Monday, March 29, 2010

Requiem for La Guarida: "Adiós Compañero Rocco" - Jorge Perugorría & Juan Carlos Tabío (4/5)

El choteo.

Historically saddled with unrepresentative governments and authority figures unresponsive to their demands, Cubans have developed a unique sense of humor that mocks authority and pokes fun at both "officialdom" (their putative leaders) and "officialese" (those leaders' often meaningless and impenatrable doscourse).  This habit is known as el choteo.

Perhaps my favorite example of el choteo in everyday Cuban speech is the more common name that Cubans have given to the "Tribuna Abierta Anti-Imperialista José Martí" (the elongated plaza directly adjacent to the U.S. Interest Section on the Malecon in Havana).  Mocking the government's use of it as a political space constantly used to protest U.S. policy and defend the revolution, Cubans have taken to referring to the plaza simply as el protestódromo (the protest-o-drome).

A few years ago, while in Havana I came across an art show that was to me a textbook study in el choteo.  This reflection on that show will serve as part four in my five-part series on the (in)famous Cuban paladar, "Requiem for La Guarida."

The Cuban government was then engaged in the first stages of its vaunted revolución energética and had let it be known that the old, reliable, but supposedly ineffecient American refrigerators would be replaced by newer, more energy-efficient models.  In response, a wide array of Cuban artists obtained some of these now "retired" refrigerators and turnned them into a commentary on politics, history, and society.
Above and below are photos of some of my favorite artistic transformations of these refrigerators, as well as a translation of the deeply ironic and inventive text that accompanied "Rocco's" burrial.  Rocco, you'll remember, is the name Diego (the homosexual character played expertly by Jorge Perugorría in the film Fresa y Chocolate) gave to his own cherished blue American refrigerator.

I leave you with that text to ponder along with a number of useful links to stories covering the original art show.  (NYT, "The secret love of Cubans: the imperialist refrigerator" and "The World: In Cuba, a Politically Incorrect Love of the Frigidaire."  See also, here, here, here, and especially here the art magazine Heterogénesis (2006, no. 55-56) for the original Spanish text that went with the Rocco exhibit.

Adiós Compañero Rocco
(Goodbye Comrade Rocco)
Jorge Perugorría & Juan Carlos Tabío


Here he lies, against his will, comrade Rocco.  He was born in Detroit in August of 1952, in the General Motors factory.  In his earliest days he witnessed the confrontations of the trade unions and the racial tensions that shook the city of his birth, thus forging his unvanquished fighting spirit.

Being still very young, together with his 250 brothers, he was forced to board the overcrowded General Custer - a cousin of General Motors - steamboat arriving at the bay of Havana in January of 1953.  Here in Havana he was purchased, like ordinary merchandise, at the store “El Encanto” by the Orozco family, adopting as of that moment a bourgeois life of abundance during which he chilled the most exquisite delicacies and liquors. 

It was not until five years later, in 1958, when little Joaquin, the youngest child of the Orozco’s, at the time a Law student at the University of Havana, begins to hide among champagnes and lobsters subversive proclamations of the 26th of July Movement, which caused comrade Rocco to regain his consciousness and enter the revolutionary struggle, going as far as to welcome in the deep of its entrails a comrade of little Joaquin persecuted by the Tigers of Masferrer.

By 1960, the Survivors of the Orozco family, (including little Joaquin) left the country, and the Orozco mansion (and, of course, comrade Rocco himself), become property of the State.

Actively connected to the high-voltage currents of all the processes of revolutionary transformations, comrade Rocco participated in the Literacy Campaign, the Cuban Missle Crisis, and the Harvest of the 10 Million Tons (working in this more than 365 days per year).  During all these years comrade Rocco, far from longing for the fillets and caviars of his youth, dedicated himself, with laudable perseverance, to the task of cooling cookies, pastries, cosmonaut croquets (of the kind that stick to the “roof of the mouth”), refreshments known as “brake liquid,” and water – plenty of water that quenched the thirst of our students and militia men.

At the beginning of the 70s, upon the arrival of his Soviet compatriots, comrade Rocco was confined to an honorable "plan pijama," forgotten in a dark warehouse throughout five grey years, until the “inventive” administrator of the warehouse bartered him, in an “under the table” manoeuvre, for a set of twelve chairs to a humble proletarian family, among whose members, and with his customary disinterested effort and the joy of feeling useful again, comrade Rocco prepared himself to freeze delicious “durofríos,” thus becoming the provider of the family and thereby gaining the affection of all the children of the district.

The 80s were years in which comrade Rocco could live off the fruits of its work. With the earnings from the sale of those "durofríos," comrade Rocco was rewarded with small cream cheeses, plastic ham, garden-style chicken, Bulgarian wines and an occasional chocolate cake (of the kind that cost 10 Cuban Pesos ), getting even to cool a small piece of pork and a beer during the holidays. And of course, the ever present eggs.

At the beginning of the 90s, and as a result of the “Special Period,” comrade Rocco was put under the aggravating system of blackouts that put him on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Those blackouts turned out to be so prolonged that when the electrical current briefly recovered, comrade Rocco came to think that he was being subject to “electrical shocks.”

It was at those difficult moments that the humble dwelling of the family who welcomed comrade Rocco as an ordinary member, was chosen by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) as the main location for the shooting of the film “Fresa y Chocolate” in which comrade Rocco, despite his deteriorated physical and mental health, played the protagonist's role, with the unanimous acclamation of the public and the critics as (by far) the best actor of the film.

Far from getting swollen by such an ecumenical triumph, comrade Rocco undertook with renewed determination the perspective offered by a new horizon of success: Head of Refrigerators of the Paladar “La Guarida,” because a paladar is what his house was transformed into as soon as the shooting of the above mentioned film was over.

Now, comrade Rocco is again cooling the forgotten delicacies and liquors of his youth. In this “paladar,” the charismatic presence of comrade Rocco was the focus of attention of all the clients, getting even to converse with the Queen of Spain, for whom he produced from his frozen entrails a local sweet potato that received the encomiums of Her Majesty.

Thus passed the placid old days of comrade Rocco, hoping that, as in a dream, natural death would arrive with that peace of spirit of that which has fulfilled with good conscience any task ever entrusted to him.

But no, the death of comrade Rocco arrived in a tragic and sudden way, as he was publicly declared an “Energy Engulfer.”

His relays and voltage regulators could not stand the shame, and comrade Rocco exploded in a flaming and fatal short circuit that sounded in the entire district like a fateful PLAFF!

Comrade Rocco, wherever you are now, let our gratefulness and our deepest condolences reach out to you for all your sleepless nights so that once and for all you rest in peace.

Goodbye comrade, Goodbye Rocco
From your comrades at the ROCINANTE Creative Group

Jorge Perugorría & Juan Carlos Tabío


  1. Fridges and washing machines - not exactly my favourite subjects but what the hell.

    When buying in Mexico we always went for the locally produced version of some clunking American contraption. The reason is quite simple: modern appliances need a regular flow of electricity otherwise their motors burn out. My wife's family had an Italian washing machine thta suffered such a fate. However, our Fridgedaire and Whirlpool both go like the clappers and when they break, some bloke comes around and fixes them.

    I think that the Cubans should have stuck with what worked.

  2. Fridges and washing machines - not exactly my favourite subjects but what the hell.