Cuba Takes Center Stage in the South Bronx

By Dan Fastenberg

Cuban Salsa singer Pepito Gomez performs at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. (Dan Fastenberg / The Bronx Ink)

The Grand Concourse in the Bronx may have been modeled on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris, but for the first Friday of every month, it will be evoking the spirit of Havana’s famous Malecon.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts, located in the Concourse section of the Bronx, has begun its “First Fridays” program, during which the 33,000-square-foot space will be used to showcase Cuban culture. Last Friday’s inaugural event was scheduled to coincide with the city’s 11th annual Havana Film Festival, planned to begin in Manhattan on Friday, April 16.

“In these hard economic times, it’s important to have a space for people to come together and relax on a Friday night,” said Ariel Fernandez, a Cuban-American and the program’s curator. “And also, we can show off a type of culture that’s not normally seen.”

On April 9, the season’s First Friday program kicked off, with a screening of two Cuban independent films, 20 Años and Homo Erectus, a question and answer segment with Homo Erectus producer Alejandro Gonzalez and a musical performance by Pepito Gomez and his sextet. More than 250 people were in attendance.

Communist Cuba has come a long way since its earliest days in the 1960s, when the Castro regime rounded up homosexuals and sent them into labor camps, persecuting them for a behavior Havana deemed a deviant offshoot of capitalism.

Fidel Castro himself began speaking out against homophobia as early as 1979, and sex change operations have since been included in the nation’s health care program.

Gender-bending was at the heart of the First Friday’s feature presentation, Homo Erectus.

“Because of what’s going on in both the United States and in Cuba, it was a good moment to do a gay film,” said Gonzales, producer of Homo Erectus.

The 44-minute feature film, which was shot over a four-day period in the eastern Las Tunas province, follows two lovers, and their star-crossed romance. The catch, however, is that the protagonist, Benito, is a man discovering his latent desire to be a woman, as he falls for a transsexual going in the opposite direction. Hilarity naturally ensues amid a light-hearted Cuban environment far removed from the sturm and drang of Cuba’s half-century old political saga.

“I am a Cuban-American, and I am so grateful for this type of programming; it showed us the human side of Cuba, and that’s why I came,” said Carmela Fernandez, who went on to call herself a born and raised “Jersey Girl.”

New Jersey and Southern Florida have long been the primary homes of  the post-revolution Cuban diaspora. But among another tier of locales preferred by Cubans leaving communist Cuba have been New York neighborhoods like Astoria, Washington Heights and the South Bronx. Cubans living in the South Bronx include Cuban Link, who settled in Morrisania section of the Bronx after departing Cuba in 1980.

According to the last census, the Cuban population for the entire borough of the Bronx stood at roughly 9,000, making it the sixth largest of the 19 tracked Latin populations in New York’s northernmost borough, after Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans.

This year’s First Friday schedule, the fourth annual such offering, comes at a pivotal time in  U.S.-Cuban relations with Fidel Castro approaching his final twilight, and a more open administration in Washington under Barack Obama.

“At this crucial diplomatic moment, what we can do is display Cuban artists, who wouldn’t have been able to come before Obama,” said First Fridays curator Fernandez.

“We need to show what a normal Cuba is all about,” Fernandez went on, referring to Pepito Gomez, whose sextet performed directly after the world premieres of the two films. Gomez defected to New Jersey in 2008.

His booming Cuban salsa – aka Timba – singing swept the audience off their feet, sending them into a trance of dancing as if the Bronx Museum of Arts was situated along the Caribbean Sea, and not near the Harlem River.

And for the event organizer, any geographical boundaries within the Latin communities are checked at the U.S. Customs airport gate.

“We didn’t worry about the interest in Cuban-specific culture at the Bronx Musuem of Arts,” said Fernandez. “It’s a Latin thing. All Latin Americans come together around here.”

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