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On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

On Diamonds, Razzle, and Goddesses of the Flesh

Nowadays at Tropicana, most of the modelos are attenuated, medium-to-dark-skinned black women. (“Where do these beauties hide? I’ve never run into a single one!” lamented my artist friend the first time he went to the cabaret.) But in the 1950s, the women were all white or at least had pale skin. “No one could imagine una negra as a standard of beauty back then,” said a former dancer who asked not to be named. It was unfortunate, for then, as now, the country teemed with stunning women of all skin colors. Tropicana was not alone in this policy of only picking white, or white-looking models and dancers. The pages of Show reveal hardly any black women at all, the exception being the singers. On the other hand, there are many, many light-skinned women of mixed race, for the problem was not race itself, but appearance. “There was a standard,” said dancer Eddy Serra. “If you were reasonably light-skinned, tall, and shaped like una guitarra, you had a chance at stardom.”

Still, the general dearth of blacks at Tropicana, both onstage and in the audience, has led some to say that the club had a whites-only policy. It is an accusation Ofelia rejects with even greater vehemence than she does the one about Tropicana being owned by the Mafia.

“That’s an absurd point and I want to make sure we address it directly,” she insisted during one of our earliest meetings. I had asked the question in response to a 1996 Los Angeles Times article titled “Legendary Cuban Hot Spot is Newly Hot,” in which the reporter published an account of racism told to her by a former Tropicana parking attendant, Policarpo Fajardo Suarez. “When [a group of African-Americans] got to the lobby, the owner refused to let them in,” wrote reporter Juanita Darling, specifically stating that it was “Tropicana’s owner” who was at the door enforcing the club’s alleged whites-only policy.

“Can you imagine something more ridiculous than Martín working the door?” demanded Ofelia when we discussed the article. As it turned out, she had also seen the article and had responded with a terse and pointedly acerbic letter to the Times:

This is to let you know that Juanita Darling’s article about Havana’s nightclub Tropicana… erroneously states that the establishment had a whites-only policy in the 1950s.
I am the widow of Martín Fox, owner of Tropicana, and I can assure you that while my husband ran his casino-night club, everyone was welcome if they could pay the tab and wore proper attire (we had a collection of jackets and ties for those who came unprepared.)
Sincerely Yours,
Ofelia Fox

Ofelia accompanied her letter with photographs that showed her and Martín laughing with Nat “King” Cole and his wife at the bar at Arcos de Cristal. In another picture, she and Martín are standing with a group of Haitians at her table, one of whom, she said, was the president of the country. As with so many matters involving Tropicana, I found myself caught between conflicting positions. On the one hand, the pictures supported Ofelia’s statement; on the other, the presence of diplomats and singing legends hardly indicated racial tolerance. (As I looked at those pictures of the Haitian delegation the whole racial question temporarily faded as I wondered whether I was looking at the face of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, one of the most brutal dictators of the era. The men were, in fact, the country’s foreign minister and cultural attaché to Cuba, both of whom had been invited with their wives and assistants to the opening of Vodú ritual, a 1958 Rodney production based on Haitian ritual.)

Given that in Glendale there was such adamance but little concrete fact to illuminate the matter of racial tolerance in 1950s Tropicana, I made a point of frequently asking the question in Cuba. When I visited La esquina del jazz, the all-black jazzista club in the neighborhood of Santa Amalia, I asked the members if they felt any racial tension when they used to go to the weekend jam sessions. “Claro que no!” said Gilberto, the owner of the house. The crowd that surrounded us echoed the sentiment. “But what about the cabaret itself?” I pressed. “Were any of you ever there at night, for the shows?”

“Bueno, not really,” said Gilberto uneasily, shrugging. “But that’s because it was expensive.”
“And most of it wasn’t our music,” echoed Roberto Cabrera. “We were mainly interested in jazz.”

On the patio of the UNEAC, I asked musicologist Helio Orovio to elaborate on the matter. Orovio laughed and stroked his chin as he pondered the question. “Mira, it’s very complex. Remember that this country had un mulato as president, but that man couldn’t become a member of the Havana Country Club. And sure, there were all sorts of racial separations here, but remember that here we’ve always been more liberal about mixed-race couples. And there were black dance clubs where whites were not admitted. In the cabarets, things were a little different.”

“That’s right,” murmured someone in the all-black crowd of musicians that had gathered around Orovio.

“You have to realize that all our music is black. And many of the musicians were black, without question. And Rodney era mulato también… But to go as a guest…” Orovio pursed his lips, his bushy white brows crowding his eyes, then seeming to scatter across his entire forehead. “It wasn’t really about being turned away… It was more about spending time where you felt comfortable. In Havana there were dozens of cabarets. Why would you need to go to a place that merely tolerated your presence, if you could go someplace where the music was just as good and where you could be with your own gente?”

