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Red, white and blue: A Cuban in the Land of the Free

Street theatre

SRO hotel neighbors have left the cramped domains of their single occupancy rooms to sit in the warm sun, on the steps and benches surrounding the 16 Street BART plaza. Nearest to us the radio of a homeless Afro-Cuban man plays conga tunes. Further off another radio spills out pop songs and a group of young Black women near the railing break into an impromptu chorus; their voices melodious and tuned. The Mark Twain-mustachioed “Pigeon Man” is wearing a bandana with birds sitting on his head and his arms serving as perches for those eating out of his hands.

José Calderón and I have been meeting here to compose a script. More than once in the hours that we talk and sometimes write, an argument breaks out at the plaza. Once a near full-term pregnant woman chased the father of her unborn child around the plaza with a stick. Another time, a senior Cuban woman pummeled another after provocative words were exchanged. Yesterday, two men battled over a cane across the street. When conflicts escalate to the point that they may attract police attention, the other plaza denizens intervene to calm and separate. They are the mediators of their own community conflicts. The flurry of adrenaline passes and the plaza lulls back into its quiet conviviality.

In his gravelly Cuban drawl, José disapproves of the latest distraction: “Drama that involves the police is not a drama well done.” José and I go back to our script, but he looks up. “I want to do more than just this,” he says, waving his hand at the plaza.

José unflaggingly remains an immigrant dreamer, nearly 68 years of age.

With our eyes

José Calderón walks along 18th Street in the Mission, June 25, 2019. Photo: Adriana Camarena

José was born in a hospital in La Havana, Cuba in 1951, and raised in Las Yaguas, a down-and-out shantytown on the south-east outskirts of the city. “Our door was always open to allow air to run through. In the morning, I would stand still in the doorframe, waiting for my mother to turn. I knew she had already sensed me, but she would make me wait while she busied herself in the kitchen. She would finally turn and look me in the eyes, and give me the signal. Just a signal with her eyes that gave me permission to leave. That’s how we communicated: with our eyes,” José says, drawing a line between our eyes. Then he laughs at himself, “That’s probably why I can’t stand loud noises in the morning. We didn’t speak. Everything was said in silence.”

José would come to understand that his education was informed by the traditions and strict etiquette of Yoruba. For the first years of his life, he “belonged” to his mother. After he was nine years old, he was to learn from his father. It was in this crossover time, that he would stand at the door, yearning to follow his father: to learn where he went and what he did with his day. His mother would hold him back, just long enough that he always lost his father on his way to work. His day would then become his.

He made himself a shoeshine box and became a cobbler for the poor, repairing shoes with materials he found at the dump. Jose pauses thoughtfully, “I later learned that I was what is called in America an ‘entrepreneur’.”

The missing puzzle piece

José’s father was a quiet man, a disciplinarian, a drinker at times, but one who never faltered in providing for his family. From time to time, he would come home with a gift for his eldest son: a book or a puzzle. The first time José’s father brought a puzzle, they laid out a carpet on the dirt floor of their hut, and his father sat and smoked in his chair watching him make sense of the pieces. “I sensed that he wanted me to strive, so I completed the puzzle as fast as I could, but there was one piece missing, the piece in the middle. I waited looking at my father, until he gave me the signal to speak with his eyes. ‘Father, look here, there is a missing piece.’ ‘Ah, yes my son, I forgot’, he said, drawing his hand into his shirt pocket, ‘Here it is.’” This became part of José’s education, and a game they played. His father sitting with him in quiet, and rewarding his son with the last puzzle piece after he completed the task despite his mischief.

Yo soy Cuba

José Calderón, 68, holds an image of his 11-year-old self from the 1964 movie “Yo Soy Cuba,” Mission Hotel, San Francisco, June 26, 2019. Photo: Adriana Camarena

One of those days in which José walked through the town of Las Yaguas on the way to the dump, he came upon a rabble of street children in the throes of excitement. A movie crew had arrived and set up their gleaming white trucks and equipment at the exit of the town. “They were Russian actors, wearing suits,” describes José. The children formed a line, and Jose stood there for hours. The director finally auditioned him. He was selected as an extra in the film, which paid $3 per day of filming. Being one of the older children, he was also asked to ensure that the younger children understood instructions. This is how, José, became an actor in a stunning cinematographic work of art: “Yo Soy Cuba.”

Mikhail Kalatozov, the director, began production of the film in 1962 with director of photography Sergei Urusevsky. Together, they composed a work of art with seemingly impossible long takes. The movie was commissioned by the Soviet and Cuban governments as a propaganda film to portray pre-Revolutionary Cuba. But, released in 1964, “Yo Soy Cuba” was not well received by either side. The Soviets considered it too artistic and not propagandist enough, while the Cubans felt the Cuban people were flattened into stereotypes.

