June 14, 2004

The Miami Herald

Cuban defectors a first for MLS

Michelle Kaufman, Posted on Sun, Jun. 13, 2004

Rey Angel Martinez and Alberto Delgado sneaked past the Cuban national team's 10 security guards and sprinted from a Los Angeles Hilton hotel more than two years ago, desperate for freedom and a chance to play professional soccer. Martinez was set to realize his dream Saturday night as a member of the Colorado Rapids, becoming the first Cuban immigrant in Major League Soccer.

Martinez, 24, spent the past two years waiting for his residency papers in Miami. He played a season for St. Thomas University, played with local club teams, and occasionally drove a limousine for his uncle's car service. But he never lost sight of his goal to play in MLS. Martinez was invited to train with the Rapids on April 8, signed with the club Thursday, and was at RFK Stadium on Saturday for the game against D.C. United.

Delgado, 25, has been training with the Rapids, too, but has not received his work papers yet.

''I feel so wonderful right now,'' Martinez said by phone from the Denver airport Friday as the team boarded a flight to Washington. "This is a great opportunity for me. All I wanted was an opportunity to develop as a player and make a living playing the sport I love. I didn't think it would take this long, but it was worth the wait.''

Martinez was a forward on the Cuban national team and played for Cuidad de la Habana, which won the Cuban amateur league title in 1998. When he and Delgado decided to defect during the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, they realized they were taking a big risk.

''If they catch you, they throw you off the national team, put you in prison and your family probably gets punished, too,'' Martinez said. "It was scary.''

The two players went to the lobby during breakfast that February 2002 morning, pretending they wanted to make a phone call. Instead, they walked out of the hotel lobby, and started running. And running. And running. They ran for 30 minutes, until they hailed a cab and went to the house of a friend.

They wound up in Miami with Martinez's uncle, Tony Sanchez, who suggested they enroll at St. Thomas and try out for the soccer team. They played one season at St. Thomas and are now ready to test their skills against American pros.

''There are so many players in Cuba who could easily make MLS squads, but they never have the chance to develop or prove themselves over there,'' Martinez said. "It's like our baseball players. All we need is a shot. I finally have mine, and I hope to show what I can do.''

Conchs still swing to a Cuban beat

Key West honors its roots with fifth annual festival

By Jennifer Babson. Posted on Sun, Jun. 13, 2004

KEY WEST - He never met a tin can, metal pot or plastic cap he couldn't massage a beat out of.

But when percussionist Buddy Chavez, 73, closes his eyes, flexes his hands and plays the bongos -- or maybe their big cousins, the congas -- he's also playing a legacy.

For right next to him, often, is son Roy, 49.

''When I watch him play, it feels like I'm doing it,'' says Buddy Chavez, who began his career at the age of 11, when he swiped pots and pans from his mother while playing hooky and fashioned drumsticks from the legs of a chair.

The subsequent years have spanned it all: a childhood job as a rumba dancer in a burlesque revue, a longtime show at the Columbia restaurant in Tampa's Ybor City, hotel gigs in Aruba, a stint in New Orleans and regular dates at now-defunct Key West landmarks like the Old Havana Madrid club. Well-known musicians he's played with or taught include Armando Manzanero, Joe Lala, Daniel Santos, Roberto Ledesma and Lionel Suarez.

Charismatic and spry, he's also on wife No.5.

''Musicians have a lot of trouble,'' Chavez explains. "Jealousy and all that.''

One of the last of a special generation in Key West -- the old-time ''Conchs'' -- Chavez is Cuban by culture, American by birth and Key Wester by historical happenstance.


Conchs drink café con leche -- known simply as con leche -- recall the ritual of Sunday cockfights and were raised to believe that the street in front of the house should be as broom-clean as the inside. But old age and overdevelopment on this tiny island have thinned their ranks.

Like many of his friends, Chavez sold his house and moved out of Key West's historic, million-dollar Old Town district nearly a decade ago. Now, the entrance to his one-bedroom apartment in a city-run senior citizen building is affixed with both the Virgin Mary and a Conch Republic flag. He plays dominoes most evenings and meets old pals for cafecito around the corner each morning.

