Iván Acosta (b. 1943) has dedicated his life to preserving and fostering Cuban and Latino culture as a playwright, filmmaker and publicist. Based in New York City since leaving Cuba in 1961, Acosta was a founding member, and long-time director, of the Centro Cultural Cubano. He studied film at NYU and theater with Alejandro Jodorowky, The Living Theater, and New York Theater of the Americas. His play El Súper (1977) is a canonical text of Cuban-American and Latino drama and is the basis for the successful film of the same name directed by Leon Ichaso and Orlando Jiménez Leal in 1979. In 1989 he created Latin Jazz, USA, which promotes Cuban and Latin Jazz concerts all over the United States. His latest feature film, Rosa and the executioner of the fiend, is available on DVD at Amazon.com.
Acosta has directed several documentaries on Cuban music and continues to write and direct theater. His play Cuba, Punto X (2012) won several Ace Latin Awards and he received the Hola Award for Excellence in Theater for best director for 2013. He is currently securing funding for an ambitious film project thirty years in the making that will be shot in both the US and Cuba: Guantánamo. In the following interview, Acosta talks about his first full length film project as director and screenwriter, Amigos (1985), which traces the tragic comedic experiences of marielito Ramón as he arrives in Miami, reunites with family and friends, and attempts to rebuild his life in a foreign, and in many ways inhospitable, environment.
Ramón escaped from Cuba as a “marielito” refugee. In the USA, he found freedom, abundance, confusion and deceit…but he also found, “Amigos”.
1) In many ways, Amigos could be the El Súper of that wave/generation of Cuban immigration in that it touches on many different aspects (both positive and negative) of the Cuban community, this time in Miami. How would you describe the film? What inspired you to write the screenplay and make your directorial film debut on this (¿unpopular?) topic? How long did it take to film the movie and how did you get it financed?
Let’s see. I happened to be in Miami when the Mariel exodus started. Early May 1980. I went to direct my play, No son todos los que están. I was having un cafecito cubano, at 2AM at Versailles cafeteria, when a car parked in front of me, and these three Cubans toasted by the sun in worn shorts and T-shirts exited the car and came to have some Cuban coffee and pastelitos de guayaba. With them was Mr. Bernardo Benes, a gentleman who played a very important role orchestrating the Mariel boatlift, between President Jimmy Carter and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. That’s where the Mariel story began for me. The next day, all radio stations and TV networks started transmitting the BIG NEWS. I was supposed to return to New York, but I decided to stay a few more days in Miami.
Everything sounded unreal. I knew about the 10,000 Cubans that jumped the fences of the Peruvian embassy in Havana, asking for political asylum. The whole world was watching. The Cuban dictator, mad and frustrated, in order to camouflage the un-controlled event starting shouting on National Cuban TV that any Cuban who wanted to leave the island, would be allowed to do so through the port of Mariel. We don’t want them, let them go to hell, they are traitors, worms and scums, etc. In less than 5 months, more than 128,000 Cubans: men, women, children, whites, blacks, Chinese, professionals, workers, students, ex political prisoners, homosexuals, and artists arrived at Key West marinas.[i] And there were 7,000 or 8,000 of the worst criminals hand picked from Cuban jails by government agents and thrown into the boats that went from Miami to rescue their Cuban families.
I visited two of the refugee camps and had the chance to talk to several of the recent arrivals. At that time I was starting to write Guantánamo another film screenplay that we wanted to shoot in the Dominican Republic. Speaking with my friend Marcelino Miyares, who was the C.E.O. of WBBS Channel 60 in Chicago, I told him it would be great to film a documentary about the Mariel experience; Marcelino asked me, why not a movie instead? I set Guantánamo aside and started writing Amigos. By summer 1983, we started looking for investors in order to produce the film. We formed a company, Manicato Films, and by spring 1984, we already had some committed investors. We started preproduction in May and started filming in July. It took us 8 weeks to film Amigos. We filmed 80% of the film in Miami; the rest was shot in South Carolina, Washington DC, Union City, New Jersey, and New York City.
