Posted on Sun, Apr. 17, 2005

Flowing from Mariel

Freedom became the intoxicating muse for a generation of artists

Gilberto Ruiz doesn't want to talk about the voyage that brought him to U.S. shores 25 years ago, but gently coax him and the images emerge with the force of his brusque strokes on canvas.

The overcrowded shrimper Mrs. Smugglers, the storming high seas, the smaller vessels surrounding them taking on water, people disappearing into the waves. The complete darkness of night, and then, a dock and freedom, unimaginable freedom.

''Mariel was the best thing and the most terrible thing that ever happened to me,'' says the 54-year-old painter whose first job in exile was as a fried-chicken cook at McCrory's in downtown Miami.

Likewise, in the poetry of Reinaldo García Ramos, journeys and escapes prevail, and the image of water is at the heart of his digital literary magazine, Decir del agua , a poetic phrase that combines the concept of water and speech.

One year -- 1980 -- and a tumultuous, historic journey from a Cuban port -- Mariel -- mark their generation as creators. Twenty-five years later, the stamp of artists, writers, musicians, thespians and dancers who arrived via the boatlift is sprinkled over South Florida and the nation.

''We arrived with a desperate need to express ourselves,'' says García Ramos, a retired United Nations translator who in Cuba had to declare himself ''an undesirable'' with authorities to leave the island and now writes from a Miami Beach apartment. ``For us, it was a liberation in the most ample sense of the word. We had not been allowed to exist in Cuba as artists. We had been marginalized, not allowed to publish, to exhibit our art. Freedom allowed us to become and Mariel was the laborious birth.''

That's why three years into their exile, Mariel artists staged their first art exhibit at Tamiami Park, where thousands of the Mariel refugees were processed and why a group of Mariel writers that same year -- 1983 -- began publishing the literary magazine, Mariel .

''Most people get here and yearn to buy a house and a car,'' García Ramos says. ``We wanted to publish a literary magazine. Some of us put our rent money into the magazine.''

The magazine closed in 1986, but it was long enough to establish the Mariel generation as an intellectual force.

The roster of Mariel artists is impressive: Primitivists Eduardo Michaelsen in San Francisco and Alberto Godoy in Houston; the late painter Roberto Valero in Washington D.C.; writer Roberto Madrigal in Cincinnati, who founded another literary magazine and editorial publishing house Término.

In Miami, the list includes artists Andrés Varelio, Victor Gómez, Luis Vega; drummer Ignacio Berroa, who played with the late Dizzy Gillespie; writers Carlos Victoria, Andrés Reynaldo and Luis de la Paz; radio personality Adrián Mesa; Miami Hispanic Ballet founder Juan Pablo Peña.

What makes their generation different from previous waves who left Cuba is that these artists spent two decades in a hermetically closed society. Rock 'n' roll was banned; religious worship was discouraged; gays were sent to labor camps.


''From 1960 to 1980 we suffered from intellectual asphyxia,'' says García Ramos, who translated books from French to Spanish for the official Book Institute but was not allowed to publish his own works. He was deemed ''ideologically deviant'' for participating in the independent literary publishing group El Puente from 1960 until 1965, when it was dismantled by the government.

``We left Cuba because we needed to breath.''

In exile, the work of Mariel artists is among the most irreverent, often taking on a quizzical discourse on the world. Ruiz's mixed media The Sky is Falling , inspired by the Mexican earthquake and Mount St. Helens eruptions of the early '80s, is typical. As is his acrylic on canvas Peaceful Path , in which a naked man is poised at the edge of a raft as if he were about to jump into a deep-blue ocean, into a fate unknown, all of his humanity exposed.

''One of the fascinating things about the Mariel group is that they break away from the baggage of exhausted nostalgia in Cuban art outside of Cuba because they don't have any nostalgia,'' says Alejandro Anreus, an art historian at William Patterson University in New Jersey who has curated exhibits by Mariel artists. ``You won't see stained glass windows bathed in light, that sweet nostalgic view of the patio in the house of painters like Cundo Bermúdez and José Mijares.''

