¡CUBA VIVA! — Undocumented

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 U.S. No, my undocumented status owed more to the crepuscular zone that surrounded my teenage years 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 fourteenth and fifteenth birthdays was like a cloud that had me checking a metaphorical sky before venturing out into the world. I never knew from which way the rain was going to come.

At fourteen, the back of my ears was still too wet for me to understand my surroundings.

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 Avenida 23, Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos 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 Sônia 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 Calle O onto Avenida 23. 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 ID 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 parlor, on the corner of Calle I and Avenida 23, 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.”

“Sônia 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 movie theater 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 Sônia 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 Sônia’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 in 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 that crepuscular zone had cast its magic mesh tighter and I couldn’t think properly.

“All right, then, but if you get caught, you’ll have to say you stole my ID. Oh, and enjoy Sônia Braga’s breasts! She spends half the film in the buff.”

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?” Paralyzed 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 your 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 Sônia 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.

¡CUBA VIVA! is a three-part series focusing on life in our sister country to the south, Cuba.

By Mario López-Goicoechea

Mario López-Goicoechea was born in Havana, Cuba, but has lived in London with his wife and two children since 1997. He majored in English at Havana Pedagogical University and has written for The Guardian, Prospect, and Prisma. His first work of fiction, a short story called "Dawn," appeared in The Voice, Britain's leading black newspaper, in 2012. Also a teacher of Afro-Cuban dance, Mario writes about books, music, politics, the economy, social affairs, and Afro-Cuban culture at his blog, A Cuban in London.