Monday, January 28, 2008

A Lion Falls

Luis Aguilar Leon was indeed a Lion of a man. He passed away earlier this month. The Quirogas were privileged to call him our neighbor for about three years, during our too brief sojourn at the Focsa Building in Havana. With his spouse, the lovely Vera Mestre-Aguilar and his two sons, they made their home on the 31st floor, under the "La Torre" - literally, "The Tower" Restaurant site. If you look at the building's "spine" in this period photograph, dating from about 1957-1958, "La Torre" being at the very top, you'll see their former abode.

This is meant to honor and remember, not merely a neighbor, but also someone who had an impact on, and was part of Cuban history - and who did his best to fight the good fight against the murderous, gangster regime of one fidel castro. The words of this writer are poor and inadequate; much better tributes have been written, and there are many more to be found on the Web. All you have to do is type Mr. Aguilar Leon's name into the text box for your favorite search "engine" and you will see for yourself.

In fact, some of the articles and tributes are best left to speak for themselves.

These were published in The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, after he passed away, on the 5th of January. Time, energy, and skill are lacking here to allow for accurate translation of the articles/tributes - needless to say, though Alberto may be the blogger's moniker, he's no Carlos Alberto Montaner when it comes to powerful, incisive writing.

During his and Mrs. Mestre-Aguilar's years at Focsa, they participated, as was true for most of their friends, acquaintances, and neighbors there, in the building's active social life. No aloof, pompous types needed to apply back then; not that there weren't some of those...nothing is perfect. But that was certainly one description you could not hang on Mr. and Mrs. Aguilar Leon.

You can catch a glimpse of his profile in this photograph of a lunch sponsored by the condominium's Homeowner's Association, in 1957. He is sitting diagonally across the gentleman with the sunglasses, Rafael Aguirre; wife Vera sits next to Mr. Aguilar Leon, but unfortunately just the top of her head is visible.

And, needless to say, his good-looking sons were welcomed guests at Quiroga family events.

As they were welcomed for sister Marta's birthday party in October 1959. They are sitting in the front row, wearing striped shirts - Jorge on the left, as you look at the photograph, sitting to his brother Luis Enrique's right. Their nanny too was in attendance, Luisa - seen on the very left of the photograph, her head touching the photo's border. "She would not stay in Cuba, but came with us into exile - she was family," related Mrs. Mestre Aguilar once. "She was still with us when she passed away."

To those who might see this image as a symbol of "bourgeois exploitation of the working class," suffice it to say that Luisa, at least, appears not to have felt in any way exploited and no doubt understood well she was appreciated and loved. Obviously she KNEW who the "maximum exploiter of Cuba" was - and unfortunately is still - and wisely chose not to wait around to be truly abused and exploited by that gangster "family."

Jorge and Luis Enrique, together with the other participants that happy, innocent day, enjoyed the magic show put on by "Serpa The Magician," who enlivened many a kiddie party during those happy years in our congenial "beehive" at Focsa.

That day, Serpa called on cousin Oscar Quiroga to help with the wizardry...and here a brief pause for another remembrance, a small tribute to a then young boy who, still a young man full of life and dreams was taken from us by that insidious killer -cancer- in December 2002. We miss you dear cousin!

The roving blogger asked his parents for some recollections. some anecdotes about Luis Aguilar Leon, from those days. Mother said she remembered how, after the film The Bridge On The River Kwai was released in 1957, Aguilar Leon "many a time would be seen walking outside the building, out on some errand or what, whistling that catchy tune from the movie." That catchy tune was the Colonel Bogey March; a certain boy was privileged to watch the movie which popularized it, at a Havana film house, the name now forgotten - the Rodi, perhaps? And he even owned a 45 RPM record - remember those? - featuring aforesaid tune, and played many a time. Although now he sometimes cannot remember where he puts his keys, he still recalls the obverse side of the record held a no doubt very obscure piece of music, The Teenage March. Mr. Aguilar Leon did not go around whistling that one, though. Strangely, the blogger's brain still recalls it, and in fact it is playing inside his head even as this is being typed. Perhaps it should be renamed The Senior Citizen March at this point.

"Yes, I remember him well, walking by Palladium, whistling that march from the River Kwai...whenever I heard the whistling, I knew that had to be Aguilar Leon."

(Still from The Bridge On The River Kwai, featuring the late greats Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa-from

Palladium Jewelry, Edificio Focsa - February 1957 - original print by Estudios Korda, Havana; Focsa architect Ernesto Gomez Sampera speaks with the propietors - as did Luis Aguilar Leon many a time, his happy whistling announcing his arrival.

