Friday, March 23, 2007

March Madness

(Another Tarheel Victory in the Dean Dome - UNC vs William & Mary January 2nd, 2005 - photo by Albert Q)

Around this time of year the Quiroga household experiences a unique sort of madness, not an insane madness - a contradiction in terms, it is realized - but a sporting kind. You see, and college basketball lovers will instantly understand, the NCAA tournament is on; the lady of the house and Number One Daughter - for there is only one - are driven by the madness. The sport of the indoor court is in their blood. And in this household, interestingly, the ladies are the fanatics when it comes to sports...and when the wife's school team is awesomely performing, as they are this year, no one around is more passionate...the screaming in front of the TV...the daily checking of the team standings...the armchair coaching and cajoling. March Madness with Mrs. Q and her Tarheel Team, daughter adding to the din of the cheering fans.

Almost fifty years ago, there was another sort of March Madness going on in Havana. Not the sporting kind, unfortunately, though Habaneros - indeed, Cubans in general, were then and still are today very much into their sports, specially baseball. But no, the March Madness of Cuba then was in the political arena and there wasn't much to cheer about.

The Batista regime was starting to visibly totter as winds of change intensified; rebel types in the hills of Oriente province and other places lurked and pestered; urban unrest grew - assassinations were engineered by both sides, bombs exploded, citizens were jailed, protests proliferated, strikes were attempted. Stress, strife - you name it. Trouble in paradise, to use a cliche.

Not this kind of Mad-ness - you've seen this image before; you know, or perhaps you do not, Mad Magazine was sold in Cuba - too bad this cover wasn't published in '58...might have inspired someone to suggest a peace offering to the blusterin' beard-in-the-hills...if not a cigar, maybe a peace pipe - with some plastic explosive embedded - coulda staved off the crazyness to come. Oh, well. Just a Mad thought.

A certain kid back in those End Times was deep into comic books, indeed into reading anything and everything - of course, only those publications subject to parental approval. Here and there, he would stop at Mr. Pando's newstand in Focsa, "Vidriera N," meaning "Countertop N" on-of course-"N" street, and buy nifty comic books. Nice Mr. Pando, a Focsa neighbor, there standing to the right leaning on his countertop, was only too happy to sell the entertaining publications, as well as candy and other goodies, to the little boy and his friends.

Sometimes the young man would make an about face after the purchase and head right across to the Windsor Barber Shop, treasured comic book in hand, for a tonsorial session with the jovial Luis, who smiled a lot despite his serious look in the photograph...but quality barbering should after all be taken seriously, shouldn't it? His partner, not that you care perhaps, was another older gent also blessed with seemingly a gentle character. Unlike the kid, who's been kindly described, then and now, as...annoying.

Did you read "El Halcon Negro?"-or "Blackhawk," as titled for the American or British editions. The one being avidly read by the blogger-to-be was the Spanish edition; the subject episode in this particular chapter of the Halcon Negro saga was "Amenaza En Los Cielos!" "Threat From The Skies!" An enjoyable carefree reading and barbering moment back in that fateful Nineteen-Fifty-Eight.

Should you care to look at more Halcon Negro-Blackhawk covers and re-live your adventurous reading memories, fly your imagination to these links: and - the latter for the British editions.

"Okay, Annoying Kid; you've been ziggin' and zaggin' long enough - get to the point! Where are you taking us with this!? You will see. You will see. You see, Cubans have always been blessed with a well-developed sense of humor and carefree - you could almost say careless - jocularity. And in those days, as is the case now, humor helped the Habaneros and Cubans from other cities, towns, and provinces through what could be a tough day. There was one publication that fed, and fed upon, this Cuban sense of humor. And this too the kid read and enjoyed, even if, at that quasi-innocent age he did not always understand the subtle cynicism and sarcasm permeating the pages of...Zig Zag! Hawked by the street vendors with a distinctive marketing call: "Vaya el Zi' Za'!," the "g" usually truncated from the Zig and the Zag. "Here is Zig Zag; here comes Zig Zag!," they would announce every week. Fresh off the press.

Well, let's dig in our pocket for the necessary "niquel" or five-cent piece, and pick up the March 15, 1958 edition of Zig Zag for our reading pleasure. thing. It will help if you can read Spanish. Cuban Spanish, that is. Sorry, but Zig Zag was not bilingual. Come to think of it, neither was the young reader at the time.

