“¡Libertad!”: Cuban Metal Bands Get Their First Taste Of Freedom

After spending their lives making extreme music under oppressive circumstances, a handful of Cuban bands — with the help of a writer and a filmmaker — finally got the chance to play in the U.S. The hardest part: deciding whether they could ever go home again.

From left to right: Justo Valdez, Alejandro de la Torre, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Alejandro Padron, Jezabel Sigler, Yando Coy. Bottom Row: Ewar Acosta,Yanio Lee, Jennifer Hernandez Photograph by Tracey Noelle Luz

I’m standing outside an old theater amid throngs of dudes wearing black concert T-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands like Bathory, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and Gorgoroth. The theater’s marquee explains their presence: “8:00 PM, 666 Fest.” Inside, the first in a series of brutally noisy metal bands is thrashing through the beginning of their short set. I could be almost anywhere, but I’m not. It’s March 2012, and I’m in Havana writing about the underground Cuban metal scene, a small but unbelievably dedicated community of musicians who are exorcising their existential frustrations at extreme volumes.

Alex Sanchez looks a lot like any of the other metalheads milling around here — long black hair, black T-shirt, jeans — but he’s one of their ringleaders. Along with his twin brother, Michel, Sanchez manages two bands: an anarchic, Satan-upping black-metal group called Ancestor and a deafening death-metal outfit known as Agonizer. The twins also publish an underground metal zine and helped organize this two-day festival. When I first meet Sanchez outside the theater, an old Art Deco cinema in the Vedado neighborhood, he calls me “bro,” an affectation I normally find pretty irritating, but one that, coming from him in his thick Cuban accent, feels like a genuine expression of fraternity.

Sanchez is a teacher by trade. All his work in music generates no real income — in fact, it usually costs him money. For the 666 Festival, he tells me, they set the ticket price low enough — less than 50 cents in American money — so that the average Cuban, who earns the equivalent of $20 to $30 a month, could still afford it.

“It’s not going to be profitable,” he says. “Me and my brother have to work regular jobs. This is a hobby.”

Sanchez gives me a short primer on the history of metal in Cuba, which goes back to the early ’80s, and tells me about the struggles bands face here now: locating equipment, distributing music, booking shows, making money, navigating politics, dealing with censorship. The Cuban metal scene has never been huge, but what makes it so strangely compelling is that pretty much every band here plays the loudest, most punishing and extreme form of metal imaginable. As Joel “Kaos” Zalazar, bassist for Ancestor, one of the 666 Fest headliners, puts it, “In Cuba, you need extreme music to match your extreme life. You have something to scream about.”

It’s hard to talk about Cuba without recycling clichés about the country, but when you drive from José Martí Airport to downtown Havana, it almost feels like the Cuban government is trying mightily to perpetuate those clichés. There are billboards lashing out at the arrogant imperialist Americans, calling for an end to El Bloqueo — how the Cuban regime has long referred to the trade embargo the United States has had in place in some form or another since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. You can’t travel more than a few blocks without seeing a portrait of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, or another hero of Cuba’s 1959 revolution staring out boldly across the horizon. Slogans like “Todo Para La Revolución” are ubiquitous, emblazoned in attractive script across washed-out city walls.

In recent years, in response to a worsening economic climate on the island, the government has loosened restrictions on the private ownership of cars, homes, and small businesses, but the effects are barely felt by most Cubans. There is a dizzying maze of regulations, laws, practices, and mores here regarding everything from working to finding a place to live to taking a taxi across town. But as Zalazar tells me, probably the greatest strain for metal bands in Cuba is simply not being able to leave.

“You cannot have an international tour,” he says. “You’re not able to go someplace to get paid and take care of yourself. So the world doesn’t know about Cuban bands.”

This inability to travel is hardly unique to metal bands. In fact, exit policies and economic problems in Cuba have made leaving the country — whether to visit or emigrate — little more than a fantasy for most Cubans. As the drummer from another band playing the 666 Fest tells me, stone-faced, “Cuba is a prison.”

