“They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team. An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.”
“They are not traitors. They slipped up. People will understand. They’ve repented. It is a victory that they have returned. Others did not.”
-Teofilo Stevenson, three-time Olympic and world amateur heavyweight champion.
At Trejo this afternoon, I was introduced to Guillermo Rigondeaux, the fighter everyone’s been whispering about at the Cuban National Boxing Championships. Rigondeaux is 27 and has already fought nearly 400 times as an amateur. He’s considered one of the greatest amateur fighters who has ever lived. He makes the equivalent of $30 a month. His nickname is “El Chacal” (The Jackal) and even from a distance he lives up to it.
I’d seen him from the corner of my eye while I was training with Brea. He was just prowling around the shade under the bleachers near the entrance to the gym. The Macbeth witches guarding the entrance clammed up and tripped some kind of silent alarm. He watched us training in the baking afternoon heat. When I caught him looking in my direction I felt like I had two barrels of a shotgun pointed at me.
After Brea noticed him he dropped the hand pads he was holding for me and went over with some of the other coaches to speak with the 5’5 and-a-half, two-time Olympic gold medalist. Rigondeaux was dressed in a ball cap and jeans with a fake designer label shirt with the sleeves ripped off.
Only one coach, Héctor Vinent Cháron, a two-time Olympic gold medalist himself, takes his time to greet Rigondeaux. Héctor leans back against the ropes and lights up a cigarette while his children students study the sadness on his face.
Last summer, on July 22, 2007, Rigondeaux and his teammate Erislandy Lara didn’t show up for their scheduled bouts at the Pan Am Games in Brazil. At the same time, it was announced that Rigondeaux was turning professional and joining with his fellow 2004 Cuban Olympians Yan Barthelemy, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlandier Solis, who defected earlier in 2007. Following the lead of the previous Cuban defectors, Rigondeaux signed a promotional deal with Arena Box-Promotion. Then, on August 2nd, Rigondeaux and Lara were taken into police custody in Brazil, pleading that they wanted to return home to Cuba. Fidel Castro states publicly that Rigondeaux and Lara will not box again for the Cuban team.
When I was introduced to Rigondeaux and shook hands with him he nodded solemnly and asked where I was from.
It’s always strange hearing any fighter’s voice for the first time, but especially with great fighters it throws you. A part of you expects their voice will somehow match the flawless economy of movement they demonstrate in the ring, or harmonize with the fierce face and fatal weaponry they’ve made of their body and force of will. It never does. Rigondeaux’s voice is flat and dry as a sheep’s, but his eyes are extraordinary. Looking into his eyes is like looking at the bottom of the ocean. It’s been thirty seconds and I still can’t locate the answer to his question.
He smiles and looks at the coaches for some explanation.
Brea steps in and gives me his credentials while omitting anything to do with the business in Brazil. Here are his titles, famous victories, the fighters he’s been compared to. Another coach remarks, “The greatest Cuban fighter since Kid Chocolate.” While they pile on the evidence for a legendary champion’s legacy, another element immediately becomes apparent. None of it will ever be recognized with the system in place. Nothing this kid has ever done or can ever do will define him more than the stamp Castro has placed on him: Traitor. Traitor to boxing. Traitor to his family. Traitor to his team. Traitor to his city of origin. Traitor to his country.
Brea asks about Rigondeaux’s car that the state had given to him. It has been impounded. Rigondeaux is very upset about this.
Héctor finally comes over rubbing his belly before shaking Rigondeaux’s hand. They have an uneasy exchange of words. I wonder how much Héctor’s choice of staying put in Cuba out of fear has influenced Rigondeaux’s thoughts. I wonder how much Héctor’s fate in Cuba influenced his decision to try to escape in Brazil. I wonder what Rigondeaux’s life can amount to remaining here.
Brea grabs me and we go back to training. He wants to stretch out the legs of his english:
“Heyyyyy, wazza mattah?”
“Heyyyyy, wazza mattah?”
“He’s very sad to look at.”
“It’s very cruel what’s been done to him. He’s very young to lose doing what he loves. He denied trying to leave.”
“What can he do now?”
Héctor has come over to light another cigarette and glare at me.
“Looka for me, Brinicito. Looka for me.”
“I’m looking at you, man.”
Brea grabs hold of his mustache to keep from smiling. “Leedle by leedle. Leedle by leedle…”
That night, after the National Boxing Championship fights are over, I walk a Cuban girl named Ria home from Kid Chocolate. She’s 20 and studies computer science at the University of Havana. She also designs applications for Facebook and smuggles them out to relatives in Miami where they can be sold. The Latin Film Festival has been on and we’ve seen some films together. She loves movies, museums and the ballet. They’re all free to Cubans so she sees as much as she can. She’s fun to watch movies with. There’s no air conditioning in the movie theaters so she brings along a little feather to fan herself with. I never get enough of her doing it.
She wants to walk along the Malecón.
