Translation: The Survivors
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. So, last week we shared with you “When Havana Was Friki,” a story about the origins of the rock and metal community in Cuba. This week we’re going back to the island, to that same community, to look into one of the darkest and most surprising chapters of the 80s and 90s in Cuba.
Yohandra Cardoso: It hurts a lot to remember that… He came to my house with a white coat on and said in front of my mother that I had AIDS. I was surprised because I really hadn’t heard what AIDS was. The word, I hadn’t heard of it.
Daniel: This is Yohandra Cardoso Casas. She’s forty-something and lives in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río. And in the time she got AIDS, there were lots of Cubans who had no knowledge about the disease. But Yohandra was a rocker, part of the community better known as the frikis. One of the more marginalized groups of the island.
That’s why Yohandra’s partner, Gerson Govea, says that rock for them was a type of religion.
Gerson Govea: It was a strange cult that was there that was more like a religious brotherhood because we were all very close.
Daniel: The AIDS epidemic would prove just how close they really were. Here’s our producer Luis Trelles:
Luis Trelles: The neighborhood where Gerson lives is in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río. It’s pure tropical fields, a place of green hills close to the sown fields where the best tobacco in the island is grown.
Tall and skinny, with his face full of piercings and tattoos all over his body, Gerson feels out of place there. It’s obvious punks aren’t found in abundance there, but Gerson has always been proud of his look.
Gerson: Punk music didn’t accept submission to anything. Not dogmas or doctrines or ideology. Because, I mean, that’s what anarchy is: to break from the establishment. And I always thought “yes, that it had to do with me”.
Luis: Gerson arrived at punk via heavy rock and metal. That’s what the first rockers from Pinar del Río listened to in the 80s and 90s. As a kid he witnessed how the scene got started. Some teenagers let their hair grow long and used T-shirts from American bands. But they lived in a small town and that didn’t look good at all.
Gerson: People looked at them, they criticized them, they rejected them, they told them things and would keep going. They’d keep going, they didn’t care, they could care less.
Luis: It wasn’t a massive movement, but the kids who joined the group became close friends.
Gerson: We’d go to Havana for the bigger concerts there. And when there was no rock ‘n roll, even to discos, we’d head to the discos and go in there. What was important was to be together, with your people, dammit.
Luis: And it was through Gerson that I met Yohandra, a middle-aged rocker who also discovered the music at the end of the 80s, and she has the evidence to prove it. The first thing she did when I met her was show me a drawer full of tapes she keeps in a corner of her bedroom.
Yohandra: I have Metallica, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Barón Rojo, Nirvana, Queen, Police… everything. I have everything there, all the old music we used to listen to. And I cry when I lose a tape.
Luis: She also had an adolescence like Gelson’s and she remembers how the police harassed her rocker friends for just hanging out in the street listening to music. They always accused them with the same charge:
Gerson: Public endangerment. For being around that way, the courts thought you were a danger to society. Then the charge was –not was; still is– of two years for the first offense and if you keep relapsing as a social threat the charge is four years.
Luis: The frikis not only faced the laws of the government and their neighbors’ and school mates’ prejudices. Many times their families were the first to reject them.
Gerson: Parents kicked them out of their house because of how they were, for the life they lead and they’d be in the streets starving, with no clothes, no attention, nothing…
Luis: They had turned the government, society and their families against them. They were threatened by all sides. And at the end of the 80s another threat came.
Gerson: The comments started, “no, this guy got sick, the other went to the sanatorium,” and they were slowly falling.
Luis: Neither Gerson nor his generation knew what it was about. In 1989 some rumors came around: the government of Pinar del Río was building a new hospital. It wasn’t going to be a normal hospital, but a sanatorium, to intern everyone who suffered from this disease.
Gerson: Well, I heard of the word AIDS in 1990.
Luis: It less than 10 years HIV/AIDS had become an epidemic in Cuba. The idea of the sanatorium in Pinar del Río, and several more across the island, was to contain the disease. And though it sounds weird, the frikis heard stories of how life was inside of the sanatorium and they imagined a paradise.
Yohandra: Those that are sick start telling them what is done to them at the sanatorium: the food, the good life.
Luis: At the sanatorium you would eat three times a day, with a menu that included meat and ice cream. Some rooms had air conditioning.
Gerson: People preferred being sick and coming here over living in the streets. To have it all for free, which was a big influence: that it was free, a gift.
Luis: It was a lifestyle unheard of in the rest of the country.
Gerson: There was nothing, there was no food, there was no soap, there was nothing: no cooking oil, no cigars, nothing, absolutely. Transportation…
Fidel Castro: When they destroyed socialism, which represented hope for humanity…
Luis: It was the end of the Cold War and the island was going through one of the most difficult moments in its history.
