Wednesday, January 19, 2005


“I am an honest man, and I come from the place where the palm trees grow....” So begins “Guantanamera,” a song with a recording history as rich as the land from which it originated—Cuba. Julián Orbón is credited with combining original music by Havana disc jockey José Fernández Díaz with “Versos Sencillos,” a poem written by José Martí in 1891. Díaz, who was trying to woo a girl, ad-libbed his own lyrics, which he'd sing to introduce his radio show in the 1940s. In doing so, it became a staple of his program and popularized the song in Cuba. It reached a more global audience when gringo Pete Seeger recorded his own version in 1961. Cuban musicologist Helio Orovio considers it one of the top ten songs of Cuba’s musical history. Many Cubans consider it the song.

Verso Sencillos (José Martí)
Yo soy un hombre sincero,
de donde crece la palma,
y antes de morirme quiero,
echar mis versos del alma.
Mi verso es de un verde claro,
y de un carmín encendido,
mi verso es un ciervo herido,
que busca del monte amparo.
Con los pobres de la tierra,
quiero yo mi suerte echar,
el arroyo de la sierra,
me complace más que el mar.
A hymn of sorts, “Guantanamera”—or “Guanatanamerica,” as my friend's two-year-old calls it, is at heart about an honest man who needs to give voice to the stirrings of his soul. I think it’s so popular because it’s a song that even a poet who doesn’t know it can personalize. Most often it’s sung with the refrain “Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera,” directing the singer's longings towards a country girl from Guantanamo, Cuba, but with a little help from salsa queen Celia Cruz and miseducated songstress Lauryn Hill, the Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean even managed to turned it into a dialogue between himself and “a rose in Spanish Harlem.” He courts her because of love for the old tune.
I asked her what’s her name,
she said, 'Guantanamera’
Reminded me of an old Latin song,
my uncle used to play
on his old 45
when he used to be alive
During this call and response she tells him, “Yo soy un mujer sincera, de donde crece las palmas . . . y antes de morir, Yo quiero cantar mis versos del alma.” She's a sincere woman from the place where the palm trees grow, and before she dies she wants to sing the verses in her heart. Standing at the bar, smoking his Cuban cigar, her star-crossed lover replies earnestly, “Te quiero mama, te quiero!”—“I want you.” Everyone from the Vienna Boys Choir to Roxy Music has performed the song. Tenor Placido Domingo has recorded it backed with a symphonic orchestra, and even the Belgian’s are singing it. Probably my favorite interpretation is that of José Feliciano, but it’s always a great song to hear no matter the artist.

Guantanamerica's on my mind for three reasons. One is because of a great cd mix my friend made for her son, of which I, too, was a lucky beneficiary. I say lucky because I was thusly introduced to two renditions I hadn’t heard, one by Los Lobos, with their rarely heard bassist Conrad Lozano taking vocal duty, and one by Omara Portuondo, who most Norte Americanos know from the Buena Vista Social Club recording, but who has been a star in Cuba since the 1940s. This particular version was recorded early in her career and is highlighted by children singing the chorus; much later she recorded a smoky ballad version.

The second reason for delving into Guantanamerica is because of the recent controversy over a comic book Border published by Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is being denounced soundly by the U.S. government. In 32 pages, “Guide for the Mexican Migrant,” tells illegal immigrants how to protect themselves when crossing the border and how to stay safely unobtrusive once they arrive—to which I say, “bravo!” In addition to explaining how to survive when traveling through tricky geographical terrain, the booklet warns potential border-jumpers of the dangers posed by abusive “coyotes,” or paid guides, and gives advice on dealing with the Border Patrol or police should one get caught. 1.5 million copies have been distributed so far. (If you know where I can get my hands on one, please drop me a post).

Opponents are calling the publication a “how-to” guide that will increase the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States, but to me that’s a lot like the argument that if you teach sex education in the schools and make condoms readily available to teens, you’re actually encouraging behavior that wouldn’t otherwise happen. In fact, one might argue the exact opposite. An article in NCM Online, quoted Agustín Pradillo, press envoy at the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, as saying, “A guide to the dangers that you’ll encounter in the Middle East is not going to encourage [Americans to go there].”

