Salsa Si, Castro No

The whole world has been watching Chicago, and not because it cares who’s mayor next. The world, or a healthy slice of it, wonders how Chicago’s going to handle its Castro problem: will a 50-year-old Cuban band that popularized the cha-cha get to play this June at a Latino music festival in Grant Park?

Standing between the 14-piece Orquesta Aragon and the Petrillo band shell is the moral and economic muscle of Chicago’s Cuban American community. Economically, the area’s 17,000 Cubans are powerful far beyond their numbers; morally, their position has the unyielding quality common to sufferers who are sure that compromise will dishonor their suffering.

“Orquesta Aragon is the national orchestra of Communist Cuba,” explained Marlen Vilas Roth, the Cuba-born spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Federation, one of various Cuban American organizations marching as one on this issue. “While my friends are rotting in jail, it is Orquesta Aragon who is entertaining the troops and militia to improve their morale. Sentiment here is running high because Castro is celebrating 30 years in power. It is not only an insult but adding salt to our wounds. We’ll use every peaceful means to stop it.”

The Univision Spanish International Network flew a TV crew up from San Antonio to cover the ongoing clash of principles. The report was beamed to households in Spain, Mexico, and Central and South America. In Miami, the story topped the Spanish-language news.

“Chicago is a world-class city,” said Roth. “It has a responsibility to act with class.”

Chicago, so far, has acted just fine. The idea of Viva Chicago, a lakefront Latino music festival, was a terrific one, and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events tried hard to put together a representative planning committee. Juan Montenegro, a sales rep for WIND radio, wound up the only Cuban on the committee, and he’s really catching it now as an inauthentic community spokesman; his big sin is that he makes trips back to Cuba. But Orlando “Pelencho” Miranda, “a true leader” in the eyes of Roth, was asked to join the committee and didn’t. Now he denounces Orquesta Aragon on his daily talk show on station WEDC.

Orquesta Aragon’s biggest booster on the committee was Victor Parra, a Mexican American who loves Cuban music. Parra plays a lot of Aragon on his WBEZ show Mambo Express and can tell from the mail that Chicago’s Cubans are glad he does. “When we selected the entertainment we went through a lot of names and groups,” Parra told us, “and we said, ‘Why not do a group from Cuba? That kind of puts the cream on this whole thing.'” Cuban bands had played at the jazz festival before; Parra couldn’t imagine there’d be any problem with Aragon, whose song lyrics veer no closer to the totalitarian than “Hey! Let’s dance!”

But Jose Lamas, the Cuban-born station manager of WSNS TV, Channel 44, took a look at the guest list and predicted trouble. He refused to add his station to the festival as a sponsor. “If you try to bring an orchestra from a country as repressive as Castro, you are sponsoring repression,” Lamas explains. “You are saying there is nothing wrong with this.”

Two weeks ago, the newspaper La Raza, which is read primarily by Puerto Ricans but carries a good deal of Cuban advertising, dropped out as a sponsor. WIND, under similar pressure, persuaded Juan Montenegro to resign from the Viva Chicago committee. The primary private sponsor is the G. Heileman Brewing Company, and if it backs out the festival might collapse. In self-defense, the Office of Special Events did some research and then reminded the brewery that Cubans don’t drink Old Style anyway. It’s the Puerto Ricans’ beer.

Michael Scott, head of the Office of Special Events, says that if the whole festival had to be arranged over again, Orquesta Aragon probably wouldn’t be invited. But they were, and Scott doesn’t want to be seen caving in and breaking a contract. “The issue is real clear,” said Maria Torres, a Cuban American who once directed Chicago’s Commission on Latino Affairs and happens to believe that Aragon should come ahead. “The issue is freedom of expression and a group that is trying to censor that.” The ACLU has been in touch.

Michael Scott’s consciousness might have been raised by the meetings and media confrontations (WBEZ, Channel Two’s Common Ground) he’s had with Cuban delegations, but otherwise they’ve accomplished nothing. He told us, “Even Cubans have confided they’d like to hear the band–it reminds them of their homeland. But it’s just what it represents.”

We told Scott that didn’t make sense. He said he knew that.

But of course it does make sense. To defend their dignity, people are apt to deny themselves all sorts of pleasures. And dignity, Jose Lamas told us, is absolutely the issue. Yes, anyone who objects to Orquesta Aragon can just stay home. But what is the point of a Latino music festival whose only Cuban music drives away a large portion of the city’s Cubans?

