Monday, July 24, 2006

31. La Comparsa de Repudio

31. La Comparsa de Repudio

Here on Infanta Avenue, a street in the middle of the city of Havana, a wide urban avenue barren of green growing things, a comparsa is being held. Here clerical approval is not sought. This is a feast of the comparsas where the primeval pre-coital dances following the traditions of the Black slaves paying tribute to their African gods during Spanish rule in Cuba are, for that moment all there is, are all that matters in this instant. These are not güajiros, montuno peoples from the mountains, nor are they Spanish from the cities. I am as if in a foreign country. These people are alien to me. I observe them, in a feeling a roiling mix of fascination, attraction and fear, as one might observe strange, novel and unusual beings.

These comparsa dances are little changed from the feasts of fertility when the filling of slave women’s’ wombs was their reproductive intent. Then even the formally dressed house slaves ran out to the fields to return perhaps days later their mistresses once used and then discarded dresses bedraggled and torn, their bodies sweaty, but their eyes wide like those of calves, full of remembered pleasure.

This carnival, this recalls the wild abandon of the breeding of slaves. Here the women, wood nymphs in heat, dance their glossy skins, their full breasts, firm raised buttocks sway for and aft and sideways skillfully showing the oiled agility of their ready hips.

The men of the Comparsa crowd are as contending satyrs in bright loud clothing. Each color is a symbol, an aspect, of their gods. In red, blue, blousy shirts, bright often yellow trousers, their best maybe two-tone shoes, and these men strut-dance wild competitions of virility. It is a ritual remembering, a reliving of the life of captive, slave, ancestors who on certain days could give themselves completely to the narcotic of sexual pleasures to forget all else.

It is the same unthinking animal drive for survival through sexual joy and the making of progeny that drives salmon upstream, buck deer to fight in rut, lions to mate endlessly for days. The music’s hypnotic beat, telling all, that humans are animals too.

The rhythmic drumbeats pull all. Most in Havana resist through fear of crime, loss of control or pride or religion, yet all feel the pull to this primeval drive. Astutely the Castro government is sponsoring this carnival to break all bonds with the past, and to deliver the minds of the young to their power. Sex is pitted against G-d; lust is pitted against property, wild abandon to sexual congress against political freedoms. Parents guard their young with care.

This is a strange Havana carnival, in 1961. Castro is consolidating his power; he readies to expel most of Catholic priests claiming they were foreign born. The Bay of Pigs landing is only perhaps a month away.

An atmosphere of excitement of anticipation and dread fills Cuba. All ponder will the now clearly communist atheist Cuban government prevail? Will there be a bloodbath? Fathers send sons to safety in foreign lands, mothers smuggle their children to the safety of the US. All who can try to leave.

Some people plot against the government and in the still time of early morning lay wake and listen, their adrenaline pumping through pulsing arteries for the dread knock of Castro’s police on the door. Other’s seeking safety throw their lot in with the Castro militia and dream fitful nightmares of facing the fire of landing US Marines.

In movie theaters, in the shielding dark, Castro’s opposition loudly hums the US marine hymn. The syncopated marching beat of “From the shores of Mon-te-zuma” triggers abject fear in the members of the militia guarding these places.

Some dream of waiting open, tree shaded mass graves. In nightmares, high soft mounds Cuba’s fertile earth wait nearby ready to cover thousands of piled bodies. The shadows of the dawn sun making sharp triangles angles of shadow and light in the rectangular gaping open mouths of the pits.

I sleep disturbed, my dreams change to terror. In the days before the Carnival came, my puritanical Irish Catholic faith is not yet failing, and my suppressed desires take the form of steel. Yet, steel does not bring tranquility it never has. Not my fine automatic pistol, .38 Super Colt, under my pillow, nor my little belly gun, the .38 Colt Cobra revolver I carry during daylight, give me peace.

I am no longer innocent, I know the horror of violent death, and then trivial spilling of blood, in seconds enemies die and friends cease to exist. My memories of the impure ecstasy of triumphant battle come and then go. I recall as crystal clear memories of simplified good and evil. I think of a friend dying slowly and in great pain and fear. I tremble with panic and adrenaline.

