The man I most admired in my Cuban hometown — second only to my father and to the native son who played center field for the national baseball team — was someone that could make magic with a brush, some oil colors and a canvas. Or charcoal and a blank piece of paper. Wherever he’d set up to sketch or paint, kids and adults alike gathered around him, watching in quiet reverence as his visions came to life. He was a few years older than me and I never knew his real name, only his nickname: El Gongui.
One day I got up the courage to ask him to teach me how to draw. He asked if I had ever done it. I hemmed and hawed and said that I had done some cartoons and caricatures. When he convinced me to show them to him, he was very complementary. I probably doubted his sincerity, I’m not sure. It’s been a long time. But El Gongui offered me some tips and told me that I could ask him anything I wanted about painting. I never did, of course. I was a shy twelve year-old. But I continued drawing and shadowing him whenever he’d set up outside and secretly wishing his talent would wash over me.
No one in town was surprised when El Gongui was accepted to the National Academy of Fine Arts in Havana. He went away to study and I continued sketching and drawing and hoping to one day paint like him.
Even before the all-clear was sounded, during the October Missile Crisis in ’62, my parents had applied for a visa to travel to the U. S. I was seven at the time. It would take eight years for the exit permit to come through. It felt like growing up at an airline terminal or a train station. There’s not much living to be done because you’re always waiting for your trip to be announced.
As the son of “gusanos” — we were crawling to Miami, hence the term worms — I could not participate in any government sponsored activities. No sports, no music, no theater. No fun of any kind, except whatever I could find with my friends outside of the schooling system or at church. My church had a ping-pong table. I became pretty good at the game, but there was really not a lot of competition at the First Baptist. But it helped. I also played a lot of baseball at the abandoned field behind my house. And I continued drawing.
A friend of mine saw my cartoons and convinced me to submit them to the weekly newspaper published at a nearby city. This was a government sponsored paper — as was everything published in Cuba — specializing in humorous stories, cartoons and a heavy doze of politics.
Must twelve year-old boys still see the world full of possibilities. At this time I believed that I would grow up to be a famous baseball player, or a rock star, or a painter or a novelist. Why not all of them? So I followed up on my friend’s suggestion. I hopped on a bus by myself with seven cartoons in a yellow manila envelope and I looked for the newspaper’s offices. They were a short walk from the bus terminal.
I was pacing for a good half hour in front of the place. Back and forth, practicing my elevator pitch, even if I had never seen an elevator, or if I didn’t know that was what people in the biz called the short sales pitch and getting up the courage. When I finally made it through the front door, I had managed to scare myself so much that all I could utter were some unintelligible sounds to the receptionist at the same time that I dropped the envelope on her desk. I think I said something like: “This is for the magazine…”
I didn’t wait for a response, or a question or even a quick look inside the envelope from her. I was gone as fast as I had come in. On the bus ride back home, I thought of El Gongui. Then I forgot about what I had done.
Two weeks later I was suddenly reminded. When I got to school in the morning, my best friend was holding the paper and jumping up and down.
He was surprised I hadn’t seen it, because, according to him, everyone in school was talking about it. My friend showed me a few pages. All seven of my cartoons had been published. He then showed me the best part, according to him: On page 2, a fairly large notice was announcing a search for the mystery cartoonist. It said something to the effect of “…as you can judge by his cartoons, he’s pretty good.” That’s all I remember after all these years. That, and the exhilarating, overwhelmingly joyous feeling at seeing my work in print. That one hooked me forever.
After the dream of a baseball career or rock stardom collided with reality and disintegrated, the love of books and writing and publishing has remained a saving constant.
My folks were not as impressed when I came home with a grin, holding the paper. They forbid my coming forward and claiming my new found publishing fame.
“You’re not going to be a cartoonist for Fidel Castro,” my mother said.
That ended my pre-exile cartooning career.
Each time I draw a cartoon, I remember my trip on the bus with the manila envelope under my arm. I remember my feelings when I saw the newspaper for the first time.
I also remember El Gongui. His talent and his kindness towards me. I often wonder if he’s doing revolutionary billboards during the day and his own art in the secrecy of the night.
Of this I am sure: one day I will see him again, painting at the park, in the middle of the day. There’s freedom all around and kids admiring his magic.
Kids that believe in infinite possibilities and us, older folk, trying to rediscover them.