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On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

Unlike many other Tropicana performers who either left right after the revolution or stayed in Cuba and lost contact with their colleagues in exile, Alicia was a bridge between the old and new Tropicana. Until 1957, she was one of the cabaret’s top models and dancers. She left for a higher paying job at another cabaret, and eventually landed the lucrative job of spokesperson for Trinidad y Hermanos, one of the island’s most popular brands of cigarettes. In 1967, after almost a decade in retirement, Alicia began working again, as the mistress of ceremonies in an artistic brigade the government sent around the island to perform in factories and other centros de trabajo (workplaces). Those were tough times for performers. “Some burro [ass] had decided to close the cabarets and all the artists were left without work,” wrote Alicia to Ofelia years later.

They turned Sans Souci into a military school and made plans to do the same with Tropicana. But here let me tell you a lovely story about a worker of Martín’s. His name was Miliki, and he worked in the kitchen. He was a staunch supporter of the revolution, but when he heard what they were going to do to Tropicana, he became very distressed. Somehow he had access to Raúl Castro [brother of Fidel Castro and head of the army] and he asked for an interview with him. Miliki told him that Tropicana had been created by a man who’d dedicated his entire life to that place. That he personally tended to every plant, every flower, every corner of that paradise. He’d go every day and if a plant was sick, he’d personally nurse it back, etc. The story of Martín’s utter dedication somehow convinced [Raúl Castro] that Tropicana should be preserved for the future and that the Cuban government would never regret it.

Miliki’s determination spared Tropicana the fate of Sans Souci. And six years later, Alicia Figueroa, then thirty-seven, became Tropicana’s new mistress of ceremonies. In her apartment, Alicia showed me a small black diary she kept during those years. The pages were full of the transliterated names of Eastern bloc dignitaries. “I had to welcome them as guests of honor, and if I didn’t write the names out who could possibly pronounce them?” The idea of statuesque Alicia Figueroa greeting Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to circle the earth, to the Paradise under the Stars sounds like it could be the opening line of a Cuban joke. Indeed, after the Soviets left Cuba, the country abounded with jokes about the Russians. In private, among Cubans, they were known as bolos (balls) because, as one friend put it, “Have you ever looked at them?” Cubans are fastidious—no man loves cologne more than a Cuban—and mercilessly funny when it comes to people’s physical characteristics. The poor Eastern Europeans, who were not accustomed to the relentless heat of the tropics, were the butt of many private jokes that in part, masked a terrible resentment. In the ’70s and ’80s, Eastern bloc technocrats and their families were given many privileges not available to the average Cuban; they could have foreign currency (for Cubans this was punishable by ten years in prison) and buy in special stores that had products not available on the open market. Often those products, like canned tuna and cooking oil, were later resold to Cubans at astronomical black market prices.

“What was it like to work at Tropicana in those days?” I asked Alicia.
“My son’s father would not let me take the boy out of the country,” she replied, skirting the actual question and justifying why she stayed on after the revolution. “I tried to sneak him out in secret, using false papers. I even had a person who was going to come to the airport and pretend he was the boy’s father. But I couldn’t go through with it. Once I decided to stay, I chose to incorporate myself into the system. I didn’t want my son to grow up the child of a dissident.”

Though Alicia tended to be matter-of-fact about her life’s choices, the how and why of her decision to stay in Cuba was a subject of some delicacy, largely because it alienated her from some who chose to leave at the beginning. As the car entered the tunnel under the Almendares River, she recounted a story of a trip to Miami the previous year, which coincided with dancer Miguelito Checki’s visit from Spain, where he now lives. A party was thrown for Checki at the home of a well-known Tropicana dancer, but Alicia, a dear friend of his, was not invited. Reportedly she was thought to be “too pink” because she did not leave Cuba immediately. It didn’t help that, like me, she traveled back and forth to Cuba. “It’s inexplicable to me,” she lamented, as the car headed back into the open sunshine of Miramar’s Fifth Avenue. “Everyone makes their decisions for their own reasons. None of my friends here make me justify to them why I eventually left for Mexico.”