I lay awake watching the night sky through the high iron barred windows of my third story bed room. I listen in the predawn for footsteps that never come across the empty rooftops of Concordia. Fear, and courage, hate and love, lust and purity, in uncertain pairs dance through my mind, they chase my dreams and live in weaker but still vivid my waking hours.

With the rise of the hot sun, fears fade a little, but they do not go away. Now the beat of the Comparsa drummers, the crowd noises and that loudspeaker amplified torrid voice of a fully eroticized woman singing her explicit desires does not let me hear any other thing

Fear of death has driven most to their basic reproductive instincts. In this drive to survive, through out Cuba men and women bury themselves and their fears in the buzzing heart pounding fog of choosing multiple, ready sexual partners. They seek to lose themselves in the glad, frantic joining of willing bodies, and in the forgetful wet, musk scented, sleep, that follows exhaustive copulation. Cuba, always lubricious, now burning to fight fears, is more than ever is in the arms of Eros.

These Comparsas are new celebrations to me. I never knew much about the carnivals, the pre-Lenten feasts of carnality, the feasts of the living flesh, the wild carnivals filled with frenetically dancing Comparsas of urban Eastern Cuba.

These Comparsas are not part of the culture of the warrior Güajiros that I know from the mountains of the same province. This is not the 1950s style Americanized organized parade of sumptuous floats adorned with elaborately dressed and flesh revealing women, an elaborately tamed display to be motored by to delight the admiring sophisticated crowds of Havana. This carnival is different.

For this carnival the new government, has brought in people from the far Eastern province, the Comparsas from Santiago de Cuba. They come from such poor districts as Los Hoys and Mejiquito barrios of this city. Their culture relates more to Santo Domingo and even Haiti than most of Cuba.

These Comparsa people are not bound by the rules by which most Cubans try to live. Culturally and linguistically they are distinct from the peoples of Havana's and the other provinces, even other parts, more Taíno, Güajiro based parts of the same old Oriente Province.

These people of the Comparsas live lives modeled after the African gods, gods as far from the rules of Catholicism as the lecherous gods of ancient Greece. These people are examples our families fear, be our skins black or brown or pink. Our parents fear we children could become like these people if they relax their guards. Our parents fear: if they lose their income, marry “wrong,” if we do not have a productive life, do not get a good education and a good profession, or take to crime, we children could be come as such.

Many of these people of the Comparsas had recently followed Batista, for his own brother Hermilindo a priest of these African rites, was half-Black, like many of them. Now they seek and find new allegiances to the new Castro government. To this new government, as to the past government they so recently served, they will offer their lives as soldiers. Like in the past the new government will use them and their freer morality to serve its purposes. Then, as the previous government did, will abandon them when such rejection is expedient. Then these people in the 1990s will be the despised and internally deported “Palestinos.”

Other Comparsas dancers here on the street are from the Havana Cayo Hueso district. They are from places of desperation, poverty, crime and cheap prostitution. They are from poor places that will not change, despite all the promises of the new government.

This is not a place where those like me can go; it is too dangerous. Old hates, old envies can be appeased with a quick, secret, jab of a knife. So from afar, I learn from what can be heard from Grandfather's Havana house on La Calle Concordia. I soak in what can be seen from the high third floor balconies of our house.

The tiles on the old iron railed balconies wobble at my steps. I step with care not wandering close to the edge. The surface of narrow Concordia Street, the street of concord, of conformity, is far below, hard and unforgiving. I dare not go to the edge high above cruel concrete of the street. It would be so easy to fall from there.

The government detours all buses, all traffic, from Infanta Avenue. Yet, but even high as I am, I can smell the diesel fumes of the buses going up the San Lazaro incline. Diesel fumes are strong and drown out the gentler salt-iodine-putrescine smell of the fertile sea not a mile to the north.

Here high above the ground, the strong smell of the floral perfumes of the women, the perfumed talc from the men’s socks and shoes, and the increasing smell of sweat does not reach me consciously. Unconsciously, all the smells fill my mind, invading me with lustful thoughts.

