Monday, September 17, 2012

The Punks on G Street: Tracking Cuba’s Rebellious Youth 50 Years After the Revolution

The Punks on G Street: Tracking Cuba's Rebellious Youth 50 Years After
the Revolution
Julia Cooke

I met Liván, Takeshi and the rest of their band of frikis—rock and metal
fans of the punk-and-anarchist subcategory—around nine one Thursday
night on the median of Havana's G Street. I'd come to Havana to write a
book about what it was like to be a young adult in the post-Fidel city
and, since G Street was the biggest party in town, it was where I began.

Every weekend and some weekday nights, clouds of cliquey,
fashion-conscious, loud-talking teenagers and young adults descended on
the avenue. By nine, dozens already stood on street corners in loose
circles that, since the night was particularly busy, grew amorphously
into traffic until drivers honked horns and policemen shuffled toward
them and the kids retreated to their sidewalks. Surrounded by so much
youth, the impossibility of 80-somethings governing in perpetuity felt
as evident as the statues of martyred leftists lofting impotent machetes
above the grass below.

These boys loped down the hill four in front, and then three, pushing
each other into onlookers. They wore torn jeans, wallet chains, boots,
scruffy Converse, inked limbs. Each had sculpted his hair into a Mohawk
or some variation of it. They wanted to take up space, and they did: as
I sat on a bench, watching, their group stopped a few feet away from me
and a photographer out to capture images of the more colorful Cubans on
the avenue asked to take a few shots. The camera's flash made the shiny
leaves of the bushes in the background gleam along with the studs in the
boys' lips, eyebrows, noses.

"So, what kind of music do you listen to?" I asked the boy who sat down
on the opposite end of the bench. In the five years since I'd first
lived in Havana for an electrifying teenaged semester at the University
of Havana, G Street had bloated from a few stonefaced friki hanging out
after weekend shows into the nexus for all tribes of young Cubans. It
was both threatening and threatened: People rumored that the government
would shut it down—send policemen in on a Friday night and round
everyone up under the charge of "social dangerousness" or "a
pre-criminal danger to society," hazy legal terms that carried with them
up to four years in prison. So much collective youth was undesirable to
Cuba's government. Understandable, in light of the average age of
dissenting movements across the history of one-party political systems.

"Poooooonk," a different voice shouted from three feet away as Liván
turned to me.

"I love Joe Strummer," I said.

Liván's face was blank.

"The Clash," I said, too loudly.

But recognition sparked, and Liván grinned. "Us, too," he said. He
introduced himself and Takeshi, whose nickname came from the Japanese
manga character he apparently resembled.

"Yeah, them, and los Ramo-nays, too," added Takeshi.

Liván's light brown hair was twisted into about a dozen six-inch spikes
that extended directly out from his head like a fragile medieval mace.
"Asere, he looks like a pineapple," one of the boys crowed when I asked
how long the style had taken him to construct. I laughed, and then I saw
that they looked at me expectantly.

"Nah, it looks cool," I said.

Another shouted, "Yeah, that's it, looks so cool they'll send a boat
from Miami to come get you!" They snickered.

They answered my questions in unison: where did they live (far away),
what had they done that night (gone to Maxim Rock for a concert, but the
sound system broke and they didn't have cash for the cover anyway), what
were they doing for the rest of the night (G). Takeshi's bony shoulders
slouched forward as he sat, and the red printed words on the front of
his black tee gaped and billowed. He drummed his fingers on his knees,
thumping the rhythm of a phantom song. His face was fine-boned and
guileless. I asked how old he was; he said he was 17, looked 12, and
turned out to be 15. He flashed me his ID to prove it.

Where they had seemed sharp-edged before opening their mouths, they
softened, puppy-like, after a few minutes of talking. After a half-hour
or so, I asked if I could go to a concert with them over the weekend.
I'd been to a few metal shows in college, and though I privately didn't
like the music, the scene felt like the only place in the city where my
foreignness was less important than my fandom. Takeshi told me to meet
them on Saturday at Liván's house around four or five in the afternoon.
We'd go from there.

"You gotta see his room," he said with a knowing glance at Liván.

"Yeah," a few of the boys who'd circled around us murmured. "Totally."

Liván nodded, bashful. "I guess it's pretty radical."

They wrote the address and phone number in my worn notebook and ambled
away down the avenue.


