A Hybrid Performance Celebrates Cuban-American Migration and Art Practice

Who better to act in a theatrical piece about Cuban-American artists in San Francisco than the artists themselves? That’s the concept behind We Have Iré, a hybrid performance, theater piece, and musical. The Creative Capital Project by poet Paul S. Flores, director Rosalba Rolón, and composer and saxophonist Yosvany Terry premieres at Pregones Theater in the Bronx, New York, January 23-26, 2020. The work explores the true stories of immigrant Cuban artists living in the United States and how they influence and experience American culture. It also features many of the actual artists as performers, including Flores and Terry. We Have Iré is as much a celebration of the artists’ accomplishments as it is of the Cuban-American migrant experience.

We spoke to Paul Flores and Rosalba Rolón a few months before the premiere of the show.

Alex Teplitzky—Can you start by giving me a short description of We Have Iré?

Paul S. Flores—We Have Iré is a multi-disciplinary, bilingual collection of stories about Cuban immigrant artists and Cuban American artists and their journeys from their initial experiences with dreams to become an artist, and then exploring how they realize those dreams, or how they develop their artistic identity over time between Cuba, the United States, and back.

Alex—The work is a performance, including dance and music?

Paul—Yes, so we are intersecting a lot of disciplines, which all highlight the stories. For instance, we have the story of a dancer, who grows up in the countryside of Cuba. We have a story of a musician from Camagüey in Habana, who is born into a musical family, but he wants to play jazz. We have a DJ who grows up between Camagüey and Havana—also a mother, and she wants to pursue her artform as a hip hop artist coming of age in a specific time. Cuba and hip hop was really starting to blow up, and the community was getting larger. Finally, we have a Cuban-American poet who’s interested in connecting back to his grandmother’s legacy and her life in Cuba.

So we’re doing this kind of circle, the coming and going of migration or trans-nationality that’s represented through these different art forms. Our show is really asking,  “who am I” and “what am I doing here in the United States?” Often, the characters will use their art form to give you an idea of who they are. Like, the musician saying essentially, “I’m Cuban, but I was super influenced by jazz, and so bam—here’s who I am through my art form.” When Christian (the character I play) goes to the La Caridad Del Cobre in Santiago, it’s weird how we compose this scene. This happens in a lot of places. The story is about this Cuban American having a spiritual moment in Cuba, connecting back to his ancestors. He hears and feels his grandmother and then, and at the same time, the song that’s being played is this piece that’s like a song you would hear at a funeral, or a ceremony for the dead, Cuban style. The dance is like this disorientation, asking “which world are you in?” “Are you in the spiritual world, this world here, are you in the past, are you in the present?”

So that’s kind of how we compose these things—it might be text, music, dance, or we might we start with music, then go to dance, and text.

The integration of the art forms is really interesting in how they jump off. I think that’s what Rosalba is really good at. She can show, or bring, all these different art forms or disciplines together to tell a story, and even stories within stories. It is very complex, but when you see the piece, it looks very simple. It looks very natural.

Rosalba Rolón—There are a lot of migration stories, but where this is different, I believe, is that these are simultaneous stories. These are people within pretty much the same generation, or not too far off each other, and yet they met here in San Francisco. That part to me was fascinating, because we’re surrounded by migration stories in the arts field and we particularly see a lot of those—I asked myself, “Why is this different? What is different about it?” What else was exciting besides being about Cubans not in Miami, but someplace else? That in itself was kind of exciting.

For me, it was that it was not only about being in Cuba, dreaming about coming to the United States. It was almost an accident in at least two of the cases: the musician who travels the world and settles in San Francisco, and a dancer who is part of an international tour. I knew that’s where I wanted to go with the story. It wasn’t that scary story, that we are so used to hearing, of Cubans fleeing to the US for fear of their lives.