Zalazar, though, is a steadfastly cheery guy, especially for someone who covers his face in corpse paint onstage and writes songs with titles like “Sodomizer,” “Kill the Pope,” and “Hymno de Guerra 666.” He’s rail thin, with long, curly black hair and tattoos up and down his skinny arms. He first got into metal after his older brother brought home two albums, Iron Maiden’s Maiden Japan and Mötley Crüe’s Too Fast for Love.

“When you are 12 years old and see a cover with Eddie” — Iron Maiden’s iconic skull-faced mascot — “swinging a samurai sword, it’s something you cannot resist,” he says. “It was love at first sight.” In the early 2000s, Zalazar was a roadie for Zeus, arguably Cuba’s most successful metal band, and learned to play by watching their bass player during rehearsals. Zeus, he tells me, is also the only Cuban metal band to have ever played outside the country, though it was just a few dates at European festivals.

There is a mechanism of sorts in place for Cuban bands to tour abroad. As Sanchez explains it to me, first a band has to get an official invitation from a festival or cultural institution abroad that is willing pay for all the expenses. Only at that point can band members start negotiating the bureaucratic labyrinth necessary to obtain passports and all the other required paperwork.

“It’s very, very difficult,” he tells me.

I’ve been in Cuba for a few days at this point, and practically every band I’ve met has a story about that one time they were supposed to play abroad. The stories all end the same: The trip’s sponsor failed to come up with the money; the band members’ passports didn’t come through in time; the guy in charge of processing the paperwork was out of work for a month caring for his ailing mother. Whereas traditional Cuban salsa and jazz musicians appear to have levers being pulled for them at the highest levels of government, nobody seems that enthusiastic about exporting Cuba’s angry, disaffected, tattooed, head-banging frikis.

Later, I meet with a woman named Yuri Avila, who runs the Cuban Rock Agency, the governmental entity charged with promoting, publicizing, and booking shows for “professional” rock bands in the country. Avila has broad shoulders, a flat nose, and never smiles once during our conversation, instead looking at me with what seems like a mixture of suspicion and disapproval. I’d arrived in Cuba without proper journalistic credentials — I tried for months to secure a press visa from the Cuban government, but when one didn’t come through, I just hopped on a flight from the Bahamas to Havana the same way thousands of other not-quite-law-abiding Americans had before me. As soon as I sit down, Avila begins lecturing me about this visa issue in ominous tones that have me picturing the inside of a Cuban prison cell.

She doesn’t quite fit the mold of communist functionary, though: She’s wearing a black Juicehead concert T-shirt, shorts, and black sneakers. She tells me she ended up in her job after being a metal fan for years. As the bridge between the government and the metal scene, she’s frequently saddled with the unenviable task of explaining one to the other. When I ask her biggest frustration, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Things will be easier for us if we could get the chance to travel, if things could be more open,” she says. “That’s a dream for us. For all the interchanges that have gone on between musicians from the States and Cuba, none of have been rock musicians. Why? Someone must explain that to me.”

Sanchez, though, sees a path out — for him, for his brother, for his friends, for the whole metal scene in Cuba. I can tell by the way he gets excited talking about the prospect of bringing Ancestor and Agonizer to the U.S. that he imagines I’m a guy with a vast network of contacts in the media and entertainment worlds, a guy who can make things happen. In fact, I’m a freelance writer who works in a stuffy room over his garage in Georgia. But Sanchez’s enthusiasm is infectious because the next thing I know I’m telling him things like, “Of course! I’ll make some calls when I get back!”

It feels like the kind of promise I’ll never have to keep. After all, hardly anyone in Cuba even has internet access. Surely, I’ll never hear from Sanchez or any of these Cuban metalheads ever again.

Ancestor Photograph by Tracey Noelle Luz



Back in the U.S., the emails begin to arrive, roughly one a week from Sanchez, who has periodic access to email through his work. He tells me he has family and friends in the U.S. who could help finance the trip for him and his brother. The guys in Ancestor and Agonizer can also find the money to pay for their own trips. He just needs me to secure the invitations.