Although there is neither will nor time to distill the humor from Cuban Spanish to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, a valiant effort will at least be made to explain the message of these pages; some of the meaning perhaps now being dated, and anachronistic. Perhaps some of you out there still remember and understand, and perhaps you will be kind enough to enlighten the rest of us regarding both the humorous and not-so-humorous meanings within these now yellowing pages.

The cover is interesting. A bearded mailman comes down from the hills delivering a letter from...well, it says so right on the letter. A not-at-all subtle allusion to certain bearded types skulking in the hills of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, making a nuisance of themselves. Wonder what message the letter brought? Some pious manifesto about all the "good things" guys with beards were gonna do for Cuba?? "And Then The Mailman Arrived," says the headline.

If you had the need to travel from Havana to the city of Santiago on the opposite end of the island, at that time all you had to do was hitch a ride - well, let me qualify that - pay your fare first - via the appropriately named Santiago-Habana Bus Line. However, things were getting a little too hot around the Santiago area at the time, what with scurrying bearded types in green fatigues and what not, so it might have been better to stay home, savoring some cafe Cubano and reading Zig Zag.

The political cartoon in this page -page 3- depicts a gent displaying a Cheshire cat-like grin. The title: "In the courtyard of Cuban-ness." The gentleman, who may be former Cuban president Grau, declares: "Friends all, why not say it, Cuban-ness is love." Behind him, his compatriots punch, kick, bite, and generally visit mayhem upon each other. A Zig Zag-ian and quite sardonic comment on the boiling, un-social ambiance in March 1958.

The editorial, to the left of the political cartoon-the placement probably not accidental, actually discusses a serious subject, the failure of the so-called "Commission of Harmony." This Commission was a well-meaning attempt to bring peace to the country through the formation of a government of national unity. This was an initiative on the part of the Catholic Church, spearheaded by Cardinal Arteaga and the Papal nuncio, Monsignor Centoz. By that late date, however, that initiative had the same probability of success as the probability of an Eskimo successfully building an igloo in Hell. Batista would not budge, and neither would "the mailman." Which takes us back to the cover of this issue - the mailman on the cover was delivering the response to this initiative from the stink-beard-in-the-hills: "No way, Fulgencio!" Batista's first name, by the way.

The government tried preventing news of this unwelcome plan - unwelcome to the government - in the press; but as can be unambiguously seen when one carefully turns the yellowed pages of this Zig Zag issue, that initiative was also a failure...

Which brings up an interesting paradox: Here we are - no, we should properly say "were" - living in the midst of a dictatorship, said regime being attacked physically and psychologically from many sides. Yet, Zig Zag was able to print an issue containing quite a few articles openly discussing the political turmoil, the doings of the opposition, jibing the government and engaging in not so subtle satire at the expense of Batista, his ministers, and Cuban politicians as a whole.

However, sometime in 1959 or perhaps early in 1960, after Zig Zag published a caricature of the by-then reigning stink-beard-formerly-from-the-hills, "it" took offense and Zig Zag was to understand the paradox, we must ask this question: Will the real dictator please stand up? But don't stand too long, please. Just drop down through a loooong, dark shaft. There will be a reception committee wating. With pitchforks.

Even the horoscope page was not exempt from the satirical, wiseacre treatment from Zig Zag's talented writers. They could have found jobs with Mad did the cartoonist Prohias, creator of the "Spy vs Spy" characters. Here are some examples of undivine divination, straight from the pen of Zig Zag's swami.

"ARIES.-(March 21 to April 22).-Not favorable days for studies. There are student strikes."

"Taurus.-(April 21 to May 22).-Also not a suitable time for solving problems. Notice that even the Commission of Harmony has failed."

The large blank area in the next page is an ingenious advertisement, drawing the eye to the message more effectively than many other graphics-and-text laden examples we have been bombarded with since 1958. The simple message, which may require a magnifying glass for us folks with older, tired eyes to read: "TODAY we are not publishing an ad, since everyone knows, for air conditioning, refrigerators, televisions, and household appliances , the only firm which provides warranty, service, prices, and quality is Chez Matalon. - Galiano - Trocadero - Lagunas." Perhaps you or someone in your family purchased a Nifty Fifties' appliance from Mr. Matalon at his Galiano, Trocadero, or Lagunas location? Maybe this very ad induced the purchasing process, through clever marketing.