Dollar portrait photographers with their 100 year old cameras are packing up across the street at the front steps of the Capitolio. The shriveled, dolled-up “authentic” old Cuban women who keep the unlit baseball bat-sized cigars in their mouths all day for tourists march arm-in-arm past the gathering of men engaged in never ending debate at the Esquina Caliente in Central Park.
I was a pen pal with Ria for several months before I flew over. It’s strange finding someone on the page before you have them anywhere else. She insisted we write in English so she could improve. She’d never left Cuba before but knew about everywhere I’d ever traveled to from books. When I told her about my mother she knew all kinds of details about Budapest and the revolution there and asked if my mother had seen the tanks rolling in as a child. Then she asked how and in what circumstances I’d lost my virginity. Lots of seamless segues. I met her on the front steps of the University and we started over the conversation and maintained it at the same time.
A pack of kids fly by chasing after a ball. The police are everywhere monitoring all movements. All over the park now you hear the penetrating hiss of jineteras and jineteros from stone benches looking for business in dollars. Hotel employees and cab drivers across the street from the park keep tabs on the action. The hotel-approved bands play for tourists on the patios while security keeps all other locals away.
After we’d seen a movie, I invited her to watch the Havana team fight that evening even though she didn’t care much for boxing.
I buy her an ice cream on the corner of the block as a bald tourist walks by with his arm around the waist of a gorgeous young Cuban girl.
Ria watches them and turns to me.
“I wondered when you first contacted me if that was the arrangement you were looking for.”
“It worried you?”
“It amused me,” she smiles and squeezes my wrist.
“How many boyfriends do you have?”
“Que va. I’m innocent. So dime. What movies do they like where you’re from, Brinicito?”
“Not very good ones anymore. Comic books and superheros. They like movies for escape mostly. Distraction.”
“Not even sad. Depressed.”
“Movies to me are as close as we have to dreams. What do they wish to dream about where you’re from? Por ejemplo, what is the most popular movie of all time in gringolandia? “
“Titanic made the most money.”
“I saw it. We get pirated DVDs of American movies from the black market.”
“What did you think of it?”
“Titanic doesn’t sound like escape or distraction to me. Castro would say Titanic describes a lot about America.”
“Capitalism as the doomed, unsinkable ship?”
“Bah! Forget politics. Emotionally. Existentially. There’s poetry in what that ship’s failed journey meant. Have you read Neruda?”
“Listen, forget Pablo Neruda and start talking about Leonardo Dicaprio.”
“Titanic has different significance here. We don’t go on cruise ships anywhere. Cubans are the descendants of pirates. We’ve always stolen the treasure from the European ships that passed through Havana after they stole it from someone else. Many many ships were sunk in our harbor. Why do your people care so much about an unfortunate accident with a pointless transatlantic crossing?”
“Gringos are obsessed with ordinary people in the most extraordinary circumstances.”
“I don’t know.”
“I must tell you, the only part I liked about Titanic is when the orchestra plays after they find out they will die. That Cubans would like.”
“I wonder if it was true.”
“Everyone has the same death sentence as those doomed people on that big boat making all their plans for what they will do when they arrive in New York. It’s uninteresting. The men who played their instruments are beautiful.”
“Do you play an instrument?”
“I play four.”
“What would you play?”
“Under those circumstances?”
“I don’t know. Just a melody of some kind. I like little melodies. We’re all just melodies in the lives of everybody we know.”
“So what’s your melody, Ria?”
“How can I know? It’s played with your orchestra. I’m elevator music for most but maybe a symphony for someone who loves me. Even with us it is a little strange. Do I have the same melody in person as in writing when you read me? Are both melodies playing for you and you’re guessing which is the real me? Do they play nicely together or give you something you didn’t expect? Maybe you were curious and attracted to me but you aren’t now. Maybe it’s the other way around. This is a little complicated I think. I don’t even know if my melody or my country’s melody is a happy one to someone like you. Maybe we seem very sad.”
This throws me and we walk for a while in silence.
When I first arrived here as a kid the same age as Ria, happiness was the first canary I went looking for in Havana’s coal mine.
We’ve turned along the Malecón. For a couple miles kids glaze the cement in sticky embraces with waves just over the edge. Sometimes just below their feet other people are fooling around against the rocks but all you can see is origami shadows. There’s a trumpet played between two fisherman. Some hookers being hassled by a cop are paying attention. He’s finished his tourist set and started on his own thing. At night it’s always haunting when the loner silhouette musicians play their own thing. They show up in the forest, street corners, alleys, or stand on the Malecón like this guy. When they go off on their own thing you have to go off on your own thing. Sometimes it’s spooky.
“Do you know who Guillermo Rigondeaux is?” I ask Ria.
“Of course. From Santiago de Cuba. Soon to be in Miami, I would expect. He has no future in this country now.”
“Do you agree with him trying to leave?”
“Many of the great boxers and baseball players have left already for America. And the propaganda machine will always call them traitors. It’s unimportant. What is important is why Cubans who could leave remain. And the only answer the outside world can have is their own propaganda against us. Even with all their money they can’t afford to know.”