Fidel Castro: …what is left…?
Luis: The socialist bloc was crumbling and in a couple of years the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
Fidel Castro: …but frustration, misery…
Luis: Soon the Special Period in Cuba would start, a time of profound scarcity.
Fidel Castro: …inequality, injustice. It’s very sad.
Luis: But in the sanatoriums that special period wasn’t felt. The issue was how to get in.
Yohandra: They were rockers. The rockers didn’t like to work. They liked the easy way out. And the easiest way out they saw was injecting themselves with AIDS.
Luis: Yes, what Yohandra says is true. One sick friki would give blood to another and then give that blood to another one. It’s impossible to calculate how many injected themselves. The official statistics for auto-infected cases are almost non-existent, but some estimate it was over 200 in all of the island.
But there was so much they didn’t know about the virus. The epidemic still wasn’t publicly discussed, much less how it was contracted. The frikis that injected themselves were mostly men and they didn’t know they could infect other people through sexual contact. And the frikis’ girlfriends were the first to suffer the consequences. Women like Yohandra who, one day, received a visit from the Director of Hygiene and Health of the province.
Yohandra: He came to my house with a white coat on and said in front of my mother that I had AIDS. I was surprised because I really hadn’t heard what AIDS was. The word, I hadn’t heard of it.
Luis: Until that moment, Yohandra was a normal girl from the province. She lived at her parents’ house while she studied to be a rural teacher. Her ex-boyfriend, an auto-infected friki, had submitted a list of the people he had slept with. And Yohandra’s name was on it. She wasn’t 18 yet.
Yohandra: Imagine they tell you that you have five years left to live.
The only thing I thought of was that no, that couldn’t happen to me. That why me, that maybe they were wrong. Maybe in the time I was with that guy he wasn’t sick, maybe it was a mistake.
Luis: Unfortunately it wasn’t a mistake. Yohandra was sick and to make things more complicated, she was already married to another man.
Yohandra: I’d been married to that guy for like six months already.
I was pregnant. I didn’t tell the Director of Hygiene at the moment but he visited my doctor’s office and the doctor told him I was pregnant and they made me get rid of the baby. After I aborted that belly, I gave up on having kids. I didn’t want to be pregnant ever again.
Luis: Yohandra’s problems with the government didn’t stop there. Since her husband was a healthy man and she had the virus, that same Director of Hygiene that had ordered her abortion accused her of “propagation of the epidemic.” According to the law, a sick person could not be with a healthy one.
Yohandra: And they took me to jail for three years. Without a crime, because I hadn’t killed anybody, I hadn’t stolen from anybody, I hadn’t committed any type of crime.
Luis: She served her sentence in various prisons and ended up getting a divorce from her husband. It was ironic, because in the end Yohandra’s ex-husband never ended up getting HIV.
Yohandra: I was in jail and everything for that and he never tested positive.
Luis: These consequences Yohandra went through still weren’t evident to the majority of the sick rockers. Once she got out of prison, she’d go to the sanatorium. And for people like her, who didn’t choose to have the disease, it was an extension of jail. But to the auto-infected, the party was just starting.
Gerson: In my opinion, it was like camp, like a base, like a scout camp, like that.
Luis: In that time, Gerson had a lot of friends inside. He was one of the healthy ones and would go visit them often. The place he found surprised him. The rustic cabins where the patients lived were surrounded by trees and animals that approached from the neighboring farms. And the ambiance was 100 per cent friki.
Gerson: Long hair everybody and in every room a boom box with metal and speakers with rock ‘n roll. I would say, “ah, these people in here must never get bored”, it was all day fucking around. It was the idea I had.
Luis: It seemed like everything was possible at the sanatorium. Everything. Even putting together a punk band. Gerson got together with a couple of the auto-infected patients and they started playing. He’d go every week to rehearse.
Gerson: It was what I wanted and I was willing to do what had to be done because it was the dream I had, you see?
Luis: The band was called Metamorfosis. An auto-infected known as Papo the Bullet was the guitarist. Quintana, another auto-infected, played bass. They were using old equipment from the Soviet Union, speakers made of cardboard and a bass that had only one string. In a small room in the sanatorium Gerson and the other kids would lock themselves up to make punk hymns with three chords out of tune.
Only one thing was missing: to play live. But they never did.
Gerson: We were never able to play. When we organized our first concert he was in poor health, one of the guitarists wasn’t well. And in the end we could never have a concert.
Luis: Then Quintana fell.
Gerson: In one month I lost a guitarist, in a month and half the bass player died. That was in a year and a half. Well, then I was left because I wasn’t sick.
Luis: That was the reality of the sanatorium: the health of those that came in always got worse. Some would lose so much weight that they ended up not being able to walk. Others went blind. Others went crazy. There was still no treatment to be able to live with the virus.