During those End Times of the Batista regime, evidently the not-so-great-dictator - because when it comes to being a REAL dictator, the stink-beard-in-the-hills wins the prize, hands down - appointed friends, cronies, and hangers-on to various governmental positions, or "ministries" to reward said appointees for some service or other, perceived or real. Many of the appointees were nameless, faceless types, little know or unknown to the average citizen. The cartoon alludes to that practice; the mother says to the daughter: "You, my daughter - going steady with that unknown, that nothing! The daughter retorts: "Don't criticize me, mother - perhaps he will be made a Minister."

Notice too the little cartoon in the middle of the page - a bearded character rides a tree saw, a "sierra" in Spanish. This is a play on words and images. "Sierra" means both "saw" and "mountain range." Back then, a certain bearded character was riding - some would say zigging and zagging - around the Sierra Maestra mountains in Oriente province; that would be near Santiago if you cared to explore the subject further courtesy the Santiago-Habana Bus Line.

There's always time to pause our reading and grab a cold Hatuey beer. The man standing next to the bottle was Manolo Ortega, a well-known sportscaster on radio and TV. He was more or less the spokesman for Hatuey beer. I wonder if he too was made a Minister? Doubtful, for after the reign of stinkbeard-the-first - hopefully the-last - began, Mr. Ortega regretfully went over to the Dark Side.

By now you must have noticed the advertisements which grace the pages of this issue. This was quite typical. In pre-bearded Cuba, advertisements were the life blood of newspapers, magazines, radio, television - all media. Just like now. That is, assuming you live under a normal, sane, freedom and free-market promoting government.

Despite deceptive declarations to the contrary, Cuba was no Third World country then. However, stinkbeard-the-first made sure he turned it into one. He did not want to see any more annoying ads in Zig Zag, no doubt...maybe he was afraid the sober merchants of Cuba would not let him buy on credit. Hmm...come to think of it, how much does he still owe his once-upon-a-time Russki friends??

Perhaps you can try your hand at completing the crossword puzzle. Should you succeed, please share your answers...just puzzled by the whole thing. Next to the crossword puzzle is a brief item, containing some puns and between-the-lines messages, the meaning a bit obscured by the passage of time, about the inauguration of the Havana Hilton hotel, which was to take place March 19th. "It comprises 30 floors, with 630 rooms," states the story.

Cubans have always been rabid sports fans, blogger's atypicality in that regard not at all representative of that national passion, and Zig Zag naturally featured a sports page. "La Venganza de Puppy" - "The Revenge of Puppy" heads off one article. Now, Puppy Garcia was no dog. He was a pretty damn good boxer, so you would not have wanted to crack jokes centered around his name within striking distance of his fists. Otherwise you might have wound up a wailing puppy on the ground, with a redesigned nose.

There is a little sarcastic gem about the middle of the page on the right, page 11 to be exact. Look at the small box next to the cartoon depicting an ill-tempered Indian chief. It reads: "Fangio will compete in the Sebring 12-Hour Race the 22nd." That refers to the 12-hour event held in Florida every year in March or April. The last line simply states: "If they let him." And if you read the February 25 post about the Grand Prix of Cuba you know where this is coming from, don't you?

This cartoon page pokes yet more fun at the free-for-all dispensing of political appointments and sinecured government jobs going on at the time. To explain the nuances, hidden meanings, the cynicism, satire and other components of this piece of politically-derived humor would probably take a dedicated blog or maybe require a thesis. Maybe it could be the basis for someone's thesis on Cuban politics of the late '50s. In a nutshell, the various characters represent nee'r-do-well, insignificant types, of dubious competence who, "by a miracle, were not appointed Ministers." That tells you a lot about the ones who WERE appointed...

Many Cuban magazines and newspapers back then had sections containing news and gossip about radio and TV personalities, shows, features and entertainment in general. Zig Zag was no exception. The article about the closing of the Paramount Films of Cuba company is interesting. This caused quite a bit of turmoil and the article details the complaints lodged by the Cuban employees of Paramount because of the company's evidently sudden and surprising decision to pull out of Cuba. Did the Paramount excecutives know something everyone else failed to grasp? Did they have a crystal ball which allowed them to read the future of Cuba? One wonders.

Nice pants, Yolanda...

This is the movie and movie critics' page. There are writeups about a new Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka movie, "Sayonara." And where did you see "Sayonara" in Havana? The Rodi theater perhaps? Or maybe at the Radiocentro radio/TV complex? "Sayonara" - that means "goodbye" or "farewell" in Japanese...something many of us would be saying to our dear Havana within a couple of years.

