"¡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.
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 alexOn 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."