Our tall ancestral Havana house, iron barred doors and windows protecting it, is less than half a block uphill and west of Infanta Avenue. The sound of the songs and the music is quite deafening. The syncopated beating of the poly-rhythmic drum beats, spreads downward through the streets of old Havana and upwards to the steps of the University making the street and the old floors of old house undulate to the rhythm, the rigid tiled walls vibrate.

The Santiaguera comparsa woman sings again. Her rich, somewhat hoarse, sonorous voice powerfully amplified over the loudspeakers, keeps singing in a hypnotic, mesmeric, repetition, some Freudian chant. Her song, is full of frank desire and undisguised lust, it tells about her having a catchers mitt and her man a baseball bat.

At first, it is an almost all black or deep tan crowd. For blocks to the south the wide Avenue is packed almost edge to edge, with sweating Comparsa dancers. They are dancing frantically, but smoothly to the drumbeats, filling Infanta Avenue from San Lazaro to many blocks south. The microphone amplified songs and drums beat their complicated rhythms for the hours without end.

Then not all is Black; the carnival draws in the rainbow of race in Cuba, mixes and stirs in it endless human whirlpools. The torrid atmosphere transcends race, transcends humanity, all involved commit themselves to the sexual oblivion. In the crowd, the blood so recently spilled for freedom forgotten, all is now all is urgency for pleasure.

Women’s curving hips sway to the music in endless seduction. The men resplendent in their loud colors respond with passion and aroused to semi-madness compete, dancing for the more desirable females. The women move ever closer to their choice of mate of the hour. Men’s hands’ reach out and touch the willingly offered flesh. There is no coyness; this is a time of unabashed primeval lust. The dark, moving flesh shines with sweat and the pheromones of passion fill the air.

They dance for hours; they dance for days. They never seemed to tire. They buy food and get drinks from the vendor stands. The stands are sheltered from the rains, along the wide covered sidewalks, on the western side of Infanta Avenue. Under this shelter, out of the tropical rain, the vendors sell from small- wheeled carts.

On each cart, exotic food preparation-machines work their diverse tasks. The machines make food in strange extrusions of bright primary colors and strong flavors. The odd machines functions’ are shielded, and the prepared food kept for paying customers, in glassed in boxes on top of the carts. The vendors, wearing flat sided white army type caps and dirty stained white aprons, provide greasy fried foods: coconut flavored cookies, fruit flavored ices, and many other things.

The dancers gather for their refreshments behind the great columns that rise bulky, often square, from the very edge of the raised sidewalks to support the rooms above their heads. The stores, restaurants and bars open directly on to this sidewalk like great dark caves entered by square doorways hung over with stiff curtains of rolled up steel shutters.

The bars sell rum to the dancers, inhibitions flee. Stores sell bottles of powerful drink to be passed around from mouth to mouth. The restaurants sell strong Cuban coffee in tiny demitasse cups. Caffeine levels are so very strong. Such strong caffeine, my biochemist mind now tells me, inhibits phosphatase breakdown of cyclic GMP hormones and gives erections that last forever. Under their clothing the women’s vaginas pulse, opening wide like red lipped flowers. The dancers sing deliriously of coffee and lovers lost and waiting…

Outside in the street, the warm tropical rain falls unheeded on the possessed dancers. The dancers wet clothes clings to their bodies, hiding nothing. There are revealing rounded muscles and firm dancer-breasts and rounded nether regions, the dark secrets of their loins are exposed, the dancers’ excitement is boldly displayed. In pairs they creep away to rooms, to doorways, to satisfy their excited lusts, and return to the street seemingly still full of a mad energy that defies sleep.

This incredible loud rhythmic and lascivious song goes on for days. The dancing crowd blocks the entry to, harasses and disturbs the Lenten, pre-Easter, services at the massive, somber, brown stone bulk of the Iglesia del Carmen Catholic Church building which is on that street, at that place. From the roof of the church’s squat, square bell-tower, above the bells that now do not ring, the glazed dull metal eyes of a huge bronze robed statue of the Virgin Mary do not see the revelers disport their wanton passions.