Gerson: Some had the hope that there was a cure, some medicine they’d discover, a shot, but look at the point we are at. And it’s still not here. So they didn’t know that, that it would take so many years, so many years.
Luis: Gerson and Yohandra recount that at the beginning of the 90s there were about 60 frikis at the sanatorium. Not all of them were auto-infected: a lot of them caught the disease the same way as Yohandra, for having unprotected sex with a sick friki.
Daniel: But by the year 2000, of the 60 frikis, there were only five left. We’ll be back after a short break.
Daniel: Hey, before going back to our story, if you want to follow up closely all the changes that are going to happen in Washington, I recommend you to listen to the NPR Politics Podcast. They are now launching two new episodes every week to keep you informed about what’s happening and what it means. Subscribe to the NPR One app or go to npr.org/podcasts
Before the break we saw how the sanatorium had become a refuge for a lot of frikis. But over the course of a decade, it started to lose patients.
Gerson: In a month one left, two… There were months in which they didn’t leave, none of them died, but then, the following months, three died together, like that.
Luis: Every time a death occurred, the director gave the patients permission to go say goodbye to their friends.
Gerson: We’d play music and start drinking. The music the person who died liked. And then we’d get sad and wait until we took him to the cemetery, but well…
Luis: And it was there, at the funerals, where the consequences of having injected themselves finally became evident.
Gerson: So a lot of the people when they were conscious of that, that they were sick and that there was no turning back and they were going to die, they would regret it. What stayed was the sickness.
Luis: With every funeral, Gerson was more alone. First the street had emptied when his friends all went in together to the sanatorium. And now his people were completely disappearing, and he was turning into one of the last frikis of his generation who hadn’t entered the sanatorium.
Gerson: Yeah, that’s why the loss hurts so much. I missed them more because it was the support of everybody. Everyone sought out support inside their fraternity, their group. When it’s empty you feel much more.
Luis: Until one day, when Gerson was caught with amphetamines. It was the usual drug for the frikis and in his solitude, Gerson was increasingly taking more pills. At the court, the judge sentenced him to four years in prison. He felt he had only one option.
Gerson: No, no, I prefered to die over going to jail. I can’t be locked up. I’m locked up and I lose my mind, my mind, I lose it. What comes to my mind are complete suicidal thoughts.
Luis: Gerson was desperate, like the frikis who ran away from the social endangerment laws 10 years before. So he came up with the same solution.
Gerson: I started looking for a friend who could give me some blood. I finally found one after two months of looking and asking for some, and I found one that did give me some.
Luis: The blood exchange was made without any rituals, no ceremonies; it was a transaction that lasted no more than 10 minutes. Gerson met up with his friend at a public restroom.
Gerson: I had the syringe and with my shoelaces I found the vein there and I extracted his and I put it in the arm, in my arm, there.
Luis: Gerson had taken out a cubic centimeter of blood from his friend’s arm. He was ready to inject it, when the sick guy stopped him.
Gerson: And he told me, “No, that’s too much, Gerson, and you won’t last long if you put in all of that. All you need is a little bit, a minimal thing, two drops and that’s it, it doesn’t have to be a full CC.”
Luis: Gerson got rid of the excess blood and found the vein in his own arm with the needle.
Gerson: I simply remember that when I was putting that sick blood inside me, I know that inside of that bathroom I shed some tears. All by themselves, like that. And no –I’ll never forget that.
Luis: That reaction scared his friend. He thought Gerson was regretting it, that he could rat him out and he’d be accused of propagating the epidemic.
Gerson: He’d tell me, “you shouldn’t regret it, you shouldn’t regret it.” I’d tell him, “Relax man, I’m not going to regret it, and I won’t say anything either. Normal. Ok. I too am on my way there. The only one missing was me. I too am going.”
Luis: Gerson got what he wanted. Once he tested positive in the HIV test, the judge sent him to the sanatorium. It was the year 2000 and the place had changed a lot. Almost all the rockers had died, and the few that were left had turned into a kind of endangered specie. One of them was Yohandra, who had been transferred back to the sanatorium after completing her sentence in jail. She too was tired of being alone.
That’s why the news that a friki was coming in was very interesting to her. The same guy who gave Gerson the blood gave her the news.
Gerson: He was a very close friend and he is the one who tells me, “Oh, Yohandra, there’s a ‘pelú’ coming into the sanatorium whose name is Gerson.” And I go, “Yeah?” “Yeah, yeah, there’s a ‘pelú’ coming in whose name is Gerson, he also likes rock ‘n roll.” I go, “And is he married?” “No he’s not married, he’s single.”
