Freedom Means a Cuban Orchestra Should Perform
Maria de los Angeles Torres, and Achy Obejas.
In its heyday, the cha-cha craze was cause for revelry and fun. But when Orquesta Aragon, the band which popularized the dance in the 1940s, was recently invited to participate in a city-sponsored music festival, the result was anger, divisiveness and even death threats.
Most of the fireworks came out of the Cuban-American community, from the same folks who danced to the band`s rhythms in their youth. Now politically exiled in the U.S., these people want the city`s Office of Special Events to cancel its contract with the band for this summer`s Viva Chicago, the city`s inaugural salute to Latin music.
Festival organizers, which include a citizens committee, rightfully point out that Orquesta Aragon is one the genre`s seminal exponents. But many Cuban- Americans, especially the older generation, dismiss its musical credentials and accuse the group of being a propaganda tool for Fidel Castro`s Cuba, which they say they left in order to live in freedom.
The irony is perhaps too obvious. After 30 years of revolution, the Cuban exile community finds itself at a crossroads: Realistically it is no longer able or willing to return to Cuba, yet it fiercely hangs on to its language and customs while increasingly absorbing new, American values. But while the community`s focus is more and more on the U.S., its unresolved issue remains the same: Cuba.
As the first generation of exiled young Cubans reaches maturity, the clash of values intensifies. Young Cuban-Americans raised and educated in the U.S. often react like their American counterparts to First Amendment or foreign policy issues. Perhaps that is why, according to a recent Gallup poll, nearly half of all Cuban-Americans support negotiations or full normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Yet the old guard, those who were raised and educated in Cuba and battled Castro before seeking asylum, continue to control the centers of community power, in business and media.
This is probably best exemplified by recent events in Miami, the exile community`s unofficial capital. The Kiwanis Club, the majority of its members older Cuban exiles, decided to ban from its Calle Ocho music extravaganza all performers who had appeared in Cuba. The incident made news because many of the censored performers were Puerto Rican, and Miami`s Purerto Rican community responded with a boycott of the annual festival.
The Kiwanis ban was an extension of a long-time unofficial policy, one which ignores the American concept of innocent until proven guilty.
For example, Miami radio stations have long banned Panamanian singer
Ruben Blades, not because he has played in Cuba or advocated any solidarity
with Castro, but because he is perceived to be sympathetic. Puerto Rican
singer Wilfredo Vargas was recently banned from a broadcast by the Telemundo
network, which has a substantial Cuban interest, because of rumors that
he traveled to Cuba. He was reluctantly allowed back on when no evidence
could be produced to support the accusation. Ironically, Gloria Stefan,
lead singer of the Miami Sound Machine, probably the Cuban-American community`s
most popular group, traveled to Cuba, but her near silence has kept the
band from being boycotted and otherwise harassed.
The Kiwanis ban was different, however, not because the Puerto Rican community fought back but because Cuban-American moderates, including Miami`s Mayor Xavier Suarez, condemned the censorship. And in Chicago, many Cuban-Americans-young and old, from the pre-Castro immigration, and many who came via Mariel-have joined with other Hispanics to support the city`s right to invite Orquesta Aragon. It has been a refreshing, and atypical, display of solidarity among different Hispanic groups.
For the record, Orquesta Aragon`s appearance here will not be the first by a Cuban group. Irakere and Arturo Sandoval, both based on the island, played in previous years as part of the city`s Jazz Festival. Cuban poets have read their work at area state universities, and Cuban films have been screened at various film festivals, many of which receive state and city grants. These events, like Orquesta Aragon`s show, have been widely publicized in the Spanish-language media and have drawn a cross section of Chicagoans, including many Cuban-Americans.
Unlike Irakere and Sandoval, Orquesta Aragon precedes the revolution and that may be why it`s appearance seems to have hit so raw a nerve. And possibly Mikhail Gorbachev`s recent visit to Cuba also makes the band`s appearance more urgent for some.
But after a generation in the U.S., it`s more likely that many Cuban-Americans may not have recognized the post-revolutionary artists, Irakere and Sandoval. Thus the more familiar Orquesta Aragon, with its light-hearted dance tunes, provides an excuse for this old guard to reassert its politics of the past.
Unfortunately, as legitimate as their feelings might be, those who oppose the appearance of Orquesta Aragon are simply engaging in censorship. And we find censorship in the Cuban-American community as reprehensible as anywhere else in the world, Cuba included.
Those of us who have been raised here have been taught to respect equality and justice and to appreciate the strength of many different ideas and perspectives. In Cuba, a new "Gorbachevian" generation is beginning to work its way into key posts, and while Cuba is a very different place than the Soviet Union, change is eminent.
What`s certain is that Orquesta Aragon should fulfill its contract and play in Grant Park this summer. As Cuban-Americans, we feel our community can not let a small group intimidate or terrorize us with their recalcitrant position.
Those who want to enjoy Orquesta Aragon have the right to attend a peaceful concert. And those who oppose the performance have the right to express those views, by picket and by boycott, but not to hurl slurs, lies and threaten others with violence. Mutual respect is imperative. A civilized exchange of ideas-democracy-is what our parents brought us here to enjoy.
Memo: Maria de los Angeles Torres is an assistant professor in political science at DePaul University. Achy Obejas is a Chicago writer.