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Leaving for Yuma!

Leaving for Yuma!

by Andreas Clarck

In the mid-seventies, the Centro Habana municipality (which was not falling apart yet) enjoyed the privilege of having more than a dozen movie houses. Spacious, comfortable, more often than not ventilated by ceiling fans (the air-conditioners were almost always, and have been since then, broken) whose huge blades could have lifted a Russian helicopter filled with Siberian bears. The programming of those neighborhood movie theaters basically offered two types of films: Soviet war films and American westerns. Both types of films featured a lot of shooting, but while in the Westerns shots were fired one at a time, the shooting in the Russian war films came from bursts of machine fire, salvos of rockets from the Katyushas, plummeting planes and invincible tanks.

And these movies were never new releases, although the scenes that were painted on the theater’s glass doors (which were then still intact) would announce them as first showings. Perhaps they were premieres in Cuba, or at that particular movie theater whether they had been filmed two decades or two days earlier.

So, one day, when I was still a kid, I went to see a film which no one in Havana, or anywhere in Cuba for that matter, really remembers a single word of the plot. Yet the old western (remade in 2007) became memorable in our country not for the story it told, or by the actors who starred in it (Glenn Ford and Van Heflin), or for the title song (composed by George Duning). It has gone down in history among habaneros for a single word. And this was not a word uttered by either the hero or the outlaws, who never did much talking anyway. The word in question was the one that lit up the sidewalk in front of the theater, exhibiting a perfect and playful typography chosen by the artist who had painted the title of the film on the theater’s glass doors. There, in brilliant red italics and a canary-yellow edging viewers could read: 3:10 to Yuma.

I was completely unawares that on that day the word “yuma” would forever enter my life and the lives of all other Cubans for good. Gradually and since then—nobody knows how and why, although there are philosophical, etymological, sociological and anthropological speculations galore—people started to designate the US and all its inhabitants with the word yuma. The term “gringo” never took root with Cubans and “Yankee” had a pejorative, even contemptuous, and ideologically charged meaning. Yuma, on the other hand, was good and appealing. It was not only used to describe the name of a place or a people, it was also an adjective denoting positive qualities: something yuma is, in general, a very good thing. And that something can be yuma even though it was made in China.

A couple of years later, the word accomplished what few can: it took a leap from street language to popular music, which enshrines for eternity whoever or whatever achieves the feat. And yuma did just that, although indirectly and where no one would have expected it—in a song by The Jacksons, released in the winter of 1978, written by Randy and Michael Jackson, featuring Michael on lead vocals.

The song was “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” which arrived in Havana’s Malecón thanks to shortwave radios tuned in by an infinite number of listeners at sunset. The song was catchy and quickly put the Cubans to dance and shake their bodies properly, like only Cubans can. The problem at the time was that Cubans knew how to dance, but weren’t too strong on English. So what happened was that when it came time for the chorus, people would improvise and sing anything except the original lyrics, which was almost Greek to them.

So one night, at a neighborhood party celebrating an anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks over twenty years ago, while The Jacksons thundered from the loudspeakers “let’s dance/let’s shout/shake your body down to the ground,” the residents of my block improvised: “the train is leaving/leaving for Yuma/the train is leaving…” I have to admit that the Cubanised, street version of the song had a somewhat adverse effect, especially when a few months later the Mariel boatlift was taking place.

“Shake Your Body” would be the last song performed live by The Jacksons during a concert at Madison Square Garden in September 2001. I can’t say for sure, but maybe, just maybe, some Cubans in the audience that day sang what they had learned back home: the train is leaving/leaving for Yuma…