living in Prague between 1998 and 2000, I was shooting footage
for a documentary film about Roma in the region. This story
chronicles an evening spent with Fidel Castro’s daughter
in a local Gypsy bar, exploring music’s implications
on race relations and violence in closed societies.
days Alina Fernandez lives in Miami and hosts a talk show
on WQBA FM called Simply Alina, where she fields
calls from new Cuban arrivals to the U.S.
Everybody knows that taxis in the Czech Republic are for
tourists. Countless 'black', unregistered fleets of lawlessly-priced
chariots careen the cobblestone corners of Hradcany and
Stare Mesto (the castle district and old town) and their
drivers cloak their thievery with stories about uncles in
gulags and Uranium mines. The stories, true or not, justify
the expense for many visitors, who are happy to pay dearly
for such horrific privy. I lived close enough to the center
and had made it a rule to never patronize the taxi men.
One Thursday night in May
1999, I made an exception. My destination was off the public
transport grid, so I opened the passenger door and ducked
from the rain into the sopping Lada that stopped in front
of me at the edge of town. The driver, upon turning to face
me, was a skinhead. A Czech translation of Orwell's Animal
Farm was stuck between the dashboard and the windshield.
It was in bad shape; he said his friends had been passing
I gave him the address of
the bar. He shook his head and threw his notepad on the
"Gypsy place?" He looked sidelong
at me as though to say 'why would you want to go there?'
"Gypsy? Oh, I don't know,"
I shrugged. I guess it wasn't so anonymous, as the film
director had told me. "I've never been there."
The fifty-foot metronome swung
behind us in the pouring rain, over Prague, marking time
with a repetitive, eternal humour. The metronome is there
to replace the fifty-foot Stalin statue that was blasted
from the mountain towards the end of the Communist occupation,
once Stalin had lost his perilous clout. His speech LP's
were being circulated as fetish objects by the cynical progeny
of the wartime generation, whose memories were drenched
in long walks through quiet residential streets, to a soundtrack
of the convoluted monotones of Stalin's voice mandatorily
wafting from half-open windows. The students in the 1970's
found the leader's meek and cardboard character especially
laughable when popped and picked at by dirty phonograph
needles. Today, the metronome's long arm pulls to and fro,
a totem to the resilience of the Czechs through change.
They are monkey-in-the-middle, no longer dancing in the
New West's political games, but sitting wearily, cross-legged,
arms folded, waiting for its end, with the communal conviction
that the ball may never land at all. It has been fourteen
years since the Velvet Revolution. Most Czech businesses
are today administrated and owned, at least in part, by
U.S. or German companies.
I kept my head turned, peering
through the revolting condensation of our mingled breath
on the window, seeing nothing but blurs of light through
the water on the glass.
"Where from?" The taxi driver
asked. I pretended not to hear, not to understand.
"Where from?" Again, in a
"Quebec," I resigned. He raised
his eyebrows and his whole head wrinkled back like a pug
in the wind.
"Which side you on?" He turned
to look at me.
"You really understand it?"
"Which side you on?" He insisted.
And we cumbered into a difficult, delicate talk about Quebec
politics with the use of charades, drawings in the fogged
windshield, and feigned respect for one another's opinion.
I was never happier to get out of a talk with anyone.
I tried not to touch his palm
as I paid him.
I found myself in a suburb
of Prague. The nameless tavern was a one-room wooden box,
and about the only Gypsy bar skinheads left alone at night,
mainly due to its distance from the tramline. It was on
the other side of a wide, burnt-out patch of old airfield,
surrounded on all sides by panelaks - the stark, bleak,
Communist housing compounds that gruesomely pepper the city's
The bar's plumbing flooded
one side of the floor, which didn't deter little plastic
Tesco's slippers from dancing and splashing to the afternoon
piano player, who was drunk and had missed the shift change.