G Street is a central downtown avenue with firm topiary hedges and curbs
painted with black and white stripes. The street slopes gently down
toward the ocean. In daytime sunlight, little distinguishes it from any
of Havana's wide, Paris-on-the-sea boulevards—this area of the city was,
in fact, designed in the 1920s by J. C. N. Forestier, one of the head
planners of Paris. Colonnaded houses are set behind rich tropical trees,
and on main avenues, the city keeps the buildings freshly painted in
bright yellow and pink and red that fade to ecru and rose when the sun sets.

On weekend nights, Havanans mostly between the ages of 13 and 30 eat
dinners at home, shed school (or, if they're older, work) uniforms, don
the clothes that are like passwords for whatever subculture they belong
to, and flock to Calle G. Once there, they mill in clusters, lounge on
benches, parade up and down, or sit on the sidewalk amid blobs of
discarded gum and cigarette butts, knees crooked in upside-down V's in
front of them. Smoke hangs in the air even if there's a breeze. Many
stay until three or four in the morning. Some stick around until sunrise
doing what looks like nothing all night long.

There's no right to public assembly in Cuba, so really, the kids' claim
on G Street is tenuous. But even if it's only symbolic, G Street is the
sliver of Havana that belongs to them—not to their families, like the
crowded apartments where they live with parents and grandparents, and
not to the government, like concert spaces and cafes.

And it's free. The people on G Street spend what cash they have on
tangible goods, clothing and accessories and phones. Wearing brand names
is a small, silent 'up yours' to the revolution's goals of
non-materialism and equality—Ed Hardy, Nike and Tommy Hilfiger labels as
tightly curled fists against the drab green canvas of identical-looking

The avenue fulfills some of the same functions as the Internet, which
only 15 percent of Cubans regularly access, if that—trustworthy
statistics are maddeningly elusive. G Street is email, Facebook, and
YouTube rolled into one. Parties are planned in the shadows of stubby
trees. The avenue's promenade is a place to publicly trace the linked
circles of social groups, of visually similar but philosophically
divergent cliques differentiated by sartorial choices and what sort of
music they like. And would-be performers compete for audiences:
breakdancers and capoeira athletes whirl on the pavement, earnest
troubadours strum guitars and rappers that make your shoulders twitch do
jam sessions, all with small circles of onlookers. I'd gone to a
breakdancing practice session once, in an empty public building on a
Saturday, and watched skinny kids spin and flip and shout and clap for
one another in what used to be a restaurant with marbled floors and
full-length windows.

G Street is a place where young Cubans, who've all read the same
textbooks in school, eaten the same ration-book food, watched the same
Saturday night movie on one of three government TV channels, and used
the same soap in the shower, go with the same goal of projecting
different identities. What Liván and Takeshi's crowd projected was fuck
you, I do what I want, and while that was understandable—kids their age
had grown up in near-constant economic crisis since the fall of the
USSR—I needed to know how far the sentiment went. Would G Street ever be
the breeding ground for an uprising that could challenge Cuba's single
political party?


Liván lived on a plain street in La Lisa, an area on the western edge of
the city that was once a respectable suburban neighborhood. Decades ago,
Communist Party officials who moved from the provinces had asked for
homes in La Lisa because they could sow vegetable gardens and enjoy
fresh air. But most of those yards had since filled in with ramshackle
home additions and the neighborhood had sprouted colonies of squatters
in its more downtrodden parts. Today, a common way to say, "I'm screwed"
in local jargon is "I'll have to live under the bridge to La Lisa."

Liván's street was a 10-minute walk up a slight incline from the main
road, in the nicer half of the neighborhood. Grass laced the sidewalks
and potholes kept cars slow. Ferns, palms and banana leaf trees rioted
in undeveloped lots and bougainvilleas clambered around undulating
chicken-wire fences. These occasional wild lots, combined with the sound
of chirping birds, gave La Lisa an indistinct countryside feeling, a
vestige of what the neighborhood once was. The monotone singsong of a
man peddling itinerant repair services—"re-pa-ra-ciones ma-quinas de
gaaas"—echoed from a few streets over.

It was mid-afternoon and the scent of coffee wafted from open doors. On
the street Liván had written in my notebook, the growl of heavy metal
crescendoed. Liván's mother leaned against the rail of her front porch,
smoking a cigarette. She smiled and nodded, kissed my cheek, shouted
"Bertha" and gestured to herself. Her grin revealed that she had very
few teeth.

