This story first came to my attention via local Boston musician Emmy Cerra. When she told me about it, not only did it sound incredible but I also wondered why I hadn’t heard more about it. So I listened to the podcast and decided I had to summarize it – and some other sources – in a post. I hope I got the story right and do justice to it.
This is dedicated to the frikis of Cuba. And to frikis everywhere ….
In the ’80’s, a generation of young Cuban teens started hearing the music of bands like Led Zeppelin performing songs like ‘Kashmir.’ For them, this music was a life-changing event. Seemingly overnight, they went from being good apparatchiks of the Cuban/Soviet regime to scruffy, long-haired rockers. The name ‘Los Frikis’ (freak-eez) became a sobriquet for anyone who was into hard rock,punk rock, an ‘extreme metal head.’ One of the Frikis described this music as being ‘another door.’
But the problem is that there was no rock as such on Cuban radio. They’d have to find ways to dial in rock stations from Miami where they could hear Zep, Stones and even – wait for it – Barry Manilow. (How bad could the music in Cuba have been?) And so these kids were getting into this music, forming bands, having a blast pretty much like kids everywhere.
And then 1989 came and the Berlin Wall fall. Which of course, on balance, is a good thing. But it turned out to be bad for Cuba as they lost much of the support and funding of the Soviet Empire. Food lines got longer, everyone went hungry.
And so Fidel Castro tightened the screws in Cuba. He was afraid of losing control of the people. His mantra became ‘Socialismo o muerte’. (Socialism or Death). Long-haired frikis – who in addition to their other sins were listening to the music of the enemy – were perceived as threats to society and were beaten or sent off to prison.
Into this environment wandered a kid named Papo la Bala (translation: Papo the Bullet), who was also called the “Kurt Cobain of the Frikis.” 1 (Pictured above). He was a homeless kid who had already led a shitty life. Like most punks he was an outsider, a misfit. As the Sex Pistols said – No Future. And around this same time, some Cuban soldiers returning from Angola had contracted AIDS and were sent off to sanatoriums to die. (No retro drugs at this time).
And so Papo took Fidel’s mantra literally. Not an advocate of Socialism, he instead chose the other option – to die. He confided in a fellow friki, “When you don’t have any more doors to open, death is a door.” As a manifestation of political protest, Papo took a syringe with contaminated blood he had withdrawn from an HIV-positive rocker and jabbed his vein with the needle. 2 Papo had contracted the virus and, by doing so, knowingly sentenced himself to death and a trip to the sanatorium which was….
…paradise. (In contrast to life in the rest of sustenance-deprived Cuba). Because by then the sanatoriums had been taken over by the Ministry of Health (rather than the military) who understood that they needed to make the last days of the residents as comfortable as possible. And so in addition to having three square meals a day (meat! ice cream!), they allowed Papo and others to play whatever music they wanted. And so now ringing down the halls you’d hear Nirvana in one cabin, Metallica in another. Or the Stones. Or Zeppelin. So in a weird way – at least for some – life was better inside the sanatorium rather than outside.
One of the bands that arose from this insanity was named Metamorfosis. They never got a chance to play live. Because one by one, they died. Another band – Eskoria (scum) – became popular. And when word got out about a better life in the sanatorium, more kids – possibly as many as 200 – ultimately injected themselves with the HIV strain. They did this not only because there was a better life inside but also as a form of social protest. (Exactly how bad do things have to be that you have to kill yourself with a horrible disease as a form of protest?)
These kids did not really know the risk they were taking nor did they have information that would make them aware that they would infect their partners. Some of their unwitting girlfriends were accused of “Propagation of the Epidemic” and sent off to three years in jail.
And then of course, inevitably, these 17 and 18 year old kids – who apparently never understood the risk as well as Papo did – started to die in the horrible way that only AIDS can dispense. Some of them went blind, some went insane. And all of a sudden, this social movement – this protest, this paradise – wasn’t so romantic but was all too realistic, mundane and deadly. As one of the frikis said, “I regretted it. I regretted it a million times.” Papo never showed any regret before he died