“I wanted to try to figure out where Cuban immigrant artists feel safe, where is the Afro-Cuban community gathering, and how are immigrants within the Cuban and Carribean diaspora creating political movements, solidarity, or collectivity? What drives them together?” —Paul Flores

Actually, the bulk of the migration occurs within Cuba. Going from the countryside to the town, from the town to the big city; to the big city! We don’t talk enough about that. When you’re a rural artist and your big dream is to go to the next larger city, which is perhaps, an hour away, or two hours away. You make it there and then your dream keeps growing and keeps expanding. I think that’s what we are able to put it all together. And of course the cross journeys of these Cuban Americans in San Francisco is going the other way, back to Cuba.

There is a beautiful little secret that we found out when we were making the work with the actor who plays Yosvany Terry, Denmis, and Ramón who plays himself in the piece. One day, they came up with such a beautiful memory that Denmis had to stop the rehearsal. He said “I want to share something: when I was in high school, I wanted to be a dancer too.” Denmis is an actor, he is also a dancer. He said, “they brought the next generation of stars to our class, so that we can see all these people that are going places. And one of the people they brought was Ramón.” None of us knew that! And he saw Ramón dance and he said, “I wanted to be just like him, and here I am now working with him.” He had been keeping that to himself until he said it.

You never know who inspires who and when. And I think that this is the cross section of stories and experiences that the work reveals.

Alex—It’s interesting that the work is about these multidisciplinary artists and it’s also a performance and a collaboration between all of you Paul, Rosalba, and Yosvany, who are working on different things. Was that deliberate? And I’m wondering why tell the story of the artist migrant from Cuba, specifically?

Paul—I began this project after receiving a commission from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. They were working on a curatorial vision where they wanted to discuss political power, public safety, and citizenship and they wanted me to talk about those things. I wanted to work with Yosvany Terry. I had known him, known his family and his music. I wanted to try to figure out where Cuban immigrant artists feel safe, where is the Afro-Cuban community gathering, and how are immigrants within the Cuban and Carribean diaspora creating political movements, solidarity, or collectivity? What drives them together? Then how is that reflected in Yosvany’s life?

Yosvany plays, creates, and performs in both countries. Actually, he’s in Cuba right now teaching a class, traveling, and touring Cuba, so he’s supported by the Cuban cultural system. And then here, he’s a really well-known jazz artist—he’s quite literally the definition of a transnational artist. His mom lives in Cuba, he’s still taking care of her, and working in Cuba, as well as living here, teaching at Harvard, performing, and touring. His life is amazing! I thought, how does this guy do that? How do you go from Cuba to Harvard? That was really interesting to me.

As an Afro-Cuban jazz artist, he plays a very interesting mix of straight bebop, but also folkloric, traditional Afro-Cuban spiritual music, and often he combines the two. So he’ll do things in languages I don’t understand, not just in Spanish, but also in elements of subcultural, smaller groups of African immigrant traditions in Cuba like Arará—which is a language on its own. It comes from a specific tribe and area in Benin, in Africa. Those things were fascinating to me.

So I was wondering if there were other artists like him who we could talk about to showcase the relationship between dual citizenship, political identity, and public safety. Two places that I was very clear that Afro-Cubans gather safely to express themselves in our culture was in the jazz club—or the nightclub, the music club. Those were the two places where I had experienced total safety, no judgment. People could be free to express their traditions and experience, either through their music, in a nonsectarian dance club, or in the more kind of Bembé, spiritual Afro-Cuban music gatherings where spirituality was also going on, like people are being mounted by spirits and things like that.

I wanted folks who were actually working in between the two, because what I didn’t want the exile idea, where I can’t go back to Cuba. That’s not present in San Francisco. That whole identity of “if I go back to Cuba, I’m betraying my exiled brothers.” That shit doesn’t exist in San Francisco—it does exist in Miami, and that’s a very different type of culture. Cuban culture is really led by Black folks in the Bay Area, which is not true in Miami. Most of the Cuban culture in San Francisco are Afro-Cuban dancers, musicians, producers, things like that. So, as a Cuban American, I was able to learn a lot about my family’s cultural background, traditions, in a lot of weird ways by discovering it through, like, the backdoor and just learning about the connection between, for instance, La Caridad Del Cobre as a reflection of Oshun, an African goddess. Or learning from the things my grandmother taught me about baseball, or poetry. She brought all that stuff from Cuba with her.