There was truth to her argument but it also harbored an obvious blind spot. In Cuba, no one questions why a person leaves because the reasons are so obvious. Economic opportunity is just one reason. Times are hard in Cuba. Whether or not one subscribes to the Cuban government’s reasons for the hardship, namely, that the tightening of the United States embargo is placing undue stress on the nation, or the point of view shared by Cuban exiles and many residents within the country who don’t want to leave but who want the chance to open a bodega or shoe repair, it is no secret that daily life grows ever more difficult. “Without the few dollars that —— brings me, I wouldn’t be able to survive,” said a former Tropicana dancer, who insisted I not name him or his benefactor. In some ways, that’s no different than anywhere else. Without money, it is also hard to manage in New York, Sao Paolo, and New Delhi. But Cubans were given another type of expectation, and life was radically upended to support this vision.

We reached glamorous Miramar and pulled up beside Ana Gloria Varona’s yellow stucco mansion. Things here did not look so very different than they must have in 1953, when the tunnel under the Almendares River was opened, allowing for swifter access to the suburbs and the Marianao casinos. Except for the flapping embassy flags, satellite dishes, and the numbers of late-model cars belonging to the embassy personnel who occupy the mansions that once belonged to Cuba’s wealthiest families, this could have been just another sultry fall day in the 1950s when Alicia was making her way to Tropicana for an afternoon rehearsal, or when Martín Fox set out to see General Fernandez Miranda about securing zoning variances for a series of apartment houses he was trying to build next door to his and Ofelia’s seaside home. In contrast to the rest of Havana, Fifth Avenue boasted fresh paint and clipped shrubbery. Along the center divider of the boulevard, the trees were trimmed into bell-shaped topiary, as they had been in the 1950s. Ringed by high hedges, Ana Gloria’s home was a square two-story Spanish-style house that would not have looked out of place in Beverly Hills. She had shared it for years with her late and last husband, the high-ranking revolutionary general, Jorge “Yoyo” Garcia Bando.

Alicia asked me to wait for her in the car. Behind the hedges, two gardeners were pruning trees. Alicia rang Ana Gloria’s doorbell. A big white German shepherd trotted out when the door was opened, then trotted back in after Alicia.

While she was gone, my artist friend furtively snapped pictures of embassy sentinels and some children roller-skating around the topiary. I watched the cars on Fifth Avenue, imagining Ofelia whizzing past the mansions in her blue Eldorado convertible, with Sunan, the lion cub, riding shotgun. (Rosa now does most of their driving, but when Ofelia used to drive regularly she was a speed demon.) I pictured Martín in his white trousers and guayabera, overseeing the construction of the four seaside buildings a few blocks further north. Once they were completed, Martín rented out one of the four-story apartment houses, gave each of his sisters one, and gave another to Ofelia.

For Ofelia this was the greatest gift, better than all the jewelry Martín ever bought for her, because it enabled her family to move in next door to her. Ofelia’s nephew—Fara and Atilano Taladrid’s son, Raúl—still lives in an apartment that Martín and Ofelia had rented to him when he was first married. His son, Reinaldo, the man who originally gave me Ofelia’s phone number, has settled into his late Grandmother Fara’s apartment. I thought about going over to the buildings but held back, because of the bad blood between the relatives. I also worried that the two men, who were both high-level members of the present government, might not have taken kindly to my probing, especially if they knew I was now close with Ofelia and writing about Tropicana. As of this writing, Ofelia’s nephew Raúl Taladrid is deputy minister for foreign investment and economic collaboration; his son Reinaldo is a television newscaster and member of the “Mesa Redonda,” a political roundtable that airs several times a week to discuss issues, ranging from the foreign policy views of the 2004 American presidential candidates to the fate of five Cubans who were convicted of spying in the United States in 2001. My fear was that one of them would try to thwart future attempts of mine to get back into the country. Though I had had no run-ins with either of them, it was not a far-fetched worry.

