Alexis Valdés: “Cubans need to learn to dialogue”

A report by Marita Pérez Díaz for On Cuba News.

His characters Nereida and Cristinito entertain hundreds of thousands of followers on his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages, where he publishes videos with puns, gibberish, double meanings and jokes that touch on current, very serious topics.

Since the pandemic began, his contents have multiplied on the Internet: “Our mission was to amuse people and entertain, because they needed a daily humor that had to do with the reality of these moments,” he says in an exclusive interview for OnCuba.

With an engineering degree under his arm, Alexis has a “restless” sensibility. He’s an actor, comedian, singer, musician, writer, TV producer, and sometimes inspiration takes the form of poems. In these months of pandemic, he wrote the poem “Esperanza” that went viral on networks and went around the world, not without controversy, as it has been wrongly attributed to dozens of writers. According to Alexis, the last time he defended the authorship of the poem, they said it had come out during a pandemic almost 200 years ago.

Many of his friends of other nationalities, he says, don’t understand how Alexis, being Cuban, has been prohibited from entering Cuba for almost two decades. We talked with him about his sorrows and joys, Cubans, art and the island in his favorite place in Miami, his own home, from where he has promoted most of his appearances on social networks in the last half year of confinement.

Let’s start with the changes that these months of pandemic have meant for your career and endeavors. How have you reinvented yourself?

The pandemic in the first place has meant for us all like a stop, not a real stop, but it has put us like in pause. I was doing television when the pandemic came, we did some programs from home, and later the channel didn’t want to continue doing it like that. They wanted to use all the spaces for news at that time. I continued doing the program on my own for a while on the Internet, with my team, with my people, for various reasons. We believed that at that time it was super important to entertain people, and we did it from home, we did although we didn’t charge. It was very complicated because I have a small baby. Since nobody could come to the house we had to do everything ourselves, the lights, the sound. We had to record in the spaces where we live, eat.… Now I’m building a studio to be able to do things without interfering with my life.

And so that’s why there comes a time when we stop to think precisely how we are going to do it more professionally. The work during the pandemic was more like resistance work, like trench work. If there is a war you are not going to ask for a set, you broadcast from the trench and keep moving forward. But the “war” moment is over, it’s a moment of uncertainty but the moment of terror is over.

I have also used the time to write. I always write verses, rhymes, poems, I don’t meditate too much, an idea comes to me and I start writing. During the pandemic, I wrote the poem “Esperanza” that created a big stir and many people asked me when I was going to publish my book of poems. So I have devoted myself to compiling everything I have written so far, although it has been a bit difficult because, as it has been something that I haven’t taken too seriously, it’s all in notebooks, papers…. Some things I no longer will find, with so much moving I have lost a lot. The second time I moved to Spain, I remember writing some verses that said “Everything I wrote and was lost without taking it seriously, today I know has a name: mystery.” For me that was kind of painful, as if I had thrown away a piece of life, emotions, reflections. That tormented me at one point in life. But hey, I already have a compilation of poems.

I also wrote a movie. I’m developing an idea for a television series. And I also wrote a play that talks about a family and of how the pandemic and political polarization influence the relationships of human beings.

Do you think this health emergency has made it necessary (in the case of art as well) to invent new ways of communicating with the public, of making television, for example? Have you placed the art elsewhere, or is it a temporary emergency and we will be the same again?

Everything is constantly changing, but when there is an event as significant as this pandemic, it always leaves something in our perception of the world, our behavior, our emotions. There will be certain fears that will always remain, certain precautions and ideas. And let’s hope it will help us learn something as a species, the human race.

What artists do is reflect and the way they do it will change a bit. Internet communication will be used much more. The shows, concerts, many are now by Zoom, of course it’s not the same. But through technology and people’s creativity, a greater impact will be achieved through these streaming platforms.

