Blogger's Cuban slant draws fans
A Kendall weblogger has found his niche writing about life as a Cuban exile, news on the island and cultural traditions. And, of course, he thrills at taking jabs at Fidel Castro.
BY JENNIFER MOONEY PIEDRA
Valentin ''Val'' Prieto has few memories of Cuba: the lone plum tree in the backyard of his home in Oriente province, a frail neighbor who regularly slipped him candy through the chain-link fence -- and the day his whole family cried.
Though only 3, Prieto remembers that 1968 day. His whole world changed as he said goodbye to his island home -- a bittersweet choice his family made to flee Fidel Castro's communist regime.
Prieto's story is not unusual in Miami. But the way he tells it is. Several times a day, the 40-year-old Prieto -- a project manager for a South Miami architectural firm -- logs onto his home computer as ''Babalú blogger,'' one of the first Cuban Americans to chronicle the exile experience in the fast-developing genre known as blogging.
From one-liners to longer, more passionate tales, Prieto routinely files posts onto his web log, http://www.babalublog.com, about anything and everything Cuban. Especially, its infamous dictator.
''I wanted to have a place where people who don't know anything about Cuba can come and read the reality,'' said Prieto, who added that there are only a few bloggers who write solely on Cuban issues. ``I wanted to demystify the myths and clear up the misconceptions about this culture.''
Since Prieto launched his Babalú blog in June 2003 -- named after a saint worshipped in Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion, and made popular by actor Desi Arnaz -- the site has become a favorite to many computer junkies around the world.
Hits to the site come from as far away as Japan, Switzerland and Australia. Each day, about 1,000 people drop by, Prieto said.
Readers often post remarks to Prieto's blogs, either thanking him for what he's written, criticizing him for his conservatism or asking him for more information on the topic.
One of the regular visitors to the site is A.M. Mora y Leon, a California journalist who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity because some of the topics she writes about are controversial.
Leon enjoys reading Prieto's blogs because his posts are unique and offer readers an insight into Cuban life, which, she said, is nearly impossible to find on the Internet.
''All over the Internet you can talk to people in rice paddies in southeast Asia, on the dusty plains in India and even in China, but you can't talk to anyone in Cuba,'' Leon said. "But Val is the closest thing to it. He fills that gap.''
Prieto's introduction to blogging happened by chance.
Up until a few years ago, Prieto said, he didn't even know he could write.
But as the blogging phenomenon continued to gain popularity, Prieto became curious. He surfed the Internet, reading blog after blog.
''I was hooked,'' he said.
He was also shocked by the lack of posts about his country.
''There was nothing about Cuba in all the different blogs I read,'' Prieto said. ``I decided to change that.''
From current events making news on the island to meaningful Cuban holidays, there is little that goes unwritten in Prieto's world of blogging.
Most of what Prieto writes about is his reaction to news happening in Cuba, which he sees on television news or reads in newspapers or wire reports. He has little family remaining in the country and rarely speaks to anyone on the island, he said.
But some of his most treasured posts, he says, are the stories he remembers being told by his parents and grandparents about life before Castro.
He also gets inspired by flipping through old photographs of his parents walking through the streets of Havana, or his late aunt Amanda, a beautiful Cuban movie star who died at 17.
''I was young when I left there,'' Prieto recalled. ``What I know of the life there is what I know from my parents.''
Some of the stories, however, aren't happy ones.
Soon after Castro took control of Cuba, Prieto's father was imprisoned for making oil lamps.
When he was released, the family had no choice but to move to the U.S. The freedom they had while living in Miami's Little Havana, and then a neighborhood near the airport, was a nice change.
Both of Prieto's parents worked three jobs, trying to make ends meet for their two children.
But the family missed their home in Cuba and believed they would one day return.
That day has never come, though.
Growing up in Miami, Prieto said, it was hard to forget his homeland. Everywhere he'd go, from Little Havana to Hialeah to Westchester, he'd be reminded of the country he left.
His blog is the perfect outlet, he says, to vent his feelings of anger and sadness.
One of his most recent posts reflected on the valor of Cuban patriot, José Martí. In another, he praised Cuban graffiti artists for painting anti-government slogans that read ''Down with Fidel'' on a hospital in Placetas.
During the holidays, Prieto is on the computer more than usual informing his readers on Cuban traditions, such as cooking lechon, a pig, in La Caja China, Chinese roasting box, for Nochebuena, Christmas Eve. He also explained why nibbling on 12 grapes on New Year's Eve is good luck and tales about The Three Kings, or Los Reyes Magos.
Whatever subject he writes about, Prieto said, he feels that he is making a difference by enlightening readers about his life, the country he loves and misses, and the tyranny that plagues it.
''I'm doing what I set out to do,'' Prieto said. ``Open some eyes, open some ears, open some hearts.''