To me, it was very important to tell the human story of the marielitos. The Cuban community in Miami had a very negative attitude towards the new refugees. So in Amigos, that was what we tried to clarify, in El Súper’s style. In El Súper, I had Roberto Amador Gonzalez expressing the Cuban exile experience of those days. In Amigos, I have Ramón Goizueta Fernández, telling the stories of many Cuban refugees that decided to leave everything behind, to escape through the Mariel boatlift. I wrote the script as a bittersweet comedy drama. That’s the style I use in all my theatrical plays: El Súper, Cuba: Punto X, Rosa and the Executioner of the Fiend, and in my latest play, La ventana de los Chévere. Of course, the Cuban ultra conservatives or extreme right of Miami that didn’t like certain things I portrayed in El Súper, also didn’t like some of the things that are said and denounced in Amigos. In both films, music plays a very important role.
2) In one of the first scenes, Ramón describes the horrors of the Mariel immigration to Cecilia, actos de repudio, and the uncertainty at the Peruvian Embassy. Also, on several occasions throughout the film Ramón also attempts to relay his traumatic experience while in prison for eighteen years to various other characters that tell him to just forget about it. Why did you decide to characterize Ramón in this way? Is he based on a specific person or does he incarnate several stories that you encountered or heard about at the time? Could this film be a defense of marielitos and a chance for them to tell their own story?
Yes, Ramón represents various characters; I tried to communicate different marielito’s horror stories, through the characterization of Ramón. I happen to know some ex-political prisoners that spent several years in Cuban jails and concentration camps, and their stories are very sad and touching; it is amazing all the human right violations they had to suffer while in prison.
I do think the film tries to show a just face of the new Cuban refugees. In the Miami Herald a critic mentions that Amigos “may help atone for Scarface”.[ii] The movie Scarface was becoming very popular with Al Pacino and Steven Bauer. Scarface had a budget of over 30 million dollars. Amigos was produced with less than $340,OOO dollars. But at least, that’s what we were trying to portray, the positive face of 95% of marielitos, “the other face of Scarface”. As far as I know, Amigos is one of the only feature film based on the Mariel exodus. There are 4 or 5 documentaries, but nobody wanted to touch the theme, in the humorous way we handled it. Thanks to executive producer, Marcelino Miyares, we were able to gather a group of investors that believed and supported the project.
3) The film seems to celebrate an exaggerated Cuban masculinity as the Amigos constantly talk of, and stare at, women. However, some of the more humorous parts of the film are when this machismo and its participants are ridiculed. I think of the scene when Mirta is the one who seduces a nervous Ramón, and many others. The same happens with the scenes from the weekend training camp where Gavilán is preparing some of his compatriotas for invading Cuba (a la Bay of Pigs). However, their pitiful display of combat instinct makes him say, “Con guerrilleros como ustedes la patria está muy jodida”. Can you comment on the use of humor (even choteo) in this film on order to comment, even criticize, certain aspects of the Cuban exile culture in the US?
Yes, as I said before Amigos is a bittersweet comedy drama, full of choteo Cuban humor.
We all know Cuban machismo; I have seen it and experienced it all my life. You see, the revolution was the greatest promoter of machismo. All those bearded, sweated, cigar smokers and happy trigger militiaman, impregnated the macho image, the maximum leader always projected and demanded among revolutionary militants. Hundreds of homosexuals were sent to prisons and to hard work concentrations camps, las UMAP, just for not being macho enough for revolutionary standards. Cubans, pro and anti Castro, somehow tried to imitate the Máximo Líder. I have always disliked the extreme machismo, not only among Cubans but among all men: Americans, blacks and whites, Cubans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans. We do know machismo exist, and in many societies it is celebrated and even rewarded. That was what happened in Cuba after 1959. The men wanted to be more man then ever before, and that influence came with the exiles.
I tried to ridicule the absurd machista behavior throughout different scenes in the movie.