The Cuban government is hypersensitive about the written word. Two art historian colleagues of mine were barred from entering Cuba after writing books—in both cases seemingly benign art texts with only tangential political content—that still managed to offend the authorities. So instead of visiting Ofelia’s relatives, I imagined her and Rosa with me waiting for Ana Gloria, enjoying the sunny morning in her old neighborhood. I daydreamed about us having our nightly cocktail under the mamoncillo trees at Tropicana. It was a lovely thought, but impossible. For decades a dividing line has existed between those Cuban exiles who travel to Cuba and those who refuse to go there while Cuba remains communist. I sometimes felt Ofelia was tempted to return, but Rosa Sanchez, who left Cuba well before the revolution, was a broken record on the matter: “I will not go anywhere where I am not free to speak my mind!”

After nearly forty minutes, Alicia was back, with the weary countenance of someone returning from a particularly tough diplomatic mission. “Ana Gloria was worried about the way she looked,” she said, slipping back into the driver’s seat. “She’s going to fix herself up, then meet us for lunch.”

Now that I had spent so much time with former Tropicana showgirls, both in person and by leafing through the pages of the magazines that are a record of their glamorous past, I realized the mistake we made in simply showing up at Ana Gloria’s unannounced. The women of Tropicana do not face the public without looking their best; even now, when most of them are grandmothers. Cabaret women were revered for their beauty. Their looks earned them the name of diosas, “goddesses,” whose sequin-clad bodies were the quintessential expression of their country’s celebrated sensuality. At the larger cabarets, such as Tropicana, Sans Souci, and Montmartre, and even at many of the smaller ones, like the Cabaret Nacional at the corner of Prado and San Rafael in Central Havana, or the rustic Bambú on the road to the airport, production numbers included scores of dancers, singers, and vedettes.

There were also modelos—models whose job consisted mainly of sashaying along the stage and, at Tropicana, on catwalks in the trees, wearing outfits designed to show them off. Jenny León was a modelo. So was Alicia Figueroa, though she had been trained as a dancer. Ana Gloria Varona was strictly a dancer. She was Cuba’s leading performer of baile tipico, the term used for traditional Cuban dances like mambo, cha-cha-cha, guaracha, and son. Her fame came more from what she did than what she looked like. But her appearance contributed. Ana Gloria was small, shapely, with dark features and a rosebud mouth that was pursed in perpetual coquettishishness.

In October 1955, when she returned to Tropicana after a hiatus to appear in the Asian-themed show Casa de té, Show magazine ran a photo of her with the caption “bella entre bellas” (a beauty among beauties). Actually, Ana Gloria was not as striking physically as Leonela González, Jenny León, or Alicia Figueroa; but she emanated playful sexuality. She oozed it and winked it from the pages of the February 1958 Show, where she is pictured crouching in a leotard on the cover, and smoldering in a black halter bikini on the pages inside. She was twenty-two then, and had been a star for seven years. The article in Show describes her body almost as much as it does the spice and speed of the mambos she performed with her longtime partner, Rolando. But this was the 1950s, when such things were applauded without reservation. More importantly, this was Cuba, where, even now, broad hips, a well-formed pair of legs, and most of all, full, round nalgas (the most elegant term used to describe a woman’s bottom) can still elicit block after block of heartfelt, if disingenuous, marriage proposals.

In Cuban argot, the comments that men deliver to women on the street are known as piropos. Piropos are not lewd and aggressive. They are usually uttered softly, unlike a catcall. The classic piropo is affectionate, expressing joy at what the Cuban man considers God’s greatest creation. Sexist? Absolutely. But when you walk down the streets of Havana and someone murmurs, “Mamá, me éstas matando (Baby, you’re killing me)”; “Voy a soñar con esos ojos (I’m going to dream of those eyes)”; or the most famous piropo of all, “Si cocinas como caminas, me como hasta la raspa (If you cook the way you walk, I’ll eat even what sticks to the pan),” it is hard not to feel your step grow a little lighter. It’s a good idea to keep going, but you might find yourself tossing a smile over your shoulder, moving a little slower, with more subtle bounce and rhythm. Right there, on the streets of Havana, you become a Tropicana modelo, strutting for an appreciative public, showing off what you have to offer.

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