Hers was the single-story, railroad-style home built all over Cuba:
entry living room, narrow hallway along two bedrooms with a bathroom
between them, and a kitchen- and dining-room area in the back. Small
patios bookended the house. The front living room held two wooden
benches, a shelf with a few books on it, a stereo, a TV, a poster of
Stone Cold Steve Austin and a photo of Liván and three of his brothers,
smiling and angelic in white T-shirts. Down the hallway, the same crowd
from Thursday smoked cigarettes around the doorway of Liván's room.

He had papered and painted the walls and ceiling of his bedroom with
images and words: a Cypress Hill poster and one of a droll telenovela
heartthrob named Maite; a Nickelodeon image of a grinning, greenish
SpongeBob SquarePants; a Cuban flag with a punk manifesto scrawled on
it; multiple photos of Che Guevara. Liván had written a marginally
coherent rant in block letters six inches high: "To be punk is a form of
life not only a type of music. I am punk, I vent my aggression at Che
and reggaeton and if you don't like it go to 23 and G because there's
nothing else to do here." On another wall, he'd painted symbols: (cross)
= (swastika) = (hammer and sickle)

On all four walls, he had pasted 16 fines he'd been given by policemen,
small white sheets of paper scrawled on in handwriting so similar they
could have been written by the same person on different days. Disorderly
conduct, talking back to policemen, being in public without
identification. Each offense carried with it a fine of seven to 30 Cuban
pesos, all unpaid. In the far corner of the room, the lumpy mattress
Liván shared with a younger brother wore thin flowered sheets.

Three boys hovered in the hallway, watching Takeshi style hair in the
bathroom. Takeshi, on the toilet bowl for a better angle, held his arms
in a first-position circle above the crown of a boy's head, teasing his
hair toward the green leaves on the printed plastic shower curtain
behind him. They used soap, the kind that their mothers got on the
family ration book, because gel was only sold in la shopping, the dollar
stores, and none of them ever had enough spare cash to buy it. Erlán,
the eldest and a haircutter in Centro Habana, was the only one who
worked. He was 26 and had a toddler son, he told me later, but he didn't
see the boy or his mother often.

As they finished getting dressed, I sat in the living room with Liván,
his younger brothers, an eight year old and a pimply 13 year old with a
crew cut, and the two boys who'd already been styled. They put on a DVD
with music videos by their favorite bands. When I asked who played each
song, Liván would say the band's name once, confidently, and after I'd
asked again, cringing, another kid would speak up, slower. There was No
FX, who they liked because the fans had crazy hair like them; Bad
Religion, whose lead singer looked like a clean-cut manager at a mid-90s
Gap; the Sex Pistols; Rancid; and Escape. Liván lip-synched and his
youngest brother headbanged in the back of the room.

We left after they had plied each other's hair into spikes that would
flake white within the hour and, as the evening wore on, droop low over
their ears like leaves of a too-ripe vegetable. As I followed them out
of the house, saying goodbye to Bertha, she put her hand on my forearm
and lowered her head conspiratorially. "Their thing is just hair, you
know, image, nothing more," she said, shaking her head. Their jeans were
dirty and torn but their shirts were clean, fresh-smelling. I stood with
her for a moment, and then thanked her for the coffee she'd served me
and trotted to catch up with the boys.

Erlán jangled as we walked the 10 blocks down the street to the bus
stop. He had made a wallet chain out of beer and soda tabs he'd linked
together. Since the government shops didn't sell much along the lines of
their punk-y tastes, he explained, the boys made do. See Takeshi?
Takeshi had bought his heavy boots off an electrician and added spikes
and studs that he'd pried off a bracelet a foreigner had given him. They
swapped clothes amongst themselves, bought at the peso shops where
second and third-hand clothing was re-sold, or offered government
workers cash for the rationed items they'd be issued every few years. If
they saw a guy in an old Metallica T-shirt who didn't look like he
really owned the shirt, like he really felt the meaning of the band,
they'd offer him a few dollars for it. A boy named Alejandro with an
eight-inch tattoo on his shaved skull wore a T-shirt that read,
"Carthage College Greek Week 1997. Paint the town Greek!" with lambdas
and deltas floating around it. He had spray-painted it with black and
pink dots, torn the bottom hem, and painted anarchy symbols and "Punk
not Dead" in English across the back. I pictured him crouched on the
tiled floor of a cramped downtown apartment, stretching the fabric taut
to write on it in Sharpie.

The bus stop cleared out as we arrived. A bus pulled up and we climbed
on, but no one paid; all of the boys shouldered brusquely through the
standing passengers at the front to the open seats. A teenage girl and a
middle-aged woman shrank back, as if the quills of their hair were sharp.