Luis: It was what Yohandra was looking for: a “pelú”, meaning a guy with long hair that was a friki like her and that had AIDS.
Surprisingly, Gerson and Yohandra had never met. When Gerson went to the sanatorium Yohandra was in the prisons of Havana. When Yohandra came back to the sanatorium, the majority of Gerson’s friends had died and he wasn’t visiting anymore. So, when Gerson went in the sanatorium, Yohandra was waiting for him in his house, in cabin number five. And once they met, they were never apart again.
It was in that same cabin where I met them, when I arrived looking for the last two frikis in the sanatorium in 2014.
Gerson: So there’s the central building, you see?
Luis: The squeaking you can hear comes from Yohandra’s wheelchair. In 2004 she lost her two legs because of circulatory problems. Since then, Gerson is more than her partner: he’s her caretaker, the one who helps her get around the campus of the sanatorium. That’s what they did when I visited them: Gerson pushed Yohandra’s wheelchair while they showed me around.
Gerson: The bottom floor was a receiving area, a big lobby with some mirrors. So there, with that receiving room that had, it had some sofas. There were times when they put big speakers, remember? They’d put a big speaker in the lobby and everybody would sit there and listen to rock the entire night, remember?
Yohandra: How could I not?
Gerson: Yeah, but it’s been awhile since we remembered that.
Yohandra: No, that we’ve spoken about it, because we always remember it. At least I don’t forget.
Luis: The sanatorium closed in 2010 but Gerson and Yohandra decided to stay. Since then they live like squatters in the same cabin as always.
Gerson: You know, we’re here. All that it is left is what you see, the remains.
Yohandra: The skeleton.
Gerson: The body’s skeleton.
Luis: From the sanatorium they remember, there is nothing left. The abandonment of the place is extreme. Gerson and Yohandra keep their cabin liveable, but nature has taken over the rest. The brush has swallowed entire walls in the other houses and the neighbors of the area have made sure to loot the rest.
Gerson: They’ve taken the electric cables, they’ve taken –well, everything, even the tiles from the bathrooms. They tear them down from the walls and take them.
Luis: But what they haven’t taken are the medical records of the patients that died. It’s been several years since Gerson found binders full of yellowing pages with the notes from the sanatorium’s doctors. He thought it was bad they were left like that, rotting, so he rescued them.
Gerson: Here I have the file of the guy who donated me his blood.
Luis: The night I spent at their place, surrounded by posters of The Ramones and the Sex Pistols on the walls, Gerson brought them out. He wanted to read me the records of his friends, so that I knew how they were.
Gerson: He was one of the last who passed away. He died in 2007. Juan Carlos Quintana. Look, one of the guys who played in the band with me.
Luis: And it’s so many names. And each one represents a vital piece of a lost community, a friki that nobody remembers now, except Gerson and Yohandra.
Gerson: Juan Luis Perez Arencibia, this was a friki. He was rock ‘n roll and died of neurotoxoplasmosis. Esteban Reisin, he was rock ‘n roll, injected, too. Eibin, José Antonio Coello A.K.A. Bon Jovi. Ah, Tania La Loca. El chiche, Cuba, eh… I remembered of Brujas, Ordilio, the Americano, Yuma. I’m forgetting some. They were so many, so many, so many.
They all agreed in ‘91 and the whole band said: “Let’s go to the sanatorium!” Like it was a party.
Luis: From that party there’s nothing left. Some echos, some memories, and two survivors.
Daniel: Since we first released this story at the beginning of 2015, the government has started remodeling the sanatorium to turn it into a prison. Gerson has a new house there and how he lives next to his new neighbors: soldiers and military personnel who have also received new houses in the old sanatorium. When our producer Luis asked him what he thought about his new neighbours, Gerson answered: “When it rains, it pours.”
Luis Trelles is a documentary maker and a producer at Radio Ambulante. He lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This story was edited as a team, between Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, Martina Castro and me, with sound design by Andrés Azpiri.
Luis researched this story for over a year, and he co-produced an English-language version with Radiolab, one of the U.S. public radio shows we admire the most. Tell your friends who don’t speak or understand Spanish that now they can listen to Radio Ambulante. We want to thank our friend Tim Howard for his constant support during the whole process. Special thanks also to Jad Abumrad, Matt Kilty, Jamie York and the whole Radiolab team. We will have a link to this collaboration on our website.
We also thank the Sagrado Corazón University, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, for letting us use their studios.
Well, and apart from those I’ve already mentioned, the Radio Ambulante team includes Fe Martínez, Melissa Montalvo, Desirée Bayonet, Ryan Sweikert, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Caro Rolando, and Barbara Sawhill. Our interns are Emiliano Rodríguez, Andrés Azpiri and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. To hear more, visit our website: radioambulante.org. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.