Speaking of Leons, or Lions - do not think it inapropriate, and believe the Aguilar Leon family would agree - to remember another Leon we were honored and privileged to know at Focsa.

That refers to Vicente Leon Leon - twice a Lion - Focsa's classy, capable administrator and building manager, 1956-1960, fondly recalled, respected, and esteemed by many who made their home there. He kept things humming well around the place during his short tenure. He is seen here in the pages of Algo, the building's in-house publication, in the June 1958 issue. Leon Leon fell, fighting for Cuba's freedom, at a place called Playa Giron, April 1961 - thus living up to his name. Aguilar Leon fought fidelismo with his intellect and pen; Leon Leon fought the good fight with his skill, courage, and weapon in hand. Sed miles, sed pro patria.

May both Lions rest in peace and dwell in the Peace which never ends.

Mrs. Mestre Aguilar was kind enough to share some recollections as well, during her visit on the occasion of dad's birthday back in September - which unfortunately her husband could not attend, as he was no longer able to leave the house. "Indeed, the Focsa years were happy ones for us as well as for you. We moved in early 1960 to a house we had purchased; ironically, five months or so later we had to leave, quite suddenly, after Luis published an opinion piece which angered the regime." Yes, that is the kaSStro way, isn't it? Destroy or attempt to destroy the truth and those courageous enough to wave it in front of "its" face. As we know, ultimately this was not successful...Aguilar Leon's pen-and-intellect continued the struggle against, as a fellow blogger has put it so well, "castrianism," the religion of hate.

A beautiful tribute, written by one of Vera's cousins, niece of Vera's uncle Goar Mestre - if you want to recall who he was you may want to revisit this post about Delia Carballo - was kindly shared by the Mestre Aguilars; translating it would be impossible because yours truly would be unable to capture the meaning, the heartfelt feeling, and emotions expressed therein.

Lundi para mí

Luis Aguilar León

"Lundi, mi querido, admirado Lundi. Hace tiempo ya que te estábamos perdiendo, pero no por previsible tu partida, deja de ser menos hondo el hueco que nos deja. Si tuviera que señalar el rasgo más significativo para mí, de tu riquísima personalidad, no hablaría de tu sabiduría, ni de tu maravillosa relación con las palabras, aunque vienen sin remedio a mi mente tu cuento El Profeta, o ese extraordinario poema tuyo que recitabas como nadie al ritmo de cacerolas a modo bongoes, describiendo a una mulata sudorosa y ardiente que camina contoneándose bajo el sol del Malecón.

Las letras, nuestro país y nuestro bendito continente, eran sin duda tu pasión, el tema de tu vida. Pero si yo tuviera que recordarte por una sola cosa, sería por tu incondicional y entrañable amor por Cuba. Por una Cuba que conocías como nadie, con sus virtudes y defectos, su historia, su política, su geografía, su idiosincrasia, sus ciudadanos ilustres y su gente común. Esa Cuba que fue una dolorosa daga incrustada en cada uno de los días de tu exilio y que no pudiste volver a pisar ni a ver libre. Y es esa justamente, la profunda desazón que me provoca tu muerte.

Vislumbrar el comienzo de un cambio, ver aflojarse las ataduras para dejar resurgir la libertad de nuestra tierra, hubiera sido lo único que te hubiera compensado toda una vida de desarraigo y añoranzas. No pudo ser Lundi, ni para ti ni para tantos otros como mi padre. Y ese dolor que sin querer se me mezcla con rabia, será el más difícil de sobrellevar.

Ani Mestre

8 de enero de 2008"

Given his profession and talents, and how he used said gifts fighting for the cause of freedom and human dignity, another gentleman's epitaph, one who was also a prolific writer, another strong intellect, who also employed his talents in the cause of freedom for his country - our beloved, adoptive land - the United States of America - is quite suitable for Luis Aguilar Leon; do not believe either party would be offended, but instead rather honored, with the idea of said suitability...

The Epitaph of Young Benjamin Franklin

                         The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

This is an inadequate tribute and remembrance for someone who was a significant figure in Cuba's history, and by whom hopefully many will be inspired to follow his example, continuing the battle for the cause of Cuban liberation. Perhaps, in closing, we can give "Lundy," as he was affectionately nicknamed, a not inappropriate and cheerful send-off.

March on the River Kwai-Colonel Bogey March - Mitch Miller 1958

Maybe this is presumptuous, but there is a strong feeling he would approve, and perhaps impishly whistle the tune as he strolls within earshot of St. Peter...