It was now dark, and a young Gypsy band was about to play,
Gypsy except for the white cimbalom player, who studied
at HAMU, Prague's music academy. The Gypsy band members
laughed at him, as he set up and told them about his exams.
Music is not something you study.
He was not the only Caucasian
in the room. There was a film festival in town, and a few
Czechs, Americans, seven Cubans (considered 'white' by Gypsies)
and more Europeans were commiserating. We were a gaggle
of documentary filmmakers that had been invited by one of
our films' subjects, a Romany man from Ostrava. The Americans
and Europeans didn't drink late, and most had gone downtown,
opting for rock bands and Europop-karaoke instead of the
harmonic haunt of songs of loss. I was staying. I was staying
and drinking until I got brave enough to walk the six miles
home. Prague is a small, slow place, and people tend to
wait around. People, if I can be clear, like the taxi driver
that had brought me there. An hour and a half into my night,
I looked out through the silver watershed on my way to the
bathroom. The Lada was parked outside, wet, dark and sleeping
like an aluminium, invincible spectre.
There had been attack stories,
as vivid as the skinhead encounter I'd had a few weeks earlier
when they'd crowded around me, near midnight, in the Karlovo
Náměstí subway station. I'd been alone with my echo waiting
for the train. Boots thundered down the stairs, their laces
pulled tight as nightmares. Eleven lugs, about my little
brother's age, came on like a pack of dogs in full-fledged
snarl, descending to kick at me. They demanded to know whether
I was Czech … or not. They tried to taunt me into talking.
They yelped nationalist songs in my face: two-tone, bloody
awful chants. I sat mute, transporting myself to another
place. I can still remember the pitch of the bricks in the
This, by the way, works.
Even the Czechs will tell you that if you find yourself
in a situation from which there is no hope of escape, transport
your brain elsewhere. Float it into a sauce of music. Float
it into the countryside, to the bottom of the ocean.
Trying to appear impassive is a game you play with yourself,
not your captors - 'I am a stone,' you tell yourself. 'Do
not show your fear'. It is a game we play in the most benign
places: in café performances when we know we are tuneless.
In crowded rooms when it is our turn to speak. When the
lights shine down on us.
As the train slowed, two Czech hippies ran down the stairs
and towards one of the cars, but never made it there. Riled
into an anthemic froth, a few skinheads reached them first.
I boarded the train. Beside me were two cops engaged in
light conversation. They glanced over their shoulders at
the bloody beating happening behind them, and casually returned
to their chat. An East Asian man across from me sailed his
frightened, vacant glare over my shoulder; the Gypsies at
the end of the car bowed their heads in fear. The beating
was only partial horror - the chitchat of cops, terrific.
Two of the Skins ran for the closing doors and squeezed
their chests into our car, panting and high with adrenaline.
What happened next was a testament
to our primal origins: the eyes of most every person in
that car met the pair of eyes across from them, and hung
there for protection. Could we trust each other to take
care of each other?
If you were a Gypsy you couldn't
trust anyone. Neo-Nazism is on the rise, and many traditionalists
feel that skinheads are the hounds of the new Czech social
'What is the solution to the
Gypsy problem', the Ministers ask each other in parliament;
the American-modeled news shows ask the man in the street.
The most popular answer: 'camps'.
'Reservations, like they have
in Canada', they say.
'Everybody knows you can't
give a Gypsy a job because he'll steal from you,' say business
managers. The Roma people are nostalgic for the Communist
days, when they too were guaranteed jobs, when they too
were protected by the heavy bureaucratic doctrines that
were thumbed by little men smoking off their brush cuts.
Now they must be indoors by five p.m., or else face the
consequences. Now their children are sequestered to schools
for the mentally ill and learning disabled. But with nothing,
they get by. Frantisek, my neighbour, works 16-hour days
collecting bits of old cable from industrial garbage piles
and abandoned buildings. Once he has enough, he goes home
and strips them down to the fine copper hairs inside, then
he sells the wire and, if he's had a good day, his family
has dinner. On Saturday nights he runs a wire from his apartment
down to the communal car, a rusted Lada he shares with twelve
others, and gets in with his wife, an old radio, a fifty-korun
bottle of Moravian wine. They sit there for hours, every
Saturday night - even in winter, wrapped in blankets and
all their clothes.