“I am very proud that we don’t once mention the phrase ‘The American Dream.’ I’m so proud of that because this is a different kind of dream, and yet, it is fully realized at this juncture, at this place.” —Rosalba Rolón

So, I was trying to find my way into the story, but with those three containers of citizenship, public safety, and political power, I was looking at how are immigrants—how are Afro-Cuban immigrants—changing the local community I’m a part of? How do they invite people to participate inside their experience through the art that they create? How does that break down stereotypes about who Latinos are, who Afro-Latinos are, who are Latino immigrants, what is Cuba?

Alex—It’s interesting to hear that instead of making this a fictional theater piece, you went into the community to tell the story of real Cuban-Americans. I mean, who better to perform this stuff than them, actually? The artist themselves.

Paul—Exactly. That’s the thing. So, we place the piece inside of a DJ Leydis’s club. Her story is about crossing the ocean, coming to the United States to become a DJ. She also has a daughter back home, who she wants to bring. So that’s part of the story of the piece, but the whole thing takes place inside her club, her show. So she’s literally on stage DJing, but there’s someone telling and performing her story.

Rosalba—These are very active relationships we are depicting on the stage. And to me, that’s very valuable. These artists have made it. They are at the height of their careers, so this is when they start to tease each other about it.

I have to say, I am very proud that we don’t once mention the phrase “The American Dream.” I’m so proud of that because this is a different kind of dream, and yet, it is fully realized at this juncture, at this place. Rather than make it a sequential journey, it’s about the human spirit, it’s about realizing your expectations and owning them in such a way.

Alex—What does iré mean? Why is this piece called We Have Iré?

Paul—Iré means “blessings.” So, I wanted to tell a positive story about the journeys of these Cuban artists. I thought that their examples were really shining. These are real folks that have already accomplished a ton. For us artists, we recognize their artistry as having accomplished a certain level of mastery of their forms. Yosvany has multiple bands, he’s a director himself. Ramón is a director and choreographer, and has two companies, and she even DJed for President Obama. Rosalba is a legend. Leydis, the DJ, has been producing events for years—she’s her own type of company. Then, there’s me, and I have a lot of stuff that I bring to it—spoken word, or the organizations I’ve started. Seeing all of this accomplishment was positive. Iré is blessings that one has been given based on their ability to balance their life, to the extent that you’re working towards what you believe you should be doing.

Alex—It feels like a very live piece of art. It has to do with your collaboration and that collaboration goes on to live on the stage. I’m wondering what it would feel like to see this piece in five years, ten years. Would it have this different quality to it? I wonder if you’ve thought about that at all.

Rosalba—I haven’t. I think we live in the moment, pretty much. I do think that there is a timeless quality to it. Because relationships with Cuba and this country change with whoever is in here. And so, as I mentioned before, because this is about a different kind of journey, not a political journey, then whatever happens, wherever we are in five years in that relationship, that’s how people are going to receive it. I just know that people laugh and cry and we end up with a big party at the end. So, people just have fun and that is the way it should be, for us anyway.

Paul—I do think that there is something “now” about it. I mean I follow Cuban politics and Cuban international policy with the United States. The thing about it is that that is usually dominated by one perspective. What I was trying to do was say look at this other perspective of what Cuba could be, embodied by these four peoples’ lives.

And for us, when you asked is it important for Cubans to come to the show, I would say yes. I would say that that’s our number one audience. That’s not a humongous audience in the United States, you know, there’s maybe a million Cubans or so, and they’re mostly in Florida. But I do believe that there are Cubans all over and I keep finding them because I perform all over the nation by myself. And so does everybody else in our group, so they’re finding Cubans wherever they go.