In my case, we worked more on the YouTube channel (Alexis Valdés Real) and we reached 100,000 subscribers. Now we are publishing some of the plays that at some point we recorded, not for this purpose, but that we can now broadcast there.

How do you interact with your thousands of followers? Do you answer their comments yourself or does someone handle the networks?

I don’t have any team to take care of the networks, no. In fact, I don’t know if I would like to, because I have an assessment of thought, I’m very interested that the things I say are said by me. And no one is going to say it like I would. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, but I don’t like the idea of ​​someone speaking for me. I like to play and have fun with the public, but always having a bit of intelligence behind it. In my networks I have my personal discourse. And although I can’t read everything they write, I do see many that I love and others that I don’t.

With all the energy that you are putting into your programs on the networks, are you going to return to television at some point?

Television is another medium, it’s always there. What I’m clear about is that less and less (for many years I’ve felt this way) I want to have someone who tells me what I have to do or what I don’t have to do. I believe that my future in television is increasingly about producing my content and saying “this is the content I have, if you like it there it is.” If you don’t like it, I’ll go and put it somewhere else. But I don’t want to work (in fact, I have never allowed it) with anyone who tells me not to do this, say the other. There are channels where one has to have a political tendency, that is against individual freedom. Or there are TV channels where you can’t talk about such a person or not say such a word. No. I’m a fan of freedom.

Within the norms of coexistence, of decency, within a deontological code that one respects, I want to have the freedom to express my ideas and in the way that I believe they should be expressed. I don’t want to have an official who says “yes, no, no, yes,” who, in addition, generally knows nothing about comedy.

Did it happen to you in Cuba? What about Miami, have you ever felt self-conscious about expressing an opinion publicly or has it been directly censored?

What happens is that human beings, when they have power, want to exercise power. Of course, this happens more in Cuba. But in any company if the president or the CEO says something, the others are silent. That’s why I have never belonged to anything, not to a government, not to a party or to anything. Since I was a child, I was always a rebel and had problems in Cuba, they wanted to expel me from high school, senior high, the student federation, university…. I was always a rebel, but not because I wanted to plant a bomb, but because I made a joke or because I had an opinion about what I believed.

Here in Miami it doesn’t happen to me, because in the first place I don’t allow it. But there is always someone who wants to tell you what you have to do. You see it on social media, there are people saying all daylong what the other should do. I’m totally against that. I believe that freedom, that which I feel, that which I profess and for which I feel at peace, which is not total freedom because that doesn’t exist, but that freedom to be able to say with respect and moderation what I understand is something inalienable and indispensable. A society where its elements are not expressed freely, out of convenience or fear, for whatever reason, cannot advance.

What is your opinion on the relationship between Cubans? Could there be a dialogue between both shores?

Cubans need to learn to dialogue. During these years, after the triumph of the Revolution, Cubans have become accustomed to thinking and functioning in a very extreme way: “if you don’t think like me, you are my enemy and I need to destroy you.” And that is what has weighed down our country, our possibilities. Because it’s not the same a nation where everyone collaborates and contributes their ideas, think how they think, but contribute their best.

Cubans forgot they can listen and disagree, without taking offense. I lived in Spain for many years (what a pity that now it’s so polarized too), but I had two friends, one from the right and the other from the left. The center of their friendship was to support each other, to share, to help each other. I have friends whom I love and I know they think differently from me. I cannot say I’m apolitical because any thought or any approach is political, I’m not a fan of any policy or a follower of any politician. I see the human being, his ideas. Fanatics are not smart and the smart ones are not fanatics. He who has intelligence doubts, is curious, and with that he cannot be a fanatic.

How important is Cuban emigration then to build Cuba?

There are two Cubas for me, the geographical one that is that island, and the Cuba Nation, which is scattered around the world. All those Cubans, those from the island and those from abroad, make the country every day, as a spiritual notion of country. From the one who repairs a watch, the one who writes a song or the one who writes a medical treatise, all those people, like Cubans, have equal importance and value for their contribution. The problem lies in how much the government of Cuba is going to allow all these people to contribute, how permeable that government is so that all those people who have something valuable to give, contribute it. And not just the government, but society.