This week, Chavez -- in what's become an annual rite -- will play a comparsa on a metal pot in the city's fifth annual Cuban American Heritage Festival. The six-day event includes cigar samplings, a ''coast-to-coast'' conga line from the Gulf to the Atlantic that will feature Chavez and a Saturday night salsa party at a local landmark restaurant, El Meson de Pepe's.

''He symbolizes with his son what we are trying to do with the festival -- and that's trying to make people aware of their heritage and to be proud that they are Cubans,'' says Fred Salinero, a Conch and a festival founder.

Key West's Conchs are a bit different than the Cubans in Miami, Salinero admits.

''For those old folks, some of 'em were born here, but still their first language is Spanish. Our Spanish here is cayo huesado -- Key West Spanish. We understand each other, but the pronunciation is a little bit different'' than in Miami.

While Conchs consume ropa vieja or picadillo for dinner, Key lime pie has a place next to flan for dessert.


Key West has a unique place in Cuban history.

In 1871, Cubans who migrated to Key West's many cigar factories founded the city's historic San Carlos Institute -- a pit stop for patriot José Martí as he sought funds for the war of independence from Spain.

The city also produced Florida's first Cuban-American legislator in 1896.

''The Cubans in Miami, you have got to realize, are just over from Cuba recently,'' Salinero says. "Forty years is recent. Cubans in Key West, we've been here since the 1860s.''

For Chavez, that connection to Cuba was expressed through music.

At 14, he bought his first set of bongos from a local band leader for $50 -- money he earned shining shoes on Duval Street.

''I paid him $5 a week,'' Chavez says.

Inspiration was beamed from prerevolutionary Havana via radio -- which was monitored with great interest 90 miles away.

''We didn't have a lot of musicians here, but we used to listen to Cuba. They had a lot of radio stations then. We got a lot of ideas,'' he says.

When Roy was a tot, Buddy presented him with a childhood choice that would change both their lives.

''He put a bicycle under the tree and a drum,'' Roy recalls. 'And he told my mom, 'If he's going to be a drummer, he's going to go right to the drum.' ''

By the time he was 2 ½, Roy was onstage with dad.

Like his father, Roy began with bongos, graduated to congas, then mastered the timbales.

''My dad says when I was in my mother's belly, you could feel her stomach and it was jumping, like I wanted to get out and play with him,'' says Roy, who performs several nights a week with a Key West ensemble, Caribe, though he has a day job working as a foreman in the city's public works department.


Though his son has carried on his legacy, Buddy says he misses some of his old friends, for whom comparsa was a weekly ritual.

''My people, they don't dance anymore because they have gotten older and they have died,'' he says. "I had my crowd, but that crowd is gone now.''

The dances were an important part of the city's social fabric, according to local historian Tom Hambright.

''The Cuban community always had the comparsa dances, and they were always big on having social dances,'' Hambright says.

When Buddy plays now, the crowd is often made up of enthusiastic tourists who know nothing of the way things used to be. Gone is the old-fashioned risqué ambience, along with the small town that put a priority on family and always lent a hand.

''I got to accept it, but it makes me sad, too,'' Chavez says.

But the man who's always looking for the beat lets the music move him elsewhere.

''Honey, I tell my son that the day I pass away, I want a bunch of musicians to come into my funeral home,'' Chavez says. "And I want my son to put my cans -- what I play now -- on top of my grave, so everybody, when they go there, can see the Buddy Chavez rhythm machine and maybe play on it.

'That's talkin' 'Hello' to me.''

Shake a leg at chicken, Cuban festivals

Posted on Sun, Jun. 13, 2004.