Were you allowed to smoke in movie theaters back then? I believe so - therefore if you went to the screening of "Sayonara," you might have puffed on a Partagas. "Una Tonga de Gusto" - literally, "A Heap of Taste."

The burning bus cartoon is a not-at-all-subtle reference to the ongoing sabotage mounted by the anti-Batista forces, daily taking place in Havana and elsewhere. The attendant shouts at the hapless would-be rider, "The bus coming behind ain't lit!" Not yet, anyway.

The cartoon on the next page is a comment on the sinister practice of eavesdropping and keeping the citizenry under watch. The man with open arms is evidently speaking out against the regime; the officer listening in obviously does not like what he's hearing and arrests the offender - who turns out to be an informer. Everything is fine as he identifies himself to his colleague. The citizens around them are puzzled. It is a good thing they did not take a cue from the declaiming dissident and started spouting their political disagreements and dissatisfactions...

"Entrapment" is what you call this kind of game, in true democracies usually reserved for purposes of catching low-level scum-types, such as drug dealers and pimps. It must be said that while under Batista there were a few who lent themselves to playing the role of informer - or as they were known, "chivatos" - "little bleating goats" - under the rule of stink-beard, the entire nation has been recruited for this despicable role. Thus, you have the infamous "committees for the defense of the revolution," whose ranks are made up of what can only be too kindly described as neighbors from hell, spying on everyone's comings, goings, and on their most minute and insignificant acts and actions. Maybe it is time for Cubans to revive the "Commission of Harmony" and obliterate the "committees for the defense of tyranny, incompetence, theft, cruelty, and criminality." That is what they are.

There are pages set aside for political news and commentary, the articles again couched in sardonic and/or satyrical language, directly or obliquely addressing current events and other comings-and-goings. A definition from the "Diccionario Particular," or "Personal Dictionary," sums up the times.

"CALOR.-A veces se siente
sin ser el tiempo de estio,
porque en Cuba, aunque haya frio
la cosa sigue caliente."

"HEAT.-Sometimes it is felt
although it may not be the season,
because in Cuba, even when it's freezin'
things are still heatin'."

That, admittedly, is sort of a fractured translation attempting to make the words rhyme more or less like their Spanish counterparts. Less, not more.

If things are indeed too hot - or were too hot - one can grab a refreshing, cold Maltina. Think of a sweet stout or porter, sans alcohol, and you will have some notion about the nature of this drink. You may have to find another brand, but well-stocked food markets today, specially those catering to the Spanish taste, carry these soft drinks. Ask for "malta." Wonder how it might go down mixed with a Guinness? Gotta try that sometime. It might be a good way to ruin a Guinness, or ruin a Maltina, come to think of it.

These pages you saw already, if you read the post about the Grand Prix of Cuba. This is the account of race driver Fangio's kidnapping and release the month before.

The back cover is an advertisement for Omega Bottlers from Spain, bringing fine cognac to Cuba. Back then, any Cuban could buy it. Good luck if you are a native living in Cuba now and you develop a thirst for Omega cognac - for one thing, the warehouse will no longer be there. For another, it is not listed in the food ration booklet as a basic staple. Maybe some foreign tourist can find and buy some for you, amigo Cubano.

The ship depicted in the ad was a real Spanish vessel, the "Marquis of Comillas." Most of Cuba's Spanish clergy and nuns were...shipped out of Cuba on this ship in 1961 by decree and order of king stinkbeard-the-bastard. Who would have thought...

Well, your blogger friend plunked down his "niquel" - five cents, that is - so you could enjoy zig-zaggin' through Zig Zag. In truth, it was more than five cents, but it was well worth it. Hope you have enjoyed this trip through the pages of the past.

By the way, Zig Zag was reborn in exile and continued publishing successfully for many years. Eventually, it came to be known as "Zig Zag Libre," or "Free Zig Zag." This February 1963 cover, which you have also seen here and there throughout the blog, is a favorite, for reasons which perhaps are too obvious.

The headline states: "Like that, like that, like that I want you." Shall we send a letter to fidel, suggesting he check in once and for all into Hell? Excuse me, have to buy some postage.


At 3:24 PM, Blogger ziva said...

Albert, what a wonderful post this is and those Zig Zag pages are a treasure. They show quite cleary that Cuba bc had free press and was not a third world country.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Richard Olsen said...

As always, it was a pleasure reading your latest addition to Havana 50/60.


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