Across town, from a family
just like Frantisek's, Vojtech was born in 1982, and made
it all the way through childhood and adolescence without
once damaging the violin his uncle had given him. They had
often moved, but the violin lived, for the most part, in
three places: pressed under Vojtech's chin, loosely stored
under his bed, and carted around in a little nylon promotional
sports bag, under some company's faded logo, that he'd found
by the side of the tracks.
That Vojtech had come by such
an instrument in the 1980's is not so unlikely. The violin
has never stopped singing in Czech. At the turn of the last
century, enterprising luthiers set up factory workshops
to reproduce Stradivariuses in Czechoslovakia. During the
Communist occupation, the makers of instruments were stripped
of their factories, but were among the scant few whose professions
were not nationalized, and the luthiers, with their exacting
crafts, were left alone to profit from their cellos and
violins. As a result, hundreds of these instruments are
today floating around the pawnshops, and are even sold in
street markets. They are not particularly valuable: three
week's wages will let you take one home, if you are Czech,
and a day's if you are American.
Tonight, Vojtech and his violin
were about to lead the band in the wooden box bar, but first,
as always, a drink. He was young, sinewy, and ambitious.
He had soft lips, and thick wavy hair, full of oils. He'd
cut his own clothes into cool-looking garments. He'd learned
English in nine months, was king of maths, and was trying
to get into a normal high school. He'd been asked to play
for a television commercial. He'd been asked to play on
Ivan Kral's next record, and he was starting to get comfortable
in the dressing rooms and backstages of Prague's bigger
venues, pocketing the fruit and biscuits from the rider
for his little brothers and sisters. He hung onto his instrument
by the scroll, with his thumb and forefinger, at his hip.
When it was time to play, he opened up like a giant bird,
and the bow sang out like a hollow bone in the wind.
The woman next to me was tired. Her feet were up on the
chair in front of me. She played with her bangs and drank.
"Isn't it strange," she asked,
"that there we see a white man playing with a bunch of Gypsies?"
Yes, it was strange. I lived
in a Gypsy neighbourhood and never saw a white playing anywhere
"In Cuba you hear the stories…the
Russians, the Czechs - all the racists from the East. I
didn't think this would happen here, that they could play
together." She spoke romantically, dramatically, as though
there were a camera behind me somewhere. She hung inside
her observation and looked to me for confirmation.
A small, stout woman came
to join us. Her eyes were nearly puffed shut and her mouth
was permanently caught in a half-open grin, as with one
who doesn't hear too well.
"What am I missing?" she grinned
to the woman beside me.
"She's telling me about Cuba,"
"She's the expert. You know
who you're talking to. Alina will do nothing else but talk
about Cuba, until she's dead!"
Her soft, short fingers jabbed
out to touch me when she talked. I didn't know whom I was
talking to. I kept talking.
"If the music is any indication
of the mental landscape of the people, it can't be as bad
in Cuba as it is here," I assumed. Vojtech was leaning back
in a slow, pained, minor howl. His brain was definitely
"No," reflected Alina, "Cuba
has a happy music, a wonderful music. But that has more
to do with the resilience of the people than their conditions.
They are very different people than here." She became emphatic.
"We will never know how many people disappeared at sea,
eaten by sharks, all culprits in only wanting to leave that
'paradise of socialism,'" she continued.
"Let her enjoy herself!" the
stout woman scolded.
"Alina's touring the East
now," she explained. "She has speeches to give, she is used
to this. I think you are not. What is your film about?"
