La Vida Te Da Sorpresas y La Habana También!

I had planned thirteen days of research in Havana. I did not want to allow myself to be away from my children any longer than that. I am a Cuban and therefore had little illusion about what could be accomplished in the middle of a brutally hot tropical summer. I was well acquainted with the broken machines, the blackouts the transportation problems and miscellaneous delays…

And so it was. To start with, the National Library, the main place I was planning to work in, is to be closed until the Fall. In any case, I was doubtful of the utility of a search there. People without a history have there own histories, their own stories that have always served to help people exercise the hardships of life through the dances of son and rumba for a hundred years. My theses process requires a different type of investigation, a sort of archeology- plus time and a lucky star. The lack of previous research on Cuban popular dances makes it hard to figure out the state and location of sources. It is a headache, so “Corazon con Dios y pecho al agua”, as my Granma used to said.

My first clue is Rene Rivero, I just found two three minutes clips of him from YouTube! Tall and elegant, in the video he walks around his partner Estela, while doing the most impressive “tornillos”- son figures in that man resemble a screw, standing on a foot while the woman walks helping him to turn and to be stable- Almost eighty years after I haven’t seen nothing like it. My bridge to Rene Rivero is as uncertain as the weather in Havana, with a fifteen year old address in tow. I followed the traces of an amazing unknown man toward an street I never heard of in the heart of “Los Sitios”, one poor neighborhood in Centro Havana, whose single restoration plan is to fall down. I wish I had my video ready IPod on hand to make a nice clip of my journey.

Rivero’s memory is even vague in what remains of his family. None of his descendants met him or ever saw him dancing and they don’t have an archive. No, no and no, this is not a jackpot I expect. Rain and heat waves alternate in the afternoon, God knows this land needs a good clean up.

Days after, Rivero’s grandniece calls and leaves several messages. She REMEMBERED, her mother mentioned about a book of pictures of Rene.
I wait for her call with anxiety, hoping that better news is at hand, but my time in Cuba is almost done. She is with an Iyalorisha, a Santera; she helps others through her knowledge of ancient oracles and offers to the ancient African gods. I wonder if she sees her practice as the ancestral shrine it is. I wonder where Rene Rivero is in her pantheon?

On Sunday finally I manage to view the pictures. I wish I was an archivist to be sure that I’m handling them in the right way. I go back with few more pieces of the past, of the recognition he achieved, the handsomeness and greatness of Rene. I think again in the Orishas. Orisha means a selected head, the ancestral memory of the chosen ones, a chain of great souls from the past to the present. I prey to restore Rivero’s memory, to turn his past and stories into History.

Posted by Yesenia Fernandez — MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

Published by Yesenia Selier

Cuban-born performer and researcher Yesenia Seller is the recipient of fellowships from CLACSO, Cuban Heritage Collection, the Díaz-Ayala Cuban and Latin American Popular Music Collection and Tinker Foundation. Her work on Afro-Cuban culture, encompassing dance, music, and racial identity, has been published in Cuba, the United States, Colombia, and Brazil. Yesenia has worked alongside artists like Teresita Fernandez, Coco Fusco, Septeto Nacional de Cuba, Jane Bunnett, Wynton Marsalis, Chucho Valdés, Pedrito Martinez, Román Diaz. She wrote and produced the theater play “ Women Orishas” for Miami Cuban Museum (2013); the show “Cuba en Clave” for the New York Cuban Cultural Center (2014); the performance-procession "Día de Reyes" at Madison Square Park (2015); the performance "Oshun-Inform" in Washington Square Park (2016); “Love Vibration”, Queens Museum (2017); “Nigra Suns” at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2018); "Indigo" (2019). Yesenia is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, at New York University.

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