Why did the Cuban chicken cross the Gulf Stream? To be part of the ChickenFest and Cuban Heritage festivals taking place in Key West, of course. Key West's rich Cuban heritage will be celebrated Monday through Saturday with events that include a cigar dinner, a traditional Cuban feast and a salsa party. Located just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West's family-oriented Cuban American Heritage Festival showcases the vibrant culture and customs brought by cigar makers to Key West in the 1800s. The festival's highlight will be a ''coast-to-coast'' conga line, featuring comparsa dancers, salsa musicians, a few chickens and costumed revelers promenading down the island's renowned Duval Street from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. For more information and a complete schedule, call 305-295-9665 or visit

Flock Fest: Among those scheduled to dance in the coast-to-coast conga line is a group of costumed chickens celebrating the new ChickenFest Key West, set for Thursday through Sunday. Paying homage to the island's free-ranging ''birds of paradise,'' the festival will feature family-friendly fowl play, including a competition for the best-looking ''drumsticks,'' the Chicken Scratch Miniature Golf Tournament and the Fowl Follies talent contest. Other events include a Tastes Like Chicken Cook-off with chickenless cuisine, the Why Did the Chicken Cross the Street Fair, an all-day egg-stravaganza for children, a Poultry in Motion Parade, Foghorn Leghorn look-alikes and rooster revelers of all sorts. For more events and times, visit the official ChickenFest Key West Web site at

Roosters! Roosters! Cuba! Cuba! at 814 Duval St. in Key West is presenting an exhibition of rooster and chicken paintings and etchings to coincide with ChickenFest. The exhibition presents works by artists from various locations around Cuba, including Havana and Holguin, and are a tribute to its celebrated gallos, or roosters. In Cuba, the rooster symbolizes masculinity or the Cuban man. It also has religious significance in Santeria. Media include oil on canvas, pen and ink with watercolor and ''colografia,'' a form of painted etchings. Each image is unique, and only a limited edition of a series is usually created. Visit Cuba! Cuba! from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, or visit The phone number is 305-295-9442.

Kids are indoctrinated early

William Robinson. Posted on Sun, Jun. 13, 2004.

As an American who has legally visited Cuba three times through trips licensed by the Treasury Department, I must comment on the recent derailment in Cuba of a train loaded with schoolchildren. The first two trips I made to Cuba were part of a cultural exchange in 2002 and 2003. I am a U.S. railroad employee and was part of a group that was allowed to visit sugar mills and operate steam locomotives during the sugar harvest. We traveled throughout the Cuban rail system on various equipment, including the type involved in the accident. The first time that the group went to Christina Estacion in Havana in 2002, it was an unofficial, unannounced and unwelcome visit. We were asked to leave and told that no photographs were permitted. Still, we were able to squeeze a few off -- it is hard to stop 60 American railroad enthusiasts from taking photos.

In the station, there were thousands of young teenagers, and trains were filled to capacity with them. They acted as teens do, laughing and playing. I saw a few such trains on our journey, which made me question their true purpose. The passenger cars were old Romanian and Russian boxcars converted for use as coaches. They were fitted with metal and plastic seats. Our group traveled on these cars occasionally.

As much as I regret using the analogy, the sight of the children on these trains reminded me of the Nazi death trains of World War II. Later, Cubans told me that these trains were taking children from Havana to boarding schools in the countryside. I was told, during their week at these schools, the children attended education classes and, it was implied, they were indoctrinated with political dogma and military training.

The teens would board the trains again on a Friday and go back home to Havana to spend the weekend with their families. On Sunday afternoon, the children would again board the trains and travel back to the schools. Monday, each child would be interviewed by their instructor about their home life and their parents' actions.

In other words, Big Brother spies on the Cuban citizens through the eyes of their children. This is just one of several similar stories I heard from Cubans while on my trips through the island.

As an American who has seen Castro's Cuba, I can no longer take my rights and liberties for granted. Cuba is so near to our shores; I think that every American should have the right to visit and experience it for what it truly is: an oppressed country that survives by crushing the spirit and dreams of its citizens.

By seeing the truth in Cuba, Americans finally will appreciate what they have as U.S. citizens and do something about the situation there. It is almost a shame that we have wasted our time with Iraq. Sometimes I think that we should have liberated Cuba instead.

I am not advocating that we invade Cuba. But Cubans are friendly to Americans and would, at the least, appreciate the sacrifice our soldiers would make, if we did.

St. Augustine



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