I begin to consider more seriously what I’m being asked to do. It isn’t much: Simply send a few emails, get them their invitations, and in return these long-suffering artists are able to leave their country for the first time in their lives. They’ll be able to play in front of American audiences — something no other Cuban rock band has ever done. Everyone knows about baseball, cigars, old cars, Fidel, and the Buena Vista Social Club, but not that this strange island has also been home to some of the harshest, most unforgiving music on Earth. Now they would.

I reach out to Alicia Zertuche, who books all the Latin-American artists for South by Southwest. She’s into the idea right away, but concerned that if we ever succeed in getting these bands here, they’ll never go back. In fact, she’s worried that they might disappear as soon as they hit American soil. That, she tells me, could cause problems for SXSW and make it more difficult for them to procure visas for artists from Cuba and elsewhere in the future.

In Cuba, most of the musicians I met denied any urge to defect. “We have our lives here,” Yando Coy, the frontman for a band called Escape, told me. “We just want to be able to play, come back, and go to another place.”

Personally, not only am I OK with the possibility that some of these bands might stay in the U.S. for good, that’s really the appeal of this entire undertaking. Nonetheless, I make some noises to indicate I’m sympathetic to Zertuche’s predicament and silently decide not to ask Sanchez, Zalazar, or anyone else what they plan to do if and when they arrive in the U.S. Partly, I’m worried that the emails I’m sending back and forth to Cuba could be monitored by the government; partly, I just want some plausible deniability should Zertuche ask me about it again.

A few weeks later, I’m in Manhattan having dinner with Tracey Noelle Luz. Luz spent nine months in Cuba in 2009 and 2010 making a documentary about Escape, a band that plays a powerful, primal mix of thrash metal, hardcore, and industrial rock. When she returned home, she started working to bring the band to the U.S. to play some shows. She formed UnBlock the Rock, an organization with the express purpose of doing so but also with a larger goal of using music to break down the walls between the U.S. and Cuba. I had already told her about the invitation from SXSW, and we’d decided to intertwine our fates.

Luz is maybe a little bit crazy in the way you probably need to be to devote years of your life to making a documentary about a band virtually nobody in the world has ever heard of. She’s fluent in Spanish, deeply knowledgeable and passionate about Cuba, and certain that once we start explaining our cause to other people, they’ll be tripping over themselves to give us money. She’s already put on benefit concerts for UnBlock the Rock, and made some key allies including Alex Skolnick, guitarist for the veteran metal band Testament, and Monica Hampton, who produced the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad.

After that dinner, the two of us — mostly Luz — set up a multipronged plan of action, some of which actually gets enacted. A proposal is written to entice sponsors. A budget is cobbled together. To her credit, Luz handles most of the fundraising efforts if for no other reason than I’m inept at it. She convinces WSOU, a metal-friendly radio station at Seton Hall University, to kick in cash as a sponsor. We toss around the idea of putting together a short tour so the bands can generate some money, but there are problems with this. For starters, although the Cuban government requires a foreign entity to pay for the artists’ travel, the artists themselves cannot be paid for their performances. I’m sure this has something to do with adhering to the principles of communism — “Todo para la revolución” — but like many things decreed by the Cuban government, in reality, it makes little sense. Besides, it’s hardly like a tour by obscure extreme metal bands is a cash cow. The thought of a benefit concert is also bandied about, but having listened to countless tales of well-intentioned concerts that wound up costing more than they raised, I have no reason to think we’ll fare any better.

Eventually, we settle on putting together an online compilation. It doesn’t seem likely to be a huge moneymaker, but it has the advantage of not costing us much of anything either. We call in some favors and put together a nine-track album featuring songs by a handful of metal and indie-rock bands (The Supersuckers, EyeHateGod, Black Tusk) titled The Red Album. It goes on sale through bandcamp.com in February, and I coerce a few fairly high-profile publications into writing about it. Then we sit back and watch the dollars roll in — dozens of them.