In his 1930 essay “Cuban Color Lines,” American poet and author Langston Hughes described the specifics of the racial question in Cuba:

In spite of the fact that Cuba is distinctly a Negroid country, there exists there a sort of triple color line. At the bottom of the color scale are the pure-blooded Negroes, black or dark brown in color. In the middle are the mixed bloods… Then come the pure white of skin. In Cuba, although these three distinct divisions exist, the lines are not so tightly drawn as in some of the other islands of the Caribbean. The British Islands are the worst in this respect…
Occasionally a dark Negro occupies a very high position in Cuba. That is what misleads many visitors from the United States—particularly colored visitors who are looking anxiously for a country where they can say there is no color line—for Cuba’s color line is much more flexible than that of the United States, and much more subtle. There are, of course, no Jim Crow cars, and at official state gatherings and less official carnivals and celebrations, citizens of all colors meet and mingle. But there are definite social divisions based on color—and the darker a man is, the richer and more celebrated he has to be to crash those divisions.

The issue of race at Tropicana was summed up for me by two stories, told to me by black employees of Tropicana. The first was recounted by Pedro Antonio Calvo, a prep cook known as “Goyito,” who spent years in Tropicana’s kitchens brewing huge urns of coffee and chopping hundreds of heads of lettuce. “One night this black guy came, wearing a tux, his wife with beautiful clothes, but he came on a Saturday night and there was no table,” recalled Goyito, who is himself of African ancestry. “So the guy pulled out a huge tip for the maitre d’ and they found him a table but it was behind a tree, and he couldn’t see. Then he went into the casino and started losing. He wrote some checks. When they checked on his credit, Martín asked, ‘Where is this guy seated?’ When he found out, Martín just about hit the roof. ‘Find this guy a good table!’ he said. ‘Make sure he’s happy and keeps spending money.’”

The story confirms what Langston Hughes noted about wealth allowing individuals to crash through the racial divide. But a second, more disturbing story was told to me by Bebo Valdés.

One night these four black peloteros [ball players] came to the cabaret. They’d come all the time. I knew them. But that night there was a table of about sixty Americans from Mississippi and they complained to the management about the presence of the peloteros. Next thing I know, Martín and Ardura call me over. They say, “Bebo, this is happening. What do you think we should do?” They wanted the peloteros to leave so the people from Mississippi would not leave. But they didn’t want to insult them. Or me. So I said, “Look gente, you’re my bosses and you do what you think is right. But in my opinion, you have to do what’s good for business.” Martín and Ardura went over to the table and asked the peloteros to please come back another day. They let them in for free that second time as their guests.

In essence, the ball players were asked to leave.

Black or white, rich or poor, capitalist or communist, there is one thing Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida have always agreed upon: a woman’s beauty depends upon fullness—especially of the thighs and nalgas. Later that day, as I waited with Alicia outside the crowded Cubacel offices, I found myself paying special attention to the constant nonverbal dialogue among men and women. There was plenty to take in: stares, whispers, demure, and some not-so-demure body language. The streets of Havana are mini-theaters, an ongoing telenovela (soap opera) a lo cubano, actually, and as I watched two young guys jabbing each other furtively as they glanced at the thigh-high hem of someone else’s bottom-heavy girlfriend (she was obviously aware and working it, in my opinion), I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of Enrique Jorrín’s song, “La engañadora” (The Deceiver), which is considered the first cha-cha-cha ever written. The song, which starts off with the phrase, “A Prado y Neptuno iba una Chiquita… ,” tells the story of a girl who was walking near a busy corner in Central Havana (the corner where the Miami Restaurant was situated). The girl was so well-formed and plump, the song says, that all of the men had to stare at her. However, when they learned that her plumpness was achieved with padding, and that she was deceiving them about her fullness, they stopped staring.

And in Havana, the idea has always been to keep them staring. Rodney looked for that quality directly when he scouted for modelos on the streets and in el campo, where he could spot a guajirita with the proper raw material a mile away. “He chose them mainly for their bodies, not their faces,” remarked Gomery, Tropicana’s former makeup man, when I visited him in Miami. “An ugly face can be disguised with makeup, but you can’t fake a tiny waist that blossoms into colossal thighs and hips or monumental height. Por dios, those women were magnificent!” he cried, looking at photos of Sandra Taylor and Zita Coalla, two of Tropicana’s most celebrated modelos.