We got off the bus and began to walk uphill. I walked toward the
swooping bandshell, splotched with mold and surrounded by a tall fence,
but Takeshi stopped me. The boys had literally not a cent on them, he
told me. We sat on the curb and I pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Some
of the boys bashfully bummed a smoke; two of them got Takeshi to ask me

As I reached up to pass Liván a cigarette, I got a good look at the
tattoo on his knuckles. A-N-A-R-Q-U-I-A, one letter on each finger to
spell the word when he held his fists together. It looked homemade, but
had cost him five dollars—he had gone to a black market tattoo guy to
get it. I asked him: Did he believe anarchy was the answer, the ideal

Hell yeah, he enthused. "I mean, there's not much you can do about it
here, but once I was hauled off to a police station for throwing a
bottle at a cop car," he said. "It's like The Clash says: I can study,
but it's for nothing, because it doesn't help me in life or to make any
money or any anything." Liván had spent the three years since he'd
dropped out of school at age 14 doing not much.

What were his goals, I asked? He looked away. He wanted to leave Cuba,
he guessed. Go to Kansas, maybe, where his older brother lived.

And then?

He shrugged. "I don't know, anything, whatever. Aren't there punks there?"

"Hey, so," Takeshi jumped in. Would I—could I, he asked—pay for two
extra entrance fees? It was 20 Cuban pesos, just shy of a dollar per
person. Sure, I said. Ten minutes later, we had regrouped inside the
outdoor amphitheater. Three of the boys had talked their way in and two
had snuck in via a back entrance. Around a hundred and fifty kids had
converged, how many paid viewers unclear. A band, Hipnosis, was setting up.

When they began to play jagged, monotone guitar riffs, the pink and
purple lights on stage created a dissonant bubblegum effect. All around
me, sweat flew from the headbanging. Takeshi emerged from the crowd and
handed me a cup of rum, smuggled in by a friend of a friend. I took a
swig. He bounced back into the fold, waved at me to follow. I shuddered
at both the scalding bootleg rum and the snarls coming from the
speakers, and retreated to the seats. When it was over an hour later, we
headed to the street and waited for a bus to take us to G. It was around
ten o'clock.

Liván was woefully drunk from rum he'd gulped out of other people's
bottles. I asked him if he'd rather go home, and he shook his head
emphatically, sluggishly. "If my mom sees me like this, she'll kill me,"
he slurred. "She won't let me out of the house for a week." He swayed
toward another bus shelter to vomit.

After a half hour or so, an off-duty school bus stopped. The driver was
going as far as an intersection a mile from 23rd and G, he shouted as he
cranked open the door, and the two dozen kids who'd gathered at the bus
stop whooped and pushed inside.


In a 1977 essay, music critic Lester Bangs wrote that "the roots of punk
was the first time a kid ended up living with his parents till he was
40. The roots of punk was the first time you stole money out of your
mother's purse and didn't know what to spend it on because you weren't
old enough to buy beer… Punk may (may?) be essentially passive. Punk is
stupid proud consumerism. Punk is oblivion when it isn't any fun and
unlike winos you do have a choice in fact; you're young."

Okay, then. By Bangs' criteria, most everyone on G Street was punk.
There were invisible punks spread in pockets around Havana, kids who'd
dropped out of school or government jobs, who lined up at night outside
of neighborhood clubs they couldn't pay to get into just because, who
hand-washed crappy Brazilian imported T-shirts with logos they didn't
understand in the sink and waited for their lives to begin. Cuban
society had created an environment in which Bangs' version of punk—the
anaesthetized, rebellion-for-rebellion's-sake kind, not my pop punk, Joe
Strummer-as-modern-prophet version—thrived. Liván and his crew just
applied the word to themselves.

One night, as I waited for someone on G Street, a boy walked past with a
wallet chain made of soda tabs like the one Erlán had worn. And as I
watched him, G Street clicked together. It was where trends broadened
their reach, blog-like. Since media content in Cuba is controlled by the
state—no international magazines for sale, period, TV channels without
commercials, and billboards with only bright pro-government
propaganda—advertising campaigns don't push products or trends through
society. Subcultures and gossip do. For example: A skater watches a
video on a friend's dad's PC of skating tricks and sees a trucker hat;
looks cool, he thinks, and he finds some fisherman on the malecón who's
wearing one, a really old one. "Compadre," he says, "I'll give you five
dollars." He sews it back up or frays it or maybe he gets a friend who's
in graphic design school to draw a tag on it. Other kids see him on G
Street; what the hell's he wearing, they think - until they see the same
style in a ragged copy of, maybe, a People magazine that some tourist
left behind years ago. Aha, they think. They find hats, too.