"Gypsies," I answered, and
her eyebrows rose with her measurement of which was the
sadder situation: the Gypsies forever roaming Eastern Europe,
or the Cubans stuck on Cuba.
I asked the women about their
tour. Alina had narrated the film Gloria had edited, and
she was following it through the festival circuit. She had
a responsibility to her people, she said, to tell them what
Castro was really about, and as his daughter, she felt she
knew better than anyone. Alina had not heard from her father
between the ages of 10 and 17. At 10, she was picked up
from her mother's by a strange man and was brought to one
of her father's press conferences. She wanted to touch his
beard. She wanted to climb into his beard and disappear.
Fidel bent down and embraced her in front of the cameras,
and she spent an hour in his arms while he answered questions
"Journalists love him," she
said. "But he is not so exciting. He is not a villain for
America's theatre. It is not about Fidel - people can't
understand what the family in Cuba is going through!" (1)
These were the words of Castro's
daughter. Alina the rebel daughter. The ex-model, ex-medical
student, the exile. I knew about her only from a Spanish
trumpet player I'd met who had visited Cuba and had spent
the night with her, before she escaped. He'd written nine
songs with Alina in the title. One about Alina and her four
husbands. One about the darling Alina and the father complex.
Alina with the hard-tack vengeance campaign, Cuba's Eva
Alina made it to Miami in
1993, masquerading as a Spanish tourist on a borrowed passport.
"Do not show your fear," she told herself as she looked
into the gloss of the airport official's eyes. With little
else but a small roll of dollars and a coffee bean in her
pocket, she pulled the knots through a good Cuban network
and within a few weeks had landed herself a high-rise apartment
in Manhattan. Just like Gloria, the stout woman beside her.
Gloria was seventeen when she left. She made it to Miami
on a boat with an uncle, and she too made her way to Manhattan.
She had one job lead there. On her second day in New York,
she rang the number of the film production house she'd been
given. "What can you do?" they asked her over the phone.
Gloria had spent most of her life helping her neighbour
make documentary films. She already knew the feeling of
film stock slipping through her fingers, and the effort
of diving into barrels for a 2-inch strip of silence, or
a footstep. In Cuba, you did everything yourself.
"What do you do?" The producer
leaned across his desk.
'Do not show your fear,'
Gloria amassed her wits.
"I can photograph, develop,
work on a flatbed, and do lighting, sound…"
The producer was impatient.
"When someone asks you what you do, don't tell them what
you can do…" he shook his head, "…never
say that again. They'll either be afraid of you or they'll
think you're crazy. You're an editor. You edit film. You'll
start as an apprentice."
Gloria never figured whether
he'd really seen it in her, or just needed an editor. She
turned up the next day to 'learn' from the assistant editor.
He was a real New Yorker. He began by teaching her to rewind.
He leaned over the machine and began to demonstrate his
best spooling techniques. Gloria watched patiently. She
had been rewinding since she was four.
A few years later she opened
her very own postproduction studio a few doors down the
hall. Now she was fifty-eight.
"I want my AVID machines to
be buried with me," she said as she pressed her fingers
together in self-satisfaction.
"I'll never go back", Alina
cut her friend short, as though the discussion of burial
had brought up the question of home. She was beginning to
We turned and watched the
band, now thrown into a slow, five-part bellow, an acapella
haunt. It was the sound of the saddest place on Earth.
Castro is the ultimate patriarch.
His Communism seats itself at the head of every Cuban family
and demands its loyalty. The Czech Communism demanded only
obedience, and left the heart alone. Castro's country is
his house. He knows what's best for its pipes, its gardens,
and its children in their bedrooms, lying on their beds
"In Cuba, prejudice has nothing
to do with skin colour. It's an educational kind of prejudice
- the very best kind. If you can't read or write, you're
discriminated against: you're stupid, and so you're marked
as stupid. But," she took a sip and got a wind of pride,
"you can always learn to read or write. You can always climb
out of your bad suit. If you're a black doctor, no hospital
will make you feel unwelcome, because you're a doctor!"