Raw material was only the beginning of the process of becoming a Tropicana modelo. “The women had to carry themselves regally, like true diosas de carne,” said dancer Hector Leal, referring to Rodney’s April 1958 production, Diosas de carne (Goddesses of the Flesh)—a tribute to female sexuality that was based on the women of Greek literature and mythology. (Of course, Rodney conjured Greece in his own way. One of the production numbers featured model Clarita Castillo bathing in champagne in a gigantic goblet.) If gracefulness did not come naturally to a woman, as it did to a dancer like Alicia Figueroa, there were grueling lessons, and these were in addition to the dance classes that were mandatory for the entire cast and held three mornings a week at Tropicana, where they were taught by either Henry Boyer or Eduardo Perovani, two of the cast’s male ballet stars.

Hair was cut short. Rodney felt it added chicness and stature. Dancers Gladys Robao and Monica Castell, and modelos Rosalia Fernandez and the almond-eyed Nora Osorio, who showed up for her audition as a guajirita wearing a long ponytail and lopsided beret and went on to become one of the most celebrated modelos in Cuba (and the obsession of singer Miguelito Valdés), were among the stars of Tropicana whose short hairstyles were almost identical. China Villamíl, whose long hair used to so dramatically sweep the floor in the production of Mayombe, was also gone by 1957.

Show magazine featured the women monthly in their saucy “Ensalada de pollos” (chick, or chicken salad) pages. The pollos electrizantes (electrifying chicks) were posed in bikinis, shorts, and garter belts, crouching in the sand, sprawling across the deck of a yacht, one leg hitched up, knees crossed, gazing at the viewer from the back, over pointedly provocative captions: “Monica Castell—with that anatomy one can never lose a battle”; “The sculptural Mistuko Miguel—a splendid invitation to life”; “The sweet and spectacular Sarah Corona—few women in this world can offer the characteristic of a twenty-three inch waist and thirty-nine inch hips… upon her graceful gait one can hear unanimous murmurs of exaltation among the public.”

Then there was the beloved Leonela, the darling of all Cubans, who graced the covers of both the April 1955 and June 1957 issues. Leonela’s pictures reveal a fullness that would normally be anathema to any other ballerina. “Speaking of Leonela’s legs,” reports the 1955 article, “we recently learned that the first lady among our dancers has had the foresight to insure them against accident. The sum? Not more nor less than $30,000. And a small sum it is indeed, given that the secret to her success is in those shapely lovely legs.” The accompanying photographs beg the question—as Show would have so dramatically asked: what about the rest of her?

At exactly two in the afternoon, Alicia and I stepped into the garden patio of La Fontana, a paladar where we were to meet Ana Gloria for lunch. Paladares are a type of house-based restaurant in Cuba, one of the few businesses that can be privately owned and operated. There are many rules and, of late, many restrictions to the operation of these restaurants, but in the verdant surroundings of the business that is half-owned by Ana Gloria’s son-in-law, you sensed nothing but abundance. It had been raining, and all of the dense foliage, the vines that crawled up the thatched roof of the waiting area, the fragrant hibiscus, gardenia, and bougainvillea blossoms that surrounded the cast iron café tables sparkled as if dotted with jewels. A pair of box turtles lifted their heads languidly out of a bubbling turquoise-tiled fountain, looking for us to feed them bits of ceviche, crab, or calamari.

La Fontana is known for its seafood, and in the cozy basement-level bar where we were eventually seated, a room decorated like an old-fashioned Spanish taverna, there was a full wine list to complement the selections. We ordered mojitos from a waiter who stared at Alicia Figueroa. Did he know her, or was it just this thing that she possessed, this legacy of beauty that was as fresh that day as when she was onstage in a garter belt and stockings? I’d been noticing this happening all day, even when we stopped off in the crowded Cubacel offices, where the atmosphere was charged with tension and frustration.

Alicia leaned towards me and whispered, “I think that’s Ana Gloria’s son-in-law.”
The strapping dark-haired man looked too young to be the owner of a restaurant, but then again, in Cuba it is mostly the young who have the will and verve to start a business. Most older people—forty-something and up—either find it too hard to work around, within, and through a system that discourages private enterprise, or are unalterably locked into the old ways, where the state owns everything and takes care of everyone.

Ana Gloria’s son-in-law stopped to say something to his bartender. His body language and demeanor bespoke self-confidence. I knew nothing of him, but it was evident that he knew all the right people, and his success was a foregone conclusion.

“These paladar owners are like the Martín Foxes of their era,” I said to Alicia.
The music of Alicia Figueroa’s laughter turned every male head in the room. Ana Gloria’s son-in-law strode towards us, full of entrepreneurial affability.

“Ana Gloria called,” he said. “Unfortunately, she won’t be able to make it after all.”

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