‘El Super’ explains Cuban exiles’ bittersweet adventure

MV5BMjEwOTU2MjQyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjIyOTUyMQ@@._V1_SX214_ This piece by MYRIAM MARQUEZ appeared in The Miami Herald.

It was born in the gritty urban realism of exile, circa 1970s. El Super, a low-budget production by Cuban exiles, was the little film that could. It would break stereotypes by embracing them. It would make you laugh and cry simultaneously — tears of loss mixed with the pride of the survivor.

It was for me, when I saw El Super with my cousin Mirtica 35 years ago at the now-gone Cinematheque theater in Coral Gables, a chance to celebrate Cubans in America, the first time our struggles were captured with loving wit for an international audience. And I had lived it, not in New York where the film was based but in Miami, where el super, the movie’s lead character, wanted to be.

Not yet a U.S. citizen, soon heading out of my Miami exile comfort zone to college in Maryland, El Super prepared me for what was to come. One of my first realizations: Unlike in Miami, Chinese restaurants in the Washington area didn’t serve fried plantains with their fried rice. And Cuba to many of my fellow students at the University of Maryland was an exotic place where a killer like Ché was a martyr and Fidel was the David to Ronald Reagan’s Goliath.

More than one of my classmates asked me: “Are you going back home to Cuba for Christmas or spring break?”

“Your family must have been very rich so you had to leave Cuba,” others wrongly surmised.

“Have you seen El Super?” I would respond, then break into a lengthy explanation about my mother the school teacher, my father the taxi driver, not exactly millionaires.

Roberto, El Super’s lead character, was a bus driver in Havana. Roberto, the frustrated father who left Cuba with his wife and daughter a decade earlier thinking he would return soon, would find himself in a tundra of snow and worries in New York, serving as the “superintendent” for the blue-collar Washington Heights apartment building he lived in. Roberto, the handyman, the fixer of all things broken could not repair his broken heart. His marriage to Aurelia seemed to be sinking like their basement apartment, and his 17-year-old daughter, Aurelita, had picked up the worst of Americana, smoking pot and dancing disco and — gasp! — refusing to speak Spanish.

Based on a play by Iván Acosta, El Super debuted in 1979 before packed audiences, winning 15 international awards at film festivals in Germany, France, Italy and more. It was a true labor of love for the actors, production people and directors Leon Ichaso and Orlando Jiménez Leal, all of whom didn’t collect a salary. They all went on to bigger things, but to me El Super has remained their masterpiece, a defining film on the struggles of exile.

Now El Super is back, remastered in digital, celebrating its 35th anniversary at the Tower Theater in Little Havana, starting April 26 through May 2. I missed seeing it again during Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival last month, but Tower manager Orlando Rojas tells me it was a huge hit at the festival — not just with the old-time exiles, the historicos, but with newer arrivals who can see in that 1970s depiction of exile the same struggles of displacement they faced arriving decades later.

I thought about those new arrivals this past Friday at an ArtesMiami luncheon celebrating author and columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner’s works over the decades. Attending the event were art lovers who had managed to leave Cuba just a few years ago. One secured permission to leave the island “temporarily” for a festival in Mexico then skipped out and sought U.S. asylum at the California border.

There they were, acknowledging Montaner’s literary achievements and his cultural contributions to South Florida, thanks to ArtesMiami founder Aida Levitan’s hard work over the decades to bridge generations, languages and ethnicities with a universal appreciation for the arts. There was nothing gritty about it, and yet El Super hung in the air for me at the Coral Gables restaurant just a few blocks away from where I first saw the film.

Even as its characters wallowed in the pain of nostalgia, El Super captured the picardia, the mischievousness, of the Cuban soul and put it on the big screen. The film’s marketing poster depicts that picardia, the ability to laugh at the stereotypes that define us: The Statue of Liberty holding up a wrench with el super standing inside it, waving a tiny Cuban flag, with the caption: “From the people who brought you the rhumba, the mambo, Ricky Ricardo, daiquiris, good cigars, Fidel Castro, cha-cha-cha, Cuban-Chinese restaurants and the Watergate plumbers.”

I hope those in our culturally diverse South Florida who are still trying to understand “those crazy Cubans” get to see El Super. Thirty-five years later, it remains the bittersweet love story of a people not afraid to laugh in the face of tragedy. For the original report go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/04/21/3356267/el-super-explains-cuban-exiles.html#storylink=cpy

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