With SXSW weeks away in mid-March, none of the bands have their paperwork in order and we’re several thousand dollars short of our financial goal. We resort to sending out increasingly desperate — if not outright hostile — pleas for cash to anyone we think might have some. At one point, Luz persuades me to send a letter to Yoko Ono, convinced that once she learns of our crusade, she’ll gladly open her purse. She does not.

On Feb. 16, I get the following email from Sanchez:

david!! we are all finishing applying for ds 160 today, i am sending the visa confirmations to alicia so she can phone our embassy to speed the appointment and visa giving. i hope we should be doing the interview somewhen next week and getting the visa approval right awway or two days after the interview. we have reservations for the plane tickets for the 10th of march, so we are just waiting for the embassy and then get our luggage ready…
stay tuned
alex

On March 3, a week before the bands are due to fly to Miami, nothing has happened. The bands have submitted their paperwork to the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs but the ministry has yet to send them to the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana, which will ultimately need to issue their U.S. visas. Over the next week, there are constant emails — from Alex, from Luz, from Zertuche, from an immigration lawyer who is helping us out — updating the progress, or lack thereof, on the bands’ struggles to get their visas and other paperwork in order. An email arrives stating that the members of Escape have gotten their visas, only to be contradicted by another email an hour later. There are conflicting reports about the latest possible moment the band members can have their visa interviews. No one is sure exactly how much money we’ve raised and how much more we’ll need. It’s chaos. Zertuche enlists her local congressman for help. Alex tells me that they’ve taken their appeal to a higher authority.

“We are all devil worshippers but are praying to all the gods that things work out this week,” he writes in one email.

Somehow, out of all this mess, on March 10, all three bands, plus Sanchez, his brother, and Avila — who is along as the Cuban government’s official minder — land at Miami International Airport.

For Luz, who spent nine months living with the members of Escape while she was working on her documentary, this is the surreal culmination of a long, arduous process. When she meets the band in the airport terminal in Miami, she wraps her arms around frontman Yando Coy and tells him, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for three years.”

“I’ve been waiting for it for 28 years,” he replies.

Sanchez arrives in the U.S. with $5 in his pocket, to split between him and his brother. As I find out, that’s pretty typical of each of the 16 who’ve come over from Cuba. As Zalazar explains to me, “We’re not rich but we have possessions, like a computer, a bed, or a fridge. We sold everything possible. We have the idea that coming here was like the light and we should do whatever possible to get to that light.”

Others tell me about selling musical gear or begging whatever money they could from acquaintances in Cuba. Still, in most cases, that was only enough for a plane ticket and not much more.

As Sanchez puts it, “All the members had to sell everything and pool the money together, because in Cuba, your salary is like nothing. To pay for the visa interview is 25 times my salary — maybe more for a plane ticket.”

Despite the money worries, the entire contingent spends a few days around Miami soaking up the fruits of capitalism — strip clubs, Taco Bell, etc. They survive thanks to the generosity of friends, family, and strangers who emigrated years earlier. This isn’t unusual for newly arrived Cubans to Miami. It seems there’s always a couch or a floor to sleep on, some food to eat and, if you’re lucky, a few cold beers. Maybe this is the heartening legacy of a deeply ingrained socialist mind-set or maybe it’s just pay-it-forward pragmatism: As long as the community keeps taking care of its recent émigrés until they can take care of themselves, there will continue to be someone to look after the next wave of them.

A few days later, the unlikely caravan rolls into Austin. The show at SXSW, though, is a little anticlimactic. There are maybe 50 to 75 curious onlookers who come to watch each band play a 45-minute set in a small club just off 6th Street. The bands sound pretty great and some of the crowd even responds — one over-enthusiastic (and deeply inebriated) fan begins moshing so violently during Agonizer’s set that he knocks the production manager to the cold, hard concrete floor, cracking her phone and bloodying her nose, elbow, and ankle — but if I’d walked in off the street, it would look an awful lot like a few really energetic bands playing to a half-empty room. I’m not sure what I expected, but after a year of anticipation, I can’t help feeling a little let down. I guess I’d been envisioning the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but found that we were just kicking at some bricks.