Castro is a patriarch who
knows what's best. First came the sugar crisis, during which
the whole country watched the value of sugar plummet like
a diabetic in the afternoon. Castro, as always, knew what
to do: against his counsel's best advice, the agriculturally
experimental Commandante ordered the burning of Havana's
sugar cane crop, and took people off their jobs to plant
coffee there instead.
"Coffee in Havana!" Alina
invoked the power of a higher reason with her slender hands.
"The coffee plant is a delicate creature. It needs the protection
of mountains - of morning mists and dry, hot afternoons.
Cold nights. You cannot grow coffee in Havana!" But Castro
knew best, and managed to kill both the coffee and sugar
industries in a single operation.
Back in Canada, I sometimes
fall asleep to Radio Havana's shortwave transmissions. Last
week, after yet another news story of the empty, overturned
rowboats and rafts skimmed in from off the coast, the announcer
pleaded the U.S., on behalf of Cuba, to modify its immigration
policy. Sixty percent of refugees leaving Cuba do not survive
In the Fall of 2000, the CBC lowered its cameras from the
half-mast national flag to the slow-moving crowd of dignitaries
that came to mourn the death of one of this country's most
flamboyant statesmen. At the helm lay a former prime minister,
small and cold, his lips wrapped strangely around a last
joke. The cameras previewed our guests - His Highness the
Imam, a French President, a Royal Prince, a President of
The United States, many accompanied by wives. Then, appearing
like a romantic apparition, a solitary Fidel Castro emerged
to a roaring response from the public around him, and took
his place as pallbearer.
Americans watched, able to
pick up the CBC from points in Vermont, New York, and over
the Internet, anywhere else. They watched our welcome and
seethed. Castro is the man they do not allow to set foot
in their country, but to Canadians, he is a curious figure
- a sexy, daunting man with an uncontrollable ego that has
manifested itself in clumsy disasters across his country.
To have been a friend of our Trudeau's was enough to guarantee
the Commandante a popular welcome here. After long deliberations
with Quebec politicians, Trudeau had arranged for the FLQ
separatist terrorists, upon releasing their hostage, to
be deposited in Cuba. Later, as a gag, Trudeau set out in
a wooden rowboat from Miami for Cuba. Soon after his departure
he was retrieved, soaking and exhausted from his point of
defeat like an over-ambitious spaniel.
From her 18th story apartment in Manhattan, now in her forties,
Alina has a new project. She planted a solitary coffee bean
and watched it climb defiantly through the potted soil.
It was now nearly three feet tall.
"I took a photo - Alina and
her coffee plant in New York - and sent it to him. He'd
have liked that!" she said.
Vojtech played until he had nearly fallen asleep. The cimbalom,
bass and guitar players had long gone. We waited out the
rain in the bar, not to risk a hostile taxi, or to leave
Vojtech alone. We walked out into the airfield as day broke,
Roma kids beginning to emerge and scratch games in the mud
with sticks all around us. Hopscotch, Marbles, and Hang
The Nazi. The children all knew Vojtech. He headed toward
a horizon of panelaks, waving back with his little violin
bag. And we, privileged by skin here but equally broke,
headed back to the city.
1. Journalist Herbert Matthews first propelled
Castro’s revolution to fame in February 1957, and
introduced America to one of its favourite characters.
Statistic from an interview with Hermanos al Rescate. Comprised
mostly of Cuban exiles, “Brothers to the Rescue”
is a Miami-based refugee search and rescue operation/resource
center that helps Cuban refugees by airlifting them to safety,
and by providing information and job leads to new arrivals.
The organization works in cooperation with the U.S. Coast
Guard. Currently, U.S. legislation allows Cubans to stay
as refugees in the U.S. if they make it safely to American
soil and carry identification cards, but the Coast Guard
patrolling the waters around Florida will thwart most attempts