When that happens in Cuba, then all those Cubans around the world will feel comfortable enough to say “I will give what I know, I will be heard, regardless of my political position.” That was Martí’s thinking. All people who have something good to contribute should be welcomed, received with affection. That is a pending issue for the Cuban government and society, to open up to anyone who wants to contribute. But really open up. Not only to collect dollars, but an opening of ideas, of thought, of economy, of way of life.

What do you think of the cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba? Why do you think artists like Haila and Gente de Zona are banned in Miami? What would be an ideal situation, in your opinion, on this topic?

I believe that cultural exchange has not existed. It cannot be one-way. There are people who say yes because American artists have gone to Cuba, but that’s not the game. The game has to be on an equal footing. Everyone knows, and we cannot be blind, that the fundamental interest of this exchange is that there is a population in the United States that wants to see those artists from Cuba, that listens to music or that sees the comedy of those artists who are in Cuba. And vice versa, there is a very large population in Cuba that would like to see the artists who have stayed on the other side. In my opinion, I think it’s great that artists go here and there, it seems necessary and normal. It should not be called a cultural exchange, but rather that the artists go from one place to another, like the French go to the United States or the Americans go to France. You don’t even have to give it a name; if you have to name it, it’s because there’s a problem. The normal thing is for a Cuban artist to appear wherever there is an audience that is waiting for him, be it inside the island, outside the island, even on Mars. It’s a presentation, a performance, nothing more.

How long have you been without going to Cuba?

The last time was in 2004, so it’s 16 years.

After that year, the Cuban government has not allowed you to enter the island again, why?

I don’t know. There are explanations that reach me, they are all speculations, “one day you said something in your program that someone didn’t like,” “no, it was a minister who has it out for you but now he’s not in his position.” Others say: “no, it was an artist who got upset because you made a joke about him on television, that artist went to the Ministry of Culture and as he had such an influence he managed to prevent you from entering” or “it was because of Amaury Pérez’s song.” I don’t really know. Although I intuit that the reality is that when you make humor, or question, the government takes it as an attack, and what they do is limit…I suppose, I can’t give you a concrete explanation.

Every so often a group of artists complain on social networks, but officially no one has answered anything. Which is worse. They should answer something, I don’t know, something like “they don’t let him enter Cuba because they consider him a mercenary of biotechnology.” But nobody has said anything. I believe that at some point it will eliminated, I suppose when there is enough sense. Not only for me, but for so many Cuban artists who cannot enter.

And we return to the point of what the Cubans of the world can do for the Cuba of the future…because Cuba’s internal policies prevent all that that those Cubans can contribute, because they’re conditioning the presence of these Cubans to politics. There we’re screwed. As long as that is the case, the country doesn’t advance.

And it’s not just that I want to return to Cuba. It’s something that should not even be talked about, it should be an unquestionable right. The fact that this is being talked about means that there is something wrong. Imagine if you asked an Englishman, “Would you like to go back to England? Well, I go when I feel like it.” These things happen in very backward societies from the point of view of cultural development. That today there are governments that limit the entry of their people of origin, as a friend of mine says, that is pathetic.

How does this situation affect you on a personal level?

In Cuba I only have a few relatives and very good friends. But the fact of not being able to enter Cuba is not something that kills me. It’s like a sorrow, which one has, which is not permanent either. In those moments when you are nostalgic, listen to music, or see a photo, a movie, there you feel sorrow for all the opportunities you have lost of being in physical contact with your country, your friends during these years. Friends I’d like to sit down and talk with, have a beer.