After the show, Sanchez and his brother introduce me to a guy with closely cropped hair and a face that looks remarkably like theirs.

“This is our brother,” Sanchez says. “He lives in Houston. We’re meeting for the first time.” The twins’ father came to the U.S. when they were 3. He remarried here and started a new family. They’ve known about their brother but never met him before tonight.

While in Austin, I mostly avoid asking any of the Cubans what their plans are once SXSW ends. Their visas are good for six months but their return plane tickets are scheduled for April 10. It’s clear that not everyone plans on using them.

Because of a 1966 law called the Cuban Adjustment Act and a later 1995 revision to it called the Cuban Migration Agreement (informally known as the “wet foot/dry foot” policy), Cubans hold a rarified place among immigrants. Any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil is automatically granted refugee status and can apply for permanent U.S. residency after one year here. But during that first year, Cuban immigrants remain in limbo — they are not undocumented aliens in danger of deportation, but without a green card, they can’t work legally.

Upon arriving in the U.S. days earlier, one of the first things many in the Cuban contingent did was register for a Facebook page. Most listed their current hometown as Miami, not Havana. I’m not sure if this was indicative of their intentions or just a reflection of their first-blush fondness for the newfound glories of 21st century life. But others, like Sanchez and Zalazar — both of whom have wives and new babies back in Cuba that they spoke of often — seem less likely to walk away from that for an uncertain future here in the U.S.

Saturday morning, the Cubans pack back into two vans and return to Miami, having spent less than 24 hours in Austin. The bands have booked a few shows around Miami in late March and early April.

Two weeks after SXSW, I get an email from Sanchez. He and his brother have left Miami and are now in a suburb outside Houston living with the brother they just met and the father who left home 30 years ago. They are not going back to Cuba.

A few days later, I call Sanchez. “Believe me, it was a very hard decision and still is,” he says, letting out a big sigh. “I think every day if it is going to be worth it because we left so many people behind. But that’s the Cuban reality. You get to a point where you don’t go any farther. You just go in the same place, in circles.”

When he and his brother first arrived in Miami, they hadn’t decided whether to stay or return.

“Being in Cuba, we weren’t so sure, because we haven’t seen the whole picture,” he says. “We didn’t know if we would get the support we needed.” In Miami, they were staying at their godfather’s house, but without work papers, without a driver’s license or a bank account, it was apparent things were going to be complicated for a while. Once they relocated to Texas, though, the decision became clearer.

“With our father here, I think we can make it because he is going to give us the help we need,” he says. “My father is trying to open a pest control company. Maybe we can start working with him.”

As difficult as it is for Sanchez leaving his wife and child behind in Cuba, they are in many ways the motivation for staying. His plan is to spend a year working, sending money back to his family in Cuba, and establishing his U.S. residency. Once he does that, he can return to Cuba next year to visit and start filing the paperwork to bring his family here through the U.S.’ Cuban Family Reunification Program. Of course, his father had a similar plan 30 years ago. I also wonder if overstaying his visa will complicate Sanchez’s ability to return to Cuba and start this reunification process.

“I really don’t know,” he says, sighing again. “We’re taking a chance. Maybe there isn’t going to be any problem because the relationship between Cuba and the States has softened. I think we can go back. We hope so. Because we’re not terrorists. We love Cuba but want a better future.”

Joel “Kaos” Zalazar (back row, far left) and Alex Sanchez (back row, second from right) with members of Escape, Ancestor and Agonizer and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez at SXSW in Austin, March 10th, 2013. Photograph by Tracey Noelle Luz



In early April, I fly to Miami to see what’s likely to be the three bands’ final gig together for a long time. The show is at a strange little club called the Covenant Music House of Rock, located in a typically unremarkable South Florida strip mall. A couple hours before the first band is set to play, I’m in the parking lot outside the venue amid several dozen Cuban expatriates, including members of Escape, Ancestor, and Agonizer, when I spot Zalazar.

“This is Cuba,” he says, motioning to everyone around him. “It seems like 85% of the population here in Miami is born in Cuba or are the sons and daughters of Cubans. I haven’t spoke a word of English since we came from Austin.”