I do feel like if we can bring Cubanos to the show, we’ll definitely find the people who are resisting that whole idea, “why are you going back to Cuba? You’re supporting the communist government.” We’ve definitely heard that. “You can’t do that. You can’t give them your money. Why are you doing that? Who do you think you are? Do you know what they did to our family? Did you know that my father was murdered? Did you know that my uncle, my grandfather was put in prison?” All that stuff starts popping up. And as a Cuban-American, or any Cubano in the United States, you start that conversation about where you’re from with somebody, and that’s likely to come up. And then you have to ask yourself, as a Cuban, do I want to have this conversation? So, sometimes being Cuban can be loaded. [Laughs]

Alex—What do you think about that, when you hear those things?

Paul—I said you know what, this is part of who we are as a people. We went through this. But my family was in Cuba before the revolution. My family has been in Cuba since 1692. And I know that because I researched it. So it’s like, okay just because there’s a communist person in our government there, that shouldn’t deny me my ability to connect with my legacy that’s 400 years old. Why? Come on! Isn’t it important for me to be able to find out those things? Go see the legacy of my family, go track their journey from the Canary Islands to Cuba, to New Orleans, to Chicago, and eventually to California—that’s my track, you know. And I think we should have the right to do that, and have that conversation, whether there’s a communist government there or not.

Rosalba—And I can tell you, in fights among friends and family, never talk about religion or politics because everyone has a different opinion. And we bring that concept to the work as well! We have to mention it because it would be like the elephant in the room.

Alex—I can’t wait to see it now! 

Rosalba—Now you have to go see the show! You have no choice. [Laughs]

Alex—You received the Creative Capital Award in 2019. Has receiving the award been helpful to your project?

Paul—I mean, for me, it has been helpful a ton. One of the things was the different professional development opportunities that came through the retreat were really impactful. But I think what was the most interesting, was basically working with the other artists in the room, and meeting them, and talking with them, and the level of quality and interesting artists that are part of the Creative Capital network. To me, that’s why I love doing art. It’s more about the social connection. I love art, I mean I love writing, but that’s like pain too. When you get to interact with folks who are all on the same journey as you, you don’t feel so pained. You feel like you find your brothers and sisters. I felt like Creative Capital opened that up to me even more, is to connect with people through that network.

Rosalba—Also, not to discount that Creative Capital has a great reputation. So it’s sort of a badge of honor as well that we have. The moment it was announced, some people would call me and say “how did you do that?” I said “well, I don’t know.” It just doesn’t happen like that. So having that, in many ways, endorsement from Creative Capital made us feel very proud of the process, and we have accomplished this in this way.

The three of us particularly because we work well together, we just make it inside the pool of awardees and the project itself, obviously, is pretty awesome. And not to mention that it does free quality time that we need to invest in the project. That is hard to do otherwise. So, obviously the financial support is essential, but also the residual value of the support is important as well.

Alex—What I love about this project is that it’s a celebration of a lot of what Creative Capital celebrates: not just the celebration of the migrant experience, but a celebration of artists, recognizing what they have achieved. Artists are very rarely celebrated for their achievements in the US.

Paul—I do feel like that as a West Coast artist, receiving a Creative Capital Award was very big. I applied three times. This was the third time and I finally got it. For me, I had no idea whether I was going to get this award. There was no, like “oh, you should’ve done this”—no one told me to apply. I just did because I thought this would be a good project and thinking about the level of accomplishment that’s already in this project, I think that’s a great example about what I was looking for in a Creative Capital project. I want to see quality artists making great work and I want to be amongst folks like that. And then to learn the ins and outs of the kind of structural planning that Creative Capital wants to help us with, I think that’s super important.

Read more about We Have Iré’s performance in the Bronx.