In an early scene of the film, an American partier tosses a few dollars at the beautiful Black woman he bedded. We leave her sitting in shame, as he begins a winding exit through Las Yaguas. Street children start to trail him, begging, “Money, money, mister. Money, money, mister, Americano.” It is one of the less famous long takes of the film, but the viewer is still haunted by the faces of the impoverished slum-dwellers who communicate their despair, depression, need, dignity, and scorn through silent eyes and stares. For a few seconds of the long take, José Calderón, child actor, can be seen extending his hand and lowering his gaze to ask for money.

The recycler and the Revolution

It wasn’t until he was older that José learned from his father that he was a recycler in pre-revolutionary Cuba. “Every day he would rent a hand-pushed recycling cart and make his rounds for scraps. He deposited his finds in two recycling workshops owned by a pair of brothers. It was a time in the City when my father would see milk trucks streaming blood from the dead bodies carried inside,” says José recalling the stories of his father.

In 1958, Fidel Castro was in his final offensive push with troops moving towards Santa Clara, and La Havana; the last holdout cities. The brothers took José Sr. aside and confessed that they had used him to smuggle guns within La Havana from one recycling workshop to the other in his cart. The guns would then be loaded up in a truck and taken to the hills to arm Castro’s guerrilla. The brothers had been tipped off that the police was about to carry out a raid on the workshops and needed to move out the weapons. “José,” the brothers said, “your life will be in your hands.” The weapons were loaded into his recycling cart hidden under scraps, and he was given $5 for food to go sit out the day in El Malecón and not return until he was given the all clear sign. At 4pm, he called and was cleared to return.

On Jan.1, 1959, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. On Jan. 2, Castro’s forces took La Havana and ordered a cease fire. On Jan. 8, Castro entered the City triumphant.

“The brothers,” José tells me, “they became generals in Castro’s government.” And with a twinkle in his eye and a smile, he adds, “And that’s how I learned that a rich man in a capitalist country can become a rich man in a communist country.”

Poor communist

Jose Calderon strikes a rhythm on a box in keeping with the music playing next to him, Mission and 16th Streets on June 29, 2019. Photo: Adriana Camarena

Over the next two decades, José was cranked through a series of Cuban institutions. He tells me his story: “I was swept up by police off the streets one day and sent to the Fulgencio Oroz Gomez Reformatory School, just like my father who had also gone to a reformatory school. It was a good school, where I learned all matter of things: art, painting, track and field, dancing, mathematics, literature… After moving from school to school, I was sent to the fields to work: I would work four hours and study for four hours. In Castro’s Cuba, the engineers, the doctors, also did their part in the fields. There was no hiding behind a desk…. Then I was sent to the army and there I deserted. So they put me in jail for three years.”  I ask why he deserted. Firmly, José tells me, “Because if you are a soldier who is being asked to put your life on the line for your country, then you should be treated with utmost respect.” Instead José found that the life of a soldier was spent ill fed, ill dressed, and ill treated.

Upon his release from jail, José was assigned to the slaughterhouse near La Havana. “You cannot understand the overbearing poverty that we were experiencing at that moment. A few of us would feel emboldened to steal a cow from the campesinos to butcher and sell in our poor neighborhoods …During that period, I would still go to the dumps to find materials to work as a cobbler. I would never take food, but there were plenty of people searching for food there. One day, I did take food. A truck arrived and dumped a load of frozen chickens in the trash. I grabbed a chicken as did so many others, and ran. They shot at us, as we ran, afraid that somehow we might embarrass the government for eating dumped frozen chickens because our families were starving … I often think back on the times of poverty that I survived, and feel sometimes that I love my poverty because it allowed me to know that I am capable of surviving so much need.”

José tells me these stories, as we navigate on foot from Los Coyotes taquería near 16th and Mission streets (where he ordered chicken wings and I a quesadilla) to a convenience store across the street to grab an Arizona ice tea that he likes to enjoy with his smoke. Then we cross the invisible border between Mission Street and Valencia Street to grab a mini hot chocolate that I am craving for dessert. We settle into the parklet in front of the Dandelion chocolate store. José doesn’t venture much out to this side of the class border. But now, pleasantly sitting in the shade of the parklet, looking out upon the street, he tells me, “This is freedom to me. To be able to sit in peace on the street having an uninterrupted conversation.” He smokes, I write, but I can’t help wondering whether he’d be left unbothered if we weren’t together.

Rich communist

From 1977 to 1979, several unsuccessful attempts were made by Cubans to seek asylum in the Embassies of Argentina, Venezuela and Peru. Castro’s government deployed officers to patrol the outside of the embassies to block asylum-seekers, which triggered a political row with the embassies.

