In spite of being censored on the island, the Cuban comedian who passed away on July 30 in Miami at the age of 86, left us a saying indelibly etched upon all of our lives. If someone was trying to be a wiseguy, you would say: “Hey, don’t get cute. The only one capable of making a living telling stories is Álvarez Guedes.”
After Fidel Castro closed the daily papers and reigned in freedoms of expression in 1960, those of us born after know well how the secret police pursued and banned the humorists who, with laughter, criticized the daily comings and goings of the olive green madhouse.
It got to the extremes. One evening, a retired reporter once told me that an urgent meeting was called in the offices of Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, to disclose and analyze an erratum that occurred in the previous day’s print run. In a column of newsbriefs, a humorist had drawn a skull and crossbones that, when held up to the light, ended up transposed on the chest of a photo of Fidel Castro.
This stirred up the hornet’s nest. The ideological censors never had much imagination. The poor type-setter was interrogated by the counterintelligence hounds, seeking out a double-meaning that he swore on his mother he hadn’t intended.
More than a few times, from his office in the Palace of the Revolution, the Comandante would walk down a secret hallway that led to Granma’s editorial department and review the features, news, and articles that sat on the starting grid awaiting publication.
Believe me, these aren’t simple rumors. Ask any Cuban comedian about the difficulties and censorship they’ve encountered in their work. Some were let go. If it hadn’t been so serious, it could’ve been thought of as a farce.
During their performances, while the public laughed, a dour agent of the secret police would take note of the jokes supposedly harmful to “the figures and institutions of the Revolution”.
Of course, the man who transformed jokes into an artform was thoroughly banned from the Cuban media. Considered “counterrevolutionary” by the regime, his tales reached us as contraband from the other side of the Straits.
Guillermo Álvarez Guedes was born on June 8, 1927, in Unión de Reyes, a town full of troubadours and rumberos in the province of Matanzas, just over 140 kilometers east of Havana. He was the second-to-last of seven children produced by the marriage of Conrado Simeón Álvarez Hernández and Rosa Guedes Fernández. Eloísa, his eldest sister, who passed away in 1993, was a magnificent radio, theater, film, and television actress.
Guillermo’s first public performance was at the age of six, in a neighborhood cinema house. At 13 he left home, doing odd jobs for a theatrical circus. At 19 he went to New York, where he earned a living washing dishes, cutting grass in a cemetery, and as a porter in a hotel. In 1949 he was deported back to Cuba and began working first for Unión Radio, and then for Radio Progreso, on the Poor Man’s Attorney show.
He was 22 years old when he was signed on by Gaspar Pumarejo. He played an improvisational singing peasant with three giants of Cuban humor: Germán Pinelli, Aníbal de Mar and Leopoldo Fernández. But the role that would make him famous was that of The Drunk, beginning in 1951, on the stellar Casino of Joy on CMQ-TV. That’s when he teamed up with the one and only Rita Montaner on Rita and Willy, short-lived due to differences between Montaner and the producers. Then, on Fridays at 8:00, he would have a lead role at the side of Minín Bujones. In 1953, he was a cast member of the musical review The Courtyard, sharing the stage with Carlos Pous, Luis Carbonell, Benny Moré, Rita Montaner, and Olga Guillot. That was also the year of his cinematic debut as an actor and producer. Let’s Keep Everything among Cubans would be his last film (1993).
In 1957, Álvarez Guedes and his brother, Rafael, partnered up with the pianist and composer Ernesto Duarte and founded Gema Records, the label responsible for the international launch of Cuban artists of such stature as Bebo Valdés, Chico O’Farrill, Rolando Laserie, Elena Burke, Celeste Mendoza, and Fernando Álvarez, and of groups like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.
He made his last show in Cuba with Rosita Fornés. On October 23, 1960, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and two daughters. Celia Cruz was a passenger on that same flight.
The first LP of his jokes, of the more than 30 that he recorded, was premiered in Madrid in 1973, as an homage to the Sevillian flamenco-dancer Pastora Imperio. His only LP in English, How To Defend Yourself From The Cubans, has sold more copies than all of the ones recorded in Spanish. In 1983, at age 56, he packed the house at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
An anecdote: in the 80s, as a teenager, at the home of a classmate, on a beat-up, old tape recorder on a very low volume setting, almost inaudible, I heard a collection of jokes by Álvarez Guedes for the first time.
My friend’s relatives, who lived in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Central Havana, had managed to sneak the cassette through customs by hiding it inside a cookbook. Álvarez Guedes’ stories, like the athletic feats of one Atanasio Pérez, always reached us as contraband.
With the death of Álvarez Guedes, we’ve lost one of the best exponents of Cuban theatrical humor, an innovator of modern comedy; but we’ve especially lost a human being who knew that his countrymen on the island lived between hardship and Orwellian single-mindedness, and we needed to laugh.
We’re grateful for his legacy of stories, preserved today in so many Cuban homes on cassettes, CDs, DVDs, or flash drives.
Like no one, Sir Guillermo knew how to leap over the walls of censorship. Humor and laughter can never be contained. Álvarez Guedes proved it.
Translated by Yoyi el Monaguillo
1 August 2013