The Mariel artists don't sell as much as those who toil with more nostalgic themes, but many like Ruiz, represented by the Barbara Gillman Gallery in Miami and preparing for a retrospective exhibit in the fall, have declined to do more commercial work and earn a living at another job. Ruiz, for instance, is a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


For many, the journey in exile has been bittersweet: Some of the most noted artists were lost to the AIDS epidemic.

One was an exceptional painter, Carlos Alfonzo, the other a provocative writer, Reinaldo Arenas, whose autobiography, Before Night Falls , was turned into an acclaimed film. And so were lost the painters Ernesto Briel, Valero, Humberto Dionisio and Luis Boza.

''Surely it has to do with the idea that for the first time, we were in possession of our lives and we surrendered to its force, and that includes sexuality,'' says García Ramos, who knew them all and has on his walls abstract paintings by Briel, for whom a commemorative retrospective is being organized at Miami Dade College in June.

``Unfortunately we arrived in 1980, and at that moment, there was no knowledge of the epidemic and it wasn't until '83 and '84 that we began to hear about it in New York, and by then, many had already been affected.''

Despite the setbacks, the desire of Mariel artists to break all bounds -- and their success in doing so -- has given the exodus newfound cachet.

Being labeled a Marielito, once a stigma because of the criminals and mentally ill patients Fidel Castro placed among the refugees on the boats, is now a source of pride.

In fact, many who arrived at the same time, but did not come via boat, call themselves part of ``The Mariel Generation.''

One of those artists, sculptor Laura Luna arrived in Miami on April 21, 1980, the same day as the first boat of what became the Mariel boatlift. But she arrived in Miami on a flight because her father, a freed political prisoner, had obtained a visa.

''The only difference between me and the other Mariel artists is the mode of transportation to come here,'' she says. ``But I am a Marielita.''

Luna, 46, is included in practically every Mariel exhibit and her life in Cuba echoes that of her fellow artists.

A voracious reader of Victor Hugo and Albert Camus when her contemporaries in exile read American and English authors, Luna, 46, studied at San Alejandro Academy, where some of the best Cuban painters were schooled. But she was not allowed to continue to study in the Escuela Superior de Arte because her father was in prison for counterrevolutionary activities, her mother was a Jehovah Witness, and Luna did not belong to communist youth groups.

''Everything was prohibited -- books, music, a certain kind of clothing -- but we [the young artists at San Alejandro] did everything we could to rebel,'' Luna says. ``Whenever we would get a hold of a prohibited book, we would take shifts reading -- someone would read it in the morning, another in the afternoon and another at night. In one week, you had some 20 people read the same book.''

Such a thirst for culture was the perfect thread in a Miami-in-the-making tapestry.

The musical tastes of the Mariel generation, for example, are more eclectic than the Cuban-Latin mainstream.

Mesa, the radio personality, was 18 when he rushed into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana with his older sister and 10,000 other Cubans, the event that catapulted Mariel.

Now on his three shows on Clásica 92.3 FM, he plays a mélange of music. There's contemporary Cuban music, the likes of the '90s-made Habana Abierta fusion ensemble, grass-roots exile singers like Marisela Verena and the late ''king of filin ''' Luis García -- in addition to singers from Spain, Italy and France, popular in Cuba when rock was banned.

He was among the first to break the long-held taboo of not playing singers like Elena Burke, who remained in Cuba.

''It's the music I grew up with,'' Mesa says. ``They weren't played here at all and I even had some problems at first with people calling me communist for playing them. But we were there all those years and we know who is who and who did what.''

But he's also not unfeeling to exile sensibilities.

''I won't play Xiomara Portuondo, for example, because she continues to boldly declare herself a communist at every chance, and the same for Pablito [troubadour Pablo Milanés] and Los Van Van,'' Mesa says of singers closely identified with Castro's government.

As for Mesa, he's dabbling in music himself, hosting an amateur show at Little Havana's Casa Medina Tuesday night and debuting recently as a singer and actor in the show Magia at Dade County Auditorium.

'' Oye ,'' he says in his trademark jovial voice, ``and proud to be a Marielito. Not just now, always.''

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