This was what was subversive and fresh about G Street. It was a place of
incipient rebellious energy, even if the connections that were made
among groups had more to do with who was wearing what than attempting to
bring about a meaningful change to society. G Street refused, in a tiny
way, to accept the dreary reality of Cuba 50 years after the Revolution.
Everyone there insisted on difference, on fashion. The bubble of
electric tension this created, I realized, was in micro what had hooked
me about Havana from my first visit: the contrasts of urgency and
timelessness, informal and controlled, the city's hustle and the languid
pace of life, that the people I met were jaded and naïve in contrary ways.

Even if the place was a mess of undirected anxiety, G Street was alive
in a way the Internet could never be. The frikis didn't have to talk to
the hippie university students or the Ed Hardy-wearing reparteros for
their joint presence to say, we are here, and there are so many of us.
There was no ignoring the bodies, the physical space they'd
commandeered; even Communist Party cars slowed down because the street
was so swollen. But G Street's physicality was also limited by
geography. If the police ever shut it down, Liván's fictions of life
outside Cuba and how every shortcoming in his life was the government's
fault would solidify even more.

The struggle for control over G Street was smarter than that. In the
time I would spend living in Havana, coming to need the avenue in my own
way—it was the only place in the city where I could meet people without
immediately addressing the uncomfortable fact that I had dollars and
they often didn't—its dimly lit spaces diminished. Floodlights were
installed up and down the avenue. The grey-suited cops, young, burly men
from the provinces who stood in sets of three or four with hands deep in
their pockets, multiplied. And one day, when I hopped up on a retaining
wall to sit and wait for friends, I felt pointy rocks jab into my
backside and stood back up, an angry glow in my chest. They'd been set
in a fresh layer of concrete to discourage loitering. I wanted to rip
them out.

These measures were taken, ostensibly, in the name of public safety and
drug control, because what drugs were sold in Havana could usually be
found on or around G Street. But for the most part, the people who had
the money to spend on drugs, which were about five times more expensive
per person than a $1 box of Planchao rum, weren't the sort who hung out
on G Street. Those people could afford club entries and gleaned trends
from black market DVDs of new Hollywood releases. Sure, there were
drugs: kids snorted ground-up, state-issued painkillers and bought
Ketamine for five dollars per in the wet stairwells of nearby apartment
buildings. But it was more common to overhear the two guys who told
everyone that they were vegetarian vampires and lived off the human
energy released by sex, trying to convince a girl that really, it was
true, than to catch someone in the act of a drug deal. Not much of
anything actually happened on G Street.

That was kind of the point. I met Liván and Takeshi a few years ago,
back when the increasingly liberal economic changes rippling through
Cuba today were still twinkles in the nomenklatura's eyes. When I went
back a year after I'd moved away to check in with everyone I'd profiled,
little was different, at least to an outsider's eye, for them. The
school system hadn't changed and even if Liván had earned a college
degree, he wouldn't have been able to make money off it, because only
non-professional jobs like handymen and birthday clowns—achingly literal
titles like button-upholsterer—had been legalized. Neither he nor
Takeshi had a car or any property they could sell, which is now legal in
Cuba for the first time in 50 years, or wealthy family members abroad
who'd front the cash to open a cafe. They could, presumably, start a
shop for homemade punk goods. But they hadn't, and didn't plan to. They
were punks, not entrepreneurs. The only notable difference in their
lives, they told me, was that now they were dating emo girls, because
there were hardly any friki chicks they hadn't already been out with.
That, and they'd gotten a few new tattoos. A sickly-green SpongeBob
SquarePants slid down Liván's calf. He liked it because, "I don't know,
he's the most loco of the cartoons."

In spite of the new money that fluttered more freely around Havana, in
spite of the police, G Street was still teeming. It was hardly a Cuban
Spring, but herds of kids continued to hang out in the bright circles of
light cast by the streetlamps in a terse stalemate with the government
over a territory that they'd come to regard as theirs.

Julia Cooke lives in New York City and is writing a book that combines
memoirs of her time in Havana in 2009-10 with reportage on the city's
youth culture. Prior to moving to New York, she worked in Havana and
Mexico City as a cultural journalist; her writing has been published in
The Village Voice, Guernica, Monocle, Design Observer, Condé Nast
Traveller, and more. She is a Creative Writing Teaching Fellow at
Columbia University.

No comments:

Post a Comment