I know Cuba very well, I toured it with my parents. I know the night world of Havana. I had a very intense life there. You miss those things, and the day I return I don’t know if I’ll find them again, because many things have already died. See Elena Burke in a cabaret, or Omara Portuondo, Juana Bacallao in the Capri. It was a Havana that no longer exists and that I enjoyed a lot, in a state of joy, happiness, creation, which left a very important fount in me. I also miss my home. It saddens me not to have the possibility to enter my house, my grandmother’s house, the television and radio studios. All those places that are engraved in me, walking through the streets and through those spaces, is something that I have, a lack of that. There are people who left Cuba and don’t want to return, because they’re upset, disenchanted, frustrated. But that wasn’t my case. Those years, just before I left Cuba, were the happiest of my life, I was an actor, I was successful, I was fulfilling myself. Within the lack, the limitations, the freedoms that I didn’t have, but at that stage I was very happy, and I miss that feeling. And I also know that when I return I may not find it, and that it may hurt me more and that I’m protected by that idyllic memory.

I don’t know if all that expectation I have about returning to my land; I can’t tell you if I’m going to smile or cry. I will surely do both. But it’s something necessary for the soul. You can go around the world, but then return to your point of origin, at least to tell the story.

What comes to mind when you think of Cuba?

The smell of coffee. The image of my grandmother brewing coffee. I do have that memory.

What is the first thing you would do if you went to Cuba tomorrow?

I think I would go to the porch of a friend’s house to watch people go by, to tell foolish things, to have a mamey shake. My desire to find that joy in Cuba is not to go to a disco or a bar, but to be sitting there, to feel that you are in that land, that you are reconnected. From the moment you see that green thing on the plane, those are the emotions, arriving, seeing people’s faces. Those little pieces of happiness.

It could almost be said that you have as many followers inside as outside of Cuba, if not more. How do you connect with that audience being away for so long?

The 15 years I was in Spain were the ones that most distanced me from the Cuban public. At that time, it was not so common for things to be shared, but in Cuba they saw the Club de la Comedia, then Un rey en La Habana. But it was the stage that I was furthest away, both physically and artistically. The last time I returned to Havana during that time and a woman who cleaned at the Hotel Nacional saw me, stopped me and asked: “Aren’t you one who was a Cuban artist?” That “was” a Cuban artist. It’s the most incredible question I’ve been asked, because it’s as if you leave and you stop being a Cuban artist. Later that night I was eating at the restaurant and a group of Japanese salsa dancers who had seen my movie Salsa in Japan got up from their table to come and greet me. The Japanese greeted me instead of the Cubans!

But when I came to live in Miami it was different, it was very close to Cuba and the package started too, people started trafficking information and data. What I started doing became more present.

Which of your characters do you enjoy the most?

I think Cristinito, which I’ve been doing for 33 years, is the character that comes out the easiest for me. Nereida already comes out easily, I’ve been doing it for four years, but it’s a bit more work for me, especially writing it. With Cristinito I put myself out there and all those ideas start to come out. I guess people will remember me more for Cristinito.

Your children inherited from you a creative and artistic part, but especially young America’s fledgling career as a model, actress and singer is taking off. Recently she said she will not go to Cuba for the first time until she goes with you. How is your relationship with her?

America, although she was born in Spain and her mother is Chilean, feels very Cuban. She listens to a lot of Cuban music. And well, I suppose that, of course, her connection to Cuba is through me, and since I can’t enter, she can perhaps interpret it as if she would be betraying me, or betraying herself. I don’t think she’s interested. What she wants is to go with me and that I tell her. I think what she wants is to live what she has deep down in her heart since childhood. That that girl can’t go to see her father’s land is cruel, as plain as that.

What is your favorite place in Cuba?

Pinar del Río.

Your favorite place in Miami?

My home.

What makes you laugh?

Intelligence and very funny people.

What makes you cry?

Sometimes the memory of my dad makes me cry, lately, my dad’s most of all.

What would you never make fun of?

Someone’s pain.

What is Cuba?

It’s a pity.

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