We had several groups of so called anti-Castro counter revolutionaries that would go to trainings on Saturday mornings, and after the training they would go to have the biggest churrasco on the menu. There have been small amounts of serious Cubans that thought they could go and start another Sierra Maestra uprising against Castro’s dictatorship. They were very brave, ignorant, and patriotic men. Some disembarked in Cuba and were killed in less than 48 hours. The Cuban army became the third largest and best-trained armed force in the American continent. How could a group of 20 cojonudos Cuban patriot combatants dare to think they could start an armed uprising against the master organizer of subversive armed uprisings in Latin America? Queriendo bailar en la casa del trompo.
If you remember, in Amigos Ramón and Olmedo, the funeral man, get lost and frightened at the training camp and end up almost eaten by crocodiles. In real life, after the training, they would probably go to have the big churrasco on Calle Ocho, and start telling the story from a different angle: “Oh man, if you see the big 15 foot crocodile that came to attack us, Olmedo and I emptied our machine guns on them, and forget it, ‘I’ll see you later crocodile’”. That’s very typical of Cubans: exaggeration. There you can see the different tonalities of machismo. To me, machistas, racists, and homophobic go hand and hand. Unfortunately, that mentality exists among some Cubans, in exile and in the archipelago.
4) It seems that Amigos both pays homage to the best of Cuban culture and the city of Miami (you film in several recognizable locations throughout the city) and, at the same time, exposes the many contradictions in the Cuban exile community. In fact, it is a delicate balance that you manage to attain in the film between these two perspectives. What did you hope to accomplish by showing all these sides of the city and Cuban community?
I love Miami. I have never lived in Miami, although I visit it at least once a year. I have produced several Latin Jazz USA concerts, plays, and a large number of TV commercials in the city. In Amigos I tried to do that; pay homage to the Cuban Miami without being panfletario or caricaturist.
You see, I’ve lived all my 50 plus years in exile in New York City. They always say Cubans in New York think different than Cubans in Miami, even than Cubans across the Hudson River in New Jersey. It is true, Cuban Newyorkers think and have a different perspective of the Cuban situation in general. We always hear about “Cuban Success” which is real for some, but we never hear about the majority of Cuban exiles that work harder than any other immigrant community: in factories, restaurants, mechanical shops, construction, farms, etc. Those represent the real Cuban exiles, the working men and women that in several cases risked their lives to escape from Cuba to live and work in freedom. But some people consider successful those that accumulated several millions of dollars and have a luxurious yacht, a big mansion with 5 or 6 expensive automobiles. In Amigos, I tried to show that balance; without criticism; the gap between the Cubans that have a lot and the unsung heroes that built the Cuban Miami and have little. I think the last scene of the movie is very symbolic, when Ramon’s friends give him the key for the humble little coffee shop next to the Domino park, on Calle Ocho, while the popular celebration of carnival is taking place. I’m sure some sociologists, historian, and anthropologists would find more hidden messages than the general audience.[iii] However, at the end, all Cubans are Amigos.
5) It has been thirty years since Amigos was made and thirty-five since the Mariel boatlift. What continues to make the film worth watching after so many years? How does Amigos fit into your trajectory as a filmmaker and playwright?
As I mentioned, Amigos is one of the only fiction feature film about and around the Mariel boatlift historical event. Audiences identify themselves with the protagonist Ramón, they laugh and feel sad at some of his pathetic situations. For 30 years, since the film was made, every year, on Mariel anniversaries, it is shown at different universities or cultural centers, even at some cinemas, to celebrate the event. The film has been shown in several countries around the world, including Spain, Israel, Italy, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. As a filmmaker, Amigos represents an experience I will never under estimate. I am very happy we were able to create and produce it, and contribute to the Cuban exile’s history.
Now that Cuba is turning pages, I know Amigos will be shown in Cuba, and hopefully it will serve as another granito de arena to show our Cuban brothers and sisters on the island another chapter of our long last 56 years.
[i] The actual number of refugees was 124,779.
[ii] Horn, Laurie. “Amigos May Launch Hispanic Hollywood” The Miami Herald March 8th, 1985.
[iii] At the end of the film when Ramón is given the keys to a humble coffee stand by his amigos, Pablo gives a speech where he says that Cubans ”hemos trabajado muy duro al igual a nuestros hermanos latinoamericanos que hayan inmigrado a este país”.