We sit on a curb in the parking lot, and Zalazar greets a steady procession of well-wishers. Some are old friends he’s seeing for the first time since they left Cuba years before. One woman — heavyset, probably in her late fifties, with hair dyed red and an outfit featuring more black leather than is advisable — staggers over, hugs him. This “Cuban metal grandmother,” as Zalazar calls her, was his neighbor 10 years ago. He spies another old friend unloading an amplifier from the trunk of a car and interrupts himself mid-sentence.

“That’s a great amp,” he says. “That’s something that in Cuba I only saw in magazines.”

The show in Austin, he admits, was a bit of a wake-up call. After nearly 10 years of playing in Cuba, Ancestor was used to bigger crowds. But there are trade-offs. “Here you can have this great amp you always dreamed of,” he says. “You can open for that band you always loved.”

As he’s talking, I notice a large tattoo on his left forearm that reads “Libertad,” and point to it. He laughs and tells me that in Cuba, people would often see it and raise their fists toward him in solidarity.

“But it’s not political,” he says with a sly smile. “It’s the name of my daughter. She was born last September.”

Another group of friends approaches, and one asks when Zalazar and the rest of Ancestor are going back. He smiles broadly and shakes his head. They’re not.

“Before the trip was even confirmed, we knew we were going to stay in the United States,” he says. “We decided as a band. If I went back and our drummer decided to stay, I wouldn’t be able to travel as a musician to any country, ever. But I cannot say to him, ‘You cannot stay!’ I cannot do that.”

Ultimately, though, the band was largely in agreement, as was Zalazar’s wife. Like Sanchez, he hopes to be able to bring her and his daughter here in the next couple years, but has no illusions.

“Maybe it’s a possibility, but maybe not,” he says, the smile running from his face. “It’s going to be difficult.”

This is likely to be the last Ancestor show for a while, he tells me. Zalazar is currently living with a friend, doing odd jobs to earn a little income. For a little while at least, the band’s business will take a backseat, while he and his bandmates concentrate on finding steady work and maybe their own places to live.

“Finding jobs is not easy, but if you find it, you get paid,” Zalazar says. “In every kind of situation, you are better paid here than in Cuba.

“And for me, this is going to last as long as me,” he continues, motioning toward his bandmates and the venue. “I can be 100 years old and I’ll always be banging my head because that’s what I love. So it’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be better.”

The show in Miami is a whole different beast from what went on in Texas. I appear to be the only non-Cuban in the crowd, and there is something of a hero’s homecoming vibe to the whole night. Besides Ancestor, Agonizer, and Escape, a few other bands of Cuban expat metalheads are on the bill, including a group called Metal Oscuro, who were, according to Zalazar, the first death-metal band in Cuba. At one point, I spot Avila, from the Cuban Rock Agency, and buy her a beer. I start to stammer through a question in broken Spanish but she cuts me off.

“I need to practice English,” she says. It turns out that Avila — the very person charged by the Cuban government with chaperoning this trip — is also staying in the U.S. We step outside into the parking lot, and she tells me that in some ways, her decision to stay was made for her.

“Only two guys are going back to Cuba,” she says. “If I go with them, I’ll have a lot of problems. Serious problems.”

As a government employee, she’s long been in the uncomfortable role of liaison between this community of defiantly, free-spirited metalheads and a sclerotic regime that has no idea what to make of them. This trip made it clear that that role was growing increasingly untenable.

“The government put the responsibility on me to make this cultural interchange,” she says of the trip. “In the mind of the Cuban government, everything is my responsibility. I need to control everyone, where they go, what they do, where they stay.”

“I can’t control people all the time,” she continues. “It’s not in my heart to do that. In my mind, I’m the same as these guys. I love rock ‘n’ roll. In our minds, we are free.”

From the time she arrived in the U.S., Avila has been less concerned with the three bands she came here with, and more about those she left behind in Cuba.

