This one goes out to all the dreamers, the idealists… the “undocumented”. Undocumented. I always felt the DJ was talking to me when he played songs he knew would “connect” with a certain type of audience. Maybe there were teenagers of my same age all over Havana who felt he was addressing them, too. We were all in a way, undocumented. Not like the millions who, according to the news on the telly, lived invisibly and illegally in the US. No, my undocumented status owed more to the crepuscular zone that surrounded my teens like a magic mesh. Neither old enough to have a proper ID card nor too young to avoid being stopped by coppers constantly. Especially when wearing my hand-me-down skinny jeans tucked inside my military boots, my oversized shirt and my ‘fro.
However, having almost completed the first
stage of my journey from childhood to adolescence, I sometimes felt in those
years as if I had overstayed my visit to this strange land, this
infant/child/teenager archipelago, long after my tourist visa had run out. As
if I was a transgressor. An undocumented with few rights. Childhood was meant
to have all the signs of happiness stamped across it (even if mine had patches
of pain). But adolescence? At fourteen the back of my ears was still too wet
for me to understand my surroundings. And the period between my fourteen and fifteen
birthday was like a cloud that had me checking a metaphorical sky before
venturing out into the world. I never knew which way the rain was going to come.
That evening the DJ played “O Que Será (À Flor da Pele)” by
Chico Buarque. It was December and the Havana International Film Festival was in
full swing. And at the Riviera cinema on 23rd Avenue Dona Flor
e Seus Dois Maridos (DonaFlor and her Two Husbands) had queues going all the way around the corner and
reaching as far as Calixto García Hospital.
Chico’s song was part of the movie’s soundtrack. I saw this as a good omen.
Are you sure you want to do this, mulato? Yes, I replied. You and I look
similar, don’t we? No one will notice, I insisted. What if you get caught? I’ll
lose my ID and possibly get a fine, too. It’s OK, I know how to do it. My tone
grew more convincing. I’ve done it
before, I lied and he knew I was lying. All right, then, but if you get caught,
you’ll have to say you stole my ID. Oh, and enjoy Sonia Braga’s breasts! She spends half the film in the buff. A lascivious smile appeared on his
face. That’s not the reason why I want to watch the film. I love Brazilian
cinema. Yeah, right, he answered, and I love Sputnik magazine.
I blame the parents. Or my parents, rather, I said
to myself as I turned from O St. onto 23rd Avenue. My folks should
have given me an older brother so that I didn’t have to beg my best mate’s
brother for his ID. I checked the document again. Does he really look like me? Do I look like
anyone? Do I look my age? No, in school they still say I look younger than my
years. Damn, what if I get caught? But you’re on this boat now, so, sail on, my
boy, sail on!
At the Vita
Nuova pizza parlour, on the corner of I St. and 23rd Avenue, I ran
into El Plátano, camera slung on his
shoulder. One of these days I’ll finally ask him how he got his nickname. What
do bananas have to do with photography? He was standing almost in front of the
queue by the takeaway window. We exchanged greetings. What are you up to? He
asked me. I’m off to the Riviera cinema. Sonia Braga? The look in his eyes had
a certain mocking “Tu quoque, Brute” about it.
I didn’t know you were sixteen. I felt like saying I wasn’t but instead changed
the topic quickly. Where are you off to? Santiaguito’s playing at La Casa and I’m covering the concert. He
tapped his camera. Santiaguito at La Casa
de las Américas? If my risky enterprise fell through, I could swing by.
What time’s the concert start? I asked him. At 8. It should wrap up by ten,
then, I thought. And I wouldn’t break my ten o’ clock curfew. That’s if the coppers don’t get heavy with me and my
false ID. It was El Plátano’s turn in
the queue. You fancy some pizza? I knew El
Plátano didn’t make much money and I’d heard stories about him begging for
scraps sometimes. But the eighty cents in my pocket was the right change for
the cinema. I accepted his invitation. I grabbed the pizza slice, shook his
hand, shouted out a “See you later” and carried on to the Riviera. The picturehouse was on the next block. The queue was
long. I could see other “undocumented” lining up. We all swapped guilty glances
quickly and pretended not to see each other. On one of the glass doors I spotted
the gigantic movie poster with Sonia Braga sandwiched in between two men. They
were all facing away, their backs staring at us. To her left José Wilker
totally naked with a leaf strategically placed to cover his butt. To Sonia’s
right, Mauro Mendonça, who played Dr Teodoro, the husband she married when Wilker’s character (a handsome, erotic,
gambling, philandering good-for-nothing) died suddenly. I went around the
corner and walked a couple of blocks before joining the end of the queue. As
the seconds became minutes and the minutes turned into an hour I began to fret.
What if I get found out? What if one of my teachers happens to be on the same
queue? Already the prospect of seeing Santiaguito at La Casa looked more appealing than getting into trouble with the
cinema management or, even worse, the police. But the crepuscular zone that
surrounded my teenage years had cast its magic mesh tighter and I couldn’t
It was finally my turn. I headed for the box office.
I anticipated the questions. How old are you? Don’t you know that this film is
rated 16 plus? I slotted my hand in through the small semi-circular hole that
served as the only port of communication between punter and box office and
tendered my money in. The small, serrated, rectangular piece of cardboard with
the price, date and name of the cinema on
it fell into my hands. I swivelled around and headed for one of the glass
doors. Almost there! I felt relief. My ticket was torn into two at the entrance
and I was given half of it. As I made my way towards the big double doors
leading into the dark hall, I heard a voice behind me: “Excuse me, could I see your ID, please?” Paralysed with fear, I
stood there motionless, spinning in what seemed to me to be slow motion. I saw
his face. He was frowning. No uniform. Not a copper, then. Part of the cinema
management, surely. He repeated the request. May I see you ID? I carefully took
my mate’s brother’s identity card from my back pocket and handed it over. I
tried not to shake. He studied the document carefully. He looked at me and looked back at
the ID. You look older in this photo, he said. That’s because I shaved tonight,
I replied without missing a beat. He smiled. OK, he said, you can go in. And
enjoy Sonia Braga, she is a very good actress. His last words, including his
lecherous grin, echoed in my head as I entered the dark room. I sat in the cinema’s penumbral auditorium and the DJ’s words came back to me: “This one goes out to all the dreamers, the
idealists”. And the undocumented.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections, Music and Dance”, to be
published on Sunday 24th March at 10am (GMT)