The Church building’s raised, pillared, shallow sloped roofed, Roman style portico protrudes to the edge of the street. Government guards and informants stationed there had monitored the faithful to no avail. The believers, their faith strengthened by adversity, still come to pray, to climb the steps of the portico; they pass the open, great, iron studded wooden church doors to enter the cool dark candle lit interior.

Iglesia del Carmen's interior is a blur of candles, altar railings, and pews. The smell of incense rises from pendulums swinging, of smoking, silver censors held high by white robed altar attendants. As the faithful eyes’ adapt to darkness of the Church the magnificent gilded baroque paintings of saints and flowers on the walls and columns stun their minds with detail and richness. The somber polished wooden pews dully reflect the flickering candles. The faithful kneel on the hard knee stands, their knees hurt from the worn wood; they pray for hope and future.

The believers smell the purifying odor of nose itching, tear inducing, burning incense. In this odor of sanctity, they wait their turns, to rise one at a time from the pews. They walk head bent to kneel again to confess their sins and their fears at the side grills of the elaborately carved, ornate, wooden, confessionals. Priests sit leaning forward in the dark to hear the faithful. The priests have heard these sins many times before, yet still they pray to themselves, to rid their minds of carnal distractions.

The Catholic Church fights the atheistic Cuban State; this is just another attack. The Church, a stronghold of the strict morality of the Catholic faith is under siege. The Cuban State has chosen its weapons and its allies well this time.

Yet, this is more than just a battle for power. This is another battle in the endless war between of freedom and unrestrained passions of the ancient polytheistic religions and the more sober, more restrained monotheistic faiths.

Here is as the old conflict in which those who once censored King David for his dances of joy had once fought those who danced like the Queen of Sheba, the African bride to be of his son Solomon. Here is as in the times of the apostle Paul fighting the excesses of lechery, lubricity, libidinous, drunkenness and lust of celebration of Bacchus, and the ritual prostitution of La Gran Puta of Babylon.

This is just another battle in a struggle that antedates the escape from Africa of the followers of the one G-d. It replayed the escape of stiff necked, pious, Hebrews from the Egyptian Pharaohs. Each Pharaoh living, breeding, and dying in turn, as the centuries turned to millennia had erected, great statues to graphically display the power of their phallus. The stone phalli of Egypt are gone now smashed from the living stone by irate, puritanical, Moslems. In the here and now, in the Catholic Church of the Carmen, the remembrance of Passover, transformed into Easter, also defends itself against the gods of Africa.

Once more, passion wins the confrontation between faith and the flesh. The pagan spirits light the faces of the children of those stolen from that ancient continent as they dance seeking solace and sexual joy from the old ways.

Perhaps this circumstance is also a kind of rhythmic precursor to the acts of "repudio" and rejection that the Cuban government will later use to suppress its adversaries. Or perhaps it is just Carnival. What ever it is the situation is too dangerous we, in the family, as most upper and middle class people in Havana, stay away

In the Church of El Carmen a brown robed friar kneels. His hands trembling as he holds them before him, he prays desperately to keep the drum driven sounds away from his ears, the passions of the flesh at bay from his mind.

Outside in the warm, humid, tropical night there is are powerful odors of heated sweat. An impassioned woman raises her skirts to her lover, pressing her buttocks against him. She raises her left leg leaning sideways against the hard stone of a pillar of the portico. The stone is still warm from the day's hot sun. Now her right knee is bent around the ridged muscles of his slick sweated waist. The sensitive inside of her knee feels the pressure as her gripping thigh holds her against him. She feels her groin press against his. Her pelvis thrusts back, back arches. She feels the lips of her wet vagina swell in the welcome of the vertical smile; the lips first hold, and then slip as he enters each time. Their bodies touch and she feels the fire of contact. He drives in again in lost to all around him. They move to the music. The drums' beat as if following her accelerating pulse, the complex polyrhythm goes on and on faster and faster, then slows. She throbs, she holds herself, and she throbs more and more. She lets go. The nails of her outstretched arm half hold, half claw, towards the chinks and cracks of the old church walls; she cries out her sexual ecstasy."

In the third floor apartment where I live in the family house on Concordia , the sound continues, the tile floors vibrate…

Larry Daley copyright@1996 revised@1998, 1999, 2000, 2006


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