On April 1, 1980, Jose was on his lunch break from a construction job, when he witnessed from afar a bus take a sharp turn off 5th Avenue onto the dirt road next to the Peruvian Embassy and ram the side gate of the Embassy. In the following days, the Peruvian Embassy declared they would not hand over the six asylum seekers, and Castro pulled back his armed forces from the embassies, leaving them to figure out their own security. On April 4, 50 Cubans entered the embassy grounds. Next day, 2,000. By April 6, there were 10,000 Cubans seeking asylum in the Peruvian Embassy. Castro was forced to contain the flow by creating a police perimeter.

José remembers not showing up to work those days, and instead taking a walk through the rich part of town. “I was so angry that I lit a fat marijuana cigarette and walked among the avenues of mansions, tempting fate that I would get arrested.” “Why were you so angry?” I asked José. “While I worked with the poor and among the poor, I never gave it a thought. Then I was sent off to work in the rich parts of town. They should never have let me work there, where a rich communist in a suit would sit in a chair overseeing us, while we broke our naked backs working…. I had already looked once inside a container that was transporting equipment ahead of the summit of the Non-Aligned nations, and all I saw was televisions labelled ‘Made in USA’, ‘Made in USA’. They were lying to us.”

One day, Jose took a taxi with two neighbors to the police line surrounding the Peruvian Embassy to try talk their way through. They were grabbed and thrown in jail. “Until then the jails were empty, now the jails were full,” reports José.

Castro would label the dissidents as worms, scum, delinquents, social misfits, parasites, bums… Yet in José’s recounting, all I hear is a pissed off poor Black young man disillusioned by the dissonance between reality and the promises of the Revolution that they had pounded into him at school, in the fields, and in the army.

Marielito, Welcome to the Land of the Free!

The prisoners were filed in one by one through a door. “They said they would be taking our photo for our passport and papers but we just as much believed it could be to count the dead after they executed us,” recalls José. When it was his turn, he was given a yellow shirt to wear over his bare torso. “It reeked with bodily odors. I stood there breathing in the stench as they took my photo. Then I took off the shirt and passed it onto the next guy.”

On April 20 Castro threw up his hands in disgust at the numbers of Cubans seeking asylum, and declared that anyone wanting to leave the shores of Cuba could do so out of the port of Mariel, that is, if they had anyone to pick them up. 1,700 boats launched off the coast of Florida to transport nearly 124,779 Cubans to the shores of the United States from April 21st thru September of 1980.

On May 1, in the changing colors of dawn, in standing room only conditions aboard one of the boats, 29 year-old José spied the coast of Florida from afar. A school of flying fish arched over the boat in an iridescent rainbow. One fish flopped into the boat, and before it was tossed back out, José saw that it had wings. Astonished by the splendors of nature, he felt it shouting, “Welcome to the Land of the Free!”

“I only regret having left without saying goodbye to my mother,” laments José.

The double shackle

A framed portrait of José (photographer unknown) in his Yoruba outfit placed above the garments that comprise his outfit, Mission Hotel, June 26, 2019. Photo: Adriana Camarena

Upon arriving to the United States, he spent six months in an immigration detention center in Little Rock, Arkansas before he was shipped out to the Bay Area where he found his first home in a refugee center. It was 1981. Through the center he accessed English classes, and soon brimming with youthful hubris, José felt ready to find and build his American Dream. “Perhaps that was my first mistake, perhaps I should have stayed in their program longer. But I wanted to start making a living.” José began his work life as a construction worker, picking up where he had left off in Havana. He then reflects on what was perhaps his second mistake. Every cultural fiber of his being told him that family was the be-all and end-all, and so he soon met a woman and made a baby girl with her. “I sometimes think I was too eager to start a family.” Then José made a third mistake, a terrible one. I asked him, if he would have handled this situation differently in Cuba. He replied: “It would not even have happened, because nobody would have thought of behaving that way.”

José and his new family lived in a rental room in what he describes as an underground hotel in San Francisco. Soon after his daughter was born, a new guy out of prison was sent to manage the place. “I now know this word ‘bully.’ He was a bully. How did they send a guy straight out of prison to manage a residence?” José couldn’t understand the behavior of his new tormentor, who prodded at him every day. “The guy would barge through our door to yell at us to turn down the music, finding me cradling my daughter. There I was, holding her, so proud, a smiling new father. And, he would just attack me: bitch, punk.” The manager threatened to call the police on Jose when he stood up to him. For the best, the young family moved out. José had found a wonderful new job as a gardener in South San Francisco. But they still had to return to pick up his partner’s checks, until they settled on a new mailing address.