Weighing heavily against Orquesta Aragon, says Marlen Roth, is an old issue of the Cuban magazine Bohemia in which Castro hailed the group: “These are my people, the ones I’ll export.” Apparently this article stamped the band not as mere goodwill ambassadors but as the tyrant’s cat’s-paw.

“If Orquesta Aragon comes here with their families, their loved ones, if Castro doesn’t keep anyone at home as hostage, I’d be at the airport welcoming them, not with signs but flowers, because they are my brothers,” Roth told us. But she knows how Castro operates.

“I play the music of Orquesta Aragon. I have records at home and I have tapes in my car. I love the music of Orquesta Aragon. The music in some sense is fantastic. They’re what Victor Parra correctly says is the beginning of salsa music. No member of my group can say they don’t like the music of Orquesta Aragon [though some do]. I have seen them dance to it.”

Did their music change under Castro? we asked her.

“Even if they still are what they were, they don’t symbolize what they were. So my opposition remains the same.”

A Taste of Sneed

The Chicago Reporter thinks it has Mike Sneed cold. In a prodigious accomplishment, a Reporter task force put together a “content analysis” of all 507 Sneed columns from December 10, 1986, to March 16, 1989. And sure enough. Its findings supported the rumblings in the community “that Sneed has stereotyped Latinos and Hispanic culture more than any racial or ethnic group.”

The story’s in the April issue of the Reporter. For the Reporter’s taste, Sneed is a little too fond of “Sneedisms” like “salsa snarler,” “salsa mode,” “two hot tamales,” “The Big Enchilada,” and “The Big Taco.”

The Reporter made a common mistake. Oversensitive critics often confuse lively writing for lamebrained stereotyping. Fact is, the identification of persons or peoples by their favorite comestibles is an age-old and honored trope, often used affectionately. It’s seldom seen only because so few writers share Sneed’s fine gift.

Mike Sneed didn’t speak to the Reporter. But Sun-Times associate editor Mark Eissman, who edits Sneed’s column, answered questions from the Reporter’s Jennifer Juarez Robles. “Are we going to keep seeing these ‘taco beat’ images?” Robles asked him, using a dismissive term popular among Latino journalists in describing gringo coverage of their own people.

Eissman was sensitive to the note of self-loathing in this question and he addressed it. “I don’t think that the ‘taco beat’ implies that there’s anything wrong with tacos,” he said thoughtfully. How sad to see struggling minorities repudiate the very foods they eat! Call an Irishman a “cabbage head” or “potato head” and you’re likely to witness the same phenomenon.

“No, I don’t find references to tacos, frankly, on their face, to be offensive,” Eissman assured her. We assume Eissman was prepared to add just as emphatically that there is nothing pejorative about salsa, enchiladas, tamales, or even arroz a la cubana. If the Reporter thinks Mike Sneed objects to any of these tangy dishes, well it’s just way off the mark.

“Don’t color me rice-and-beans because I happen to be Puerto Rican,” pleaded Alderman Luis Gutierrez in the Reporter article. But if it happens, he should appreciate that it’s with no disrespect intended to rice and beans.

Lincicome Wins BAT

The eighth annual BAT competition was some kind of thriller! The BAT–or Baseball Accuracy Test–is Hot Type’s annual salute to Chicago’s scrivening solons who at the beginning of each baseball season attempt with so little success to foresee the teams that will ride high at the end.

Last April, each of the ten sportswriters surveyed–five from the Sun-Times, five from the Tribune–accurately predicted at least one division winner. This was unremarkable, ’88 being a year in which the Mets finished first in the NL East. Almost everyone always picks the Mets. The Tribune’s Bob Verdi (Oakland) and Ed Sherman (Boston) and the Sun-Times’s Ray Sons (Oakland) and Joe Bierig (Boston) each added one other division winner. Two out of four is a championship pace in BAT competition.

Unaccountably, Bernie Lincicome put the Mets second (behind the Cardinals), thus spotting the field a lap. But what a comeback! Not only did Lincicome choose Oakland but also, astonishingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

And he totally nailed the tiebreaker. Yes, Lincicome actually wrote last April that the Dodgers would beat the A’s in the ’88 World Series!

Two years ago, Lincicome lost at the wire for writing that Marvin Hagler was about to do “something awful . . . something sickening” to Sugar Ray Leonard, a lapse as unforgivable as a Vanessa Williams photo session. Now we’re proud to honor him, although we can’t let the occasion go by without mentioning that he saw Duke edging Illinois in the NCAA finals.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.