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My (Almost) Conversation With Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro. | Photo: Mongrel Media.

I met Gabriel García Márquez, Gabo -- the man, the writer, the myth, the earthy lefty saint -- at the Havana Film Festival back in the Cold War days. Soviet tankers floated just off the malecón. Polish cars puttered around the streets. Socialist slogans blared from billboards, Che Guevara's visage looked down on us from heaven. And beneath the surface of the revolutionary bluster, people schemed and scammed to get extra eggs, a pair of jeans. And if you weren't scheming and scamming, you were spying on people who were. Like in a Graham Greene novel, the bushes moved.

Everyone knew that Gabo was friends with Fidel. People speculated on what they talked about. Just literature? I fantasized that Gabo was an ethical voice of moderation in Fidel's ear. That's what I wanted to believe, because it was pretty tough to cheer on a Revolution that seemed to have been delivered mostly with dogmatism and scarcity, with the imprisonment of writers and homosexuals (and homosexual writers, like the brilliant Reinaldo Arenas).

I can't remember at what film festival venue I met Gabo, but I remember the Russian caviar. And I remember the running argument I had with my late Puerto Rican filmmaker friend José García, who served alongside Gabo on the board of the internationalist Cuban film school. José was my elder by a dozen years. He towed the party line but was also a bohemian; privately he'd confess the sins of the Revolution. I was in my early twenties and rebellion, for me, meant to push back against the dictates of socialist realism without ceding anything to reactionary yanqui art elites: mine was the third way, the path along the "liminal" space I'd chosen for very subjective reasons (I was born in L.A. on a border between all kinds of peoples and experiences and early on intuited I couldn't exclude any of them).

My rhetorical weapon of choice during those heady days on the island -- truth be told it was a 24/7 party of drinking, flirting, dancing and debating art and politics all at once -- was none other than Gabo himself. Gabo was the Third Way! He'd synthesized European, American and Latin American aesthetics, rolled together the Beats and the New Journalists, the expansive lyric of the Spanish language, and the great themes of the New World into an oneiric ode to a history that the gringo Big Stick could not deny.

He fought the good fight as a good modernist.

We were waiting for Fidel to arrive, for a glimpse of "the Beard." José and I had been knocking back mojitos to quench our Caribbean thirst. And there he was. Not Fidel but Gabo. No big line of autograph seekers; the room, filled with the crème de la crème of Latin American film society, was too cool for that. "Let me introduce you," José said nonchalantly.

Gabo wore a guayabera, either white or light blue. He was graying but glowing, only 51 at the time. (So young! I say to myself now, at the same age.) "Love in the Time of Cholera" was only a couple of years old. At the time I was intoxicated with the poetry he'd found at the border between modernity and old school Latin American romance. I yearned for a new-new world, something beyond the ossified "isms" that reigned in American and Latin America. A new love that breached the borders that colonialism and the church had locked us into.

"Gabo, this is Rubén Martínez, a journalist from..." I stretched out my hand and Gabo's fingertips were brushing mine at the word "periodista" and in an instant he withdrew his hand and rushed past me.

Fidel had walked into the room and soon Gabo was at his side.

That night José and I argued, yet again, about art and politics and el pueblo (the People!). After one too many mojitos, José actually accosted a high-level Cuban cultural functionary and parroted my liberal-humanist line. The bushes moved.

And me, I looked out at the waters lapping at the malecón, thinking about how close Miami was.

Never got to talk to Gabo. But he "talked" about the Conversation we all had then and continue to have in Latin America, in the immigrant hoods of the States, in the Global South, everywhere that difference dances. For me, he wrote of the place beyond the "isms."

And I still fantasize that's what he was whispering to Fidel.

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