One day after work, he and his partner went to pick up her checks, and José brought along a machete from his job. Most acts of violence happen in the blink of an eye, an immediate instinct. José was swinging the machete down at the neck of the man barreling at him before he could even think. He didn’t kill the guy, only injured him. After a swift trial that resulted in a six-year sentence for “assault with a deadly weapon” and a reparation order, José was sent spiraling away from his new dream family into the dungeons of American prison. It was 1984, when José was initiated into being Black in America.

José’s father had taught him to solve puzzles with missing pieces. Piece by piece, he reflected on his mistakes, and acquired English and most importantly, American street smarts. He now understood that being a Black street child in Havana was not like being a street child in urban America. He learned about gangs and the pecking order on the streets. He took classes and courses available to him in prison: line cook, carpentry, art and more. He learned about the criminal justice system and studied Islam, “…which gave me the peace to make it through prison.” In three years, he was out on good behavior, only to be immediately handed over to immigration authorities. Lately in watching the news about children in cages, José experiences flashbacks to his time imprisoned with thousands of Cubanos in deportation proceedings.

A pair of civil rights lawyers helped him conclude his request for asylum, and he stayed with them for a while in Arizona, until news of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake struck, and he went careening back to the San Francisco to find his daughter.

Dreaming at the crossroads

Around midday each day, José will roll out his large speaker, a chair, and a crafts tray to Mission Street on a trolley of his own creation. Playing music at a reasonable sound level, he sets about the daily ritual of socializing with the other aging Marielitos that together form a Little Havana Social Club on the sidewalk. He often pulls out a craft project. Lately, he is working on a pair of Yoruba pants to complete the beautiful ensemble he has crafted over years. Other times he paints or journals or decorates his drum. He is always dreaming.

José has yet to accomplish everything he set out to do. At times, he got close. Like that time he took off to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a film extra. He figured out how to create an online actor profile and buy a car that allowed him to run from audition to audition. His dream came together when he was featured in a beer commercial, cheering in a stadium next to his pretend daughter. José then strove to enter the musicians union, Local 6, but he didn’t quite make it, and returned to the Bay Area. Here, he held down every manner of physical labor: cook, construction worker, painter, and so on, until his right leg gave out. He is now disabled and dependent on SSI. Sometimes he feels very depressed and drinking gets the better of him, but he finds the strength to rally. He gets himself back under control and on track.  “I want to do more than just this,” he says.

Through relentless resilience, he made a few important dreams come true: He keeps contact with his daughter and his two grandchildren, he has a steady roof over his head, food every day, and a treasure trove of creative skills to keep him busy. This is where his energy is these days: back to creating.

Given the twists and turns of his life, especially at the hands of government agencies, I find it fitting that José has a measure of security today courtesy of “American socialism.” At the same time it provokes me into asking one more question of a man who has lived poor in communist and capitalist countries: “Do you think the poor live better in Cuba or the United States?”  He answers very thoughtfully, “In Cuba it is easy to know who has need. We remain attentive to the need of the other. In this country of abundance, everyone is supposed to have everything or at least should be able to have it. So those who ‘have’ do not feel an obligation to help those who ‘have-not.’ It is in the manner in which we hold each other in a community.”

José goes on to tell me a story of how he was educated to eat silently in Las Yaguas. Under his mother’s watch, not a single clink of the spoon could be made against the bowl, just in case his neighbors did not have anything to eat that day.

Eventually I take my leave, walking home that evening past the din of the growing number of expensive restaurants on Mission Street, the blocks spotted by the forms of the homeless, sleeping hard, in the land of the free.

[su_box title=”About Unsettled”]

Unsettled in the Mission is a series of literary non-fiction essays by Adriana Camarena about Mission people and the neighborhood histories. The series was published periodically as supplements in El Tecolote from October 2017 to June 2019, and originally funded through a Creative Work Fund (CWF) grant. This Issue No. 9 marks the final issue printed with the CWF grant. We are incredibly grateful to the CWF for their support in kicking off a delightful and creative collaboration! From time to time, we will continue to bring readers new Unsettled issues in El Tecolote. To our readers, we express our deep gratitude for the support that you’ve given to this project.To learn more about the author, please visit www.unsettlers.org

 

About the Author

Adriana Camarena is a Mexican from Mexico, complicated by an upbringing in the U.S., Uruguay, and Mexico. She became a resident of the Mission District of San Francisco in 2008. Since arriving in the Mission, Adriana began collecting tales of borders, line-crossings, and overlapping identities told by residents to provide a layered picture of this traditionally working class immigrant neighborhood in California. To learn more about the author and her work, please visit www.unsettlers.org

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Story by: Adriana Camarena