State of the World 2005, a report issued annually by the Worldwatch Institute, named poverty, disease, and “environmental decline,” as the “true axis of evil,” and decried the global war on terror for "diverting the world's attention from the central causes of instability.” When hard working yet hungry people—hungry for things most of us take for granted—can toil for a few dollars a day or cross an imaginary line and work just as hard but for tens of dollars a day, they're gonna cross that line. Let's just be real about that for a moment: I would think that no country is happy to say it’s one that people want to leave in droves, but there are reasons people do. People even emigrate from the United States, though I’m sure it’s hard for some to imagine that this isn’t the cat's meow for absolutely everyone. So I applaud a government that’s willing to be honest with itself and attempt to protect its people no matter where they are. Here at home, what I often feel I need protection from is my own government's idea of protection, like the Patriot Act or the need to unleash pre-emptive strikes on the basis of lies. It's like the old saying, “with friends like that, who needs enemies.”

Lastly, I’ve been thinking about Guantanamerica because from the moment I was bestowed with the CD, I’ve been thinking about one of my all-time favorite comics—Love and Rockets (L&R). All hail Los Bros Hernandez! I was also challenged by the gift giver to write about rocket science so here it is. L&R is without a doubt, one of the most influential comics to be drawn and was even described by The Nation's Patrick Markee as one “of the hidden treasures of our impoverished culture.” That’s pretty high fallutin’ praise for a medium that has only in recent years begun to receive the recognition it deserves.

L&R was first serialized in the early 1980s and has been exploring gender, class, and race for more than 20 years now (minus a hiatus or two). Border The primary creative forces behind the series are Jaime and Gilberto (aka Beto) Hernandez, two Mexican-American brothers who grew up in L.A., listening to and playing punk music and drawing comics. Jaime’s world is a fictional barrio called Hoppers 13, located somewhere in Southern California. His art work is characterized by clean lines that are reminiscent of Patrick Nagel's artwork, but depict average, everyday, i.e. “real” people. Punk rockers Margarita Chascarrillo (better known as Maggie) and Esperanza Leticia Glass (known as Hopey)—an on-again, off-again couple—are the key characters. Aunt Vicki the wrestling champ; Isabel (aka Izzy) Ortiz, an academic bruja prone to nervous breakdowns; and Beatriz García (aka Penny Century), a flower girl-turned-superhero-turned millionaireness are just a few of the women with whom they cross paths. As noted by Fantagraphics Books, "[Jaime's] characters are infused with strength, intelligence, independence, imperfection, bitchiness, frailty, obsessiveness, and so much more.”

With a rougher drawing style, Beto’s work is mostly centered in the fictional place known as Palomar, a town somewhere in Central America with an extremely complex history. Border Publishers Weekly lauds Beto's work for being “loaded with insight about the bumpy terrain of familial and sexual relationships, swinging wildly in tone between suffocating darkness and sunny charm. His characters have enormous, tangled family trees, and he gradually unfolds their histories.” Palomar’s residents include Chelo, the lady sheriff; radical activist Tonantzín; and the center of it all, Luba—the daughter of an Indian migrant woker and former trophy wife of a very, very bad guy. Luba eventually runs a bathhouse before becoming the mayor of Palomar and Chelo’s chief rival. Along the way Luba manages to bear seven children, most with different fathers.

One of the things I love about L&R is that though it’s drawn by men, the stories are filled with women—real women. Strong women. Women who take on the world, break new ground, wrestle professionally, raise families, and only compromise when they have to do so. They even gain weight, just like us real ladies. The male characters are equally compelling and run the gamut from studs and mechanics to teachers and boozers. Los Bros’ imaginary places are filled with Chicanos, South American Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, and Asian immigrants; struggling musicians, professional lady wrestlers, movie stars, gang bangers, and Mafia types; straight, gay, and confused people; poor folk and billionaires; disabled and disfigured people; adults, teens, and children; a stigmatic; and even Steve, the gringo surf hippie, i.e. people with dreams who are just trying to get by. The world of L&R is, as Markee states, “the kind of new American place that is almost never identified on our cultural road map and never rendered so vividly.” It’s an intoxicating blend of fantasy and reality. I want to befriend these folks. I think you should too. Maggie and Hopey and all the rest of the gang are out there, somewhere lost in what Publishers Weekly calls the “extraordinary, eccentric, and very literary” Guantanamerica.

Whether you're new to it all or a long-time fan, you may enjoy two recently published retrospective collections that cover nearly the entire span of their main storylines. Jaime's Locas: A Love and Rockets Book and Gilberto's Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories (Love and Rockets) are both available from Fantagraphics and Amazon as well as finer bookstores. Grab 'em so you won't feel so alone in the land of the free and the home of the brave— Guantanamerica, north or south of the border.


Blogger David J. Bayt said...

I have been searching endlessly for the lyrics to Los Lobos rendition of Guantanamera - to no avail. Can you help me out?

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have searhed the entire internet. For some reason, Los Lobos' lyrics do not exist.

2:52 PM  

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