“I’m very worried about all the bands,” she says. “I’m completely sure it’s going to be different now. It’s going to be a real problem for other bands to get out of the country.”

When I spoke to Sanchez a few days before coming to Miami, he said almost the same thing: “The first three metal bands come from Cuba to the States and only two members are returning. It’s going to be a huge scandal.” I don’t know if it’s ironic or tragic that this entire endeavor — initially hatched in part to open up the Cuban metal scene to the world — might end up crippling it. (In July, another Cuban metal band, Hipnosis, defected to the U.S.)

Avila tells me she’s headed to New Jersey in a few days to go live with her father. Until several days ago, she hadn’t spoken to him since he left Cuba 33 years ago, when she was 6. (“He’s a stranger,” she admits. “I don’t know him.”) She believes that once she gets herself settled, she’ll be able to do more for Cuban metal from there than she ever could back in Havana.

“It’s now time for another level,” she says. “Sure, I have to learn how things work here, but I know stuff that people here don’t know about the rock ‘n’ roll movement in Cuba. I know how the Cuban government works. I have more resources here. I can help the movement.” She nods her head. “For my conscience, I have to.”

Agonizer Photograph by Tracey Noelle Luz



Out of the 16 Cubans who made the trip, the only two who are going back to Cuba are Escape’s bass player Alejandro De La Torre and guitarist Yanio Lee. De La Torre will play tonight’s show and then say good-bye to the band he’s given 13 years to; he’ll head to the airport to catch a 6 a.m. flight back to Havana. Lee will follow two days later.

I huddle with the band in the corner of the strip mall parking lot. They are all emotional about the coming departures, but everything has happened so quickly that they haven’t even had a chance to talk about it amongst themselves yet.

As Lee puts it, “It hurts to get separated, but there are situations that are not in our hands, family-wise.”

De La Torre nods. “I know that this is the place for opportunity, but unfortunately I have some problems I need to take care of,” he says. “But the band is going to go on.”

This isn’t a new situation for Escape. Jenny Hernandez, their onetime keyboardist decamped to New York City in 2010 to live with her father, and the band’s original lead singer, Ewar Acosta, emigrated to Miami in 2004. Not only did the band stay in touch with them, both have been instrumental in coordinating this trip to the U.S., providing money, places to stay and advice, among other things. Acosta organized tonight’s show (which also features his new band, They Might Be Zombies) and will jump onstage with Escape later for a few songs.

“The first guy for this to happen to in the band was me,” Acosta says. “And I’m still here.”

At the end of April, the remaining members of Escape fly to New York to play two shows, a headlining gig on Saturday night and then a short set Monday night opening a bill that features a few pretty well-known metal bands (Goatwhore, Revocation, 3 Inches of Blood, Ramming Speed) at St. Vitus in Brooklyn. Luz hustles to raise money to pay for the trip and get some media attention for the shows, but although I helped book the St. Vitus show, my involvement is pretty halfhearted. If I’m being honest, I’m worn out on it all.

In late April, I get a Facebook message from Sanchez, asking some questions about restarting the metal magazine that he and his brother published in Cuba. I call him back and dispense whatever advice I have on the subject. He seems a little melancholy, though. After 36 stressful but engaging years in Havana, he’s now in his father’s house, in a Houston suburb, adrift. He’s finding that virtually none of the skills that made him valued or successful in Cuba are transferable here. Although he worked on computers back home, he doesn’t know much about setting up a website because the internet wasn’t accessible in Cuba. He was a teacher back home, but it seems unlikely his teaching credentials will do him much good here.

“In Havana, I put out the magazine, I managed bands, I could do everything — but we came here and everything is different,” he says. Arriving here has meant not only adjusting to life without his family, but also dealing with a surreal culture shock. As he put it to me a few weeks earlier, “This is a tough country, a very fast country. The experiences in Austin and Miami were great, but there’s a cruel reality here. You cannot be in your house, eating and sitting watching Facebook.”

Still, he hasn’t lost faith.

“It’s going to be difficult,” he says. “But we came here to try.”








Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

Facebook Conversations
          
    Now Buzzing