natalia Rodriguez, owner and founder of Elan records, a classical music
label in Riverdale, about hearing Jimenez and guitarist Borroto together for
the first time: "It just blew our mind. It gets to you. It gets to your soul. You
can't forget it." About the emotional impact: "Older generations of Cubans
just cry when they hear these songs. They have a stomach knot of
The album's birth was a connect-the-dots of Washington's small,
fragmented Cuban community: Jimenez came in contact with Borroto
through mutual friends. Borroto's husband, Ruben Pelaez, studied classical
piano with Cuban-born Santiago Rodriguez at the University of Maryland.
Rodriguez's wife, Natalia, heads Elan, which was interested in producing a
series on Cuban music.
"Alma Cubana: A Collection of Popular Cuban Songs" is immaculately
recorded -- in 20-bit sound, nearly the highest quality available -- and will
receive international distribution. It is an outstanding newly released album
of songs by Cuban composers -- including a century-old slave song, an art
Jimenez hasn't done much work around town. It's something he seems
resigned to. He was gigging at a place in the Georgetown Park mall before
it turned into a toy store. He's sung in a few shows at Mount Vernon
College. He and Borroto recently performed at Habana Village, a Cuban
restaurant in Adams-Morgan. The owner, Eduardo Varada, grew up in
Jimenez's Havana neighborhood and had seen him on Cuban television.
A few weekends ago over dinner, Jimenez and Natalia Rodriguez agreed
to produce a second album of popular songs on the Elan label. He's happy
about it. He still has a way with those songs -- he shakes tears out of the
ballads -- and there's always the chance that the album will lead to
something else. He's always dreamed of Broadway.
He seems at ease. Occasionally when he talks of injustice, he betrays
himself: His eyes go fierce and his voice snaps, but it passes. He possesses
something -- a gift -- that got him through it all; in a sense, it's what started
"I am a singer until I die," he says simply. "I can't help it. That's why
Because if I think of everything that I have that I could have better, I would
be crazy now, okay?"
In the Northwest Washington Hechinger he works in customer service. He
shows people around the store. Sometimes he's a greeter. Sometimes he
helps customers carry purchases to their cars. Sometimes he hails cabs.
Those sorts of things.
He's the language expert. In addition to Spanish and English, he's fluent
French and muddles about in Portuguese and Italian. Useful skills in
Just so all the Latinos know -- in case they don't hear him singing --
wears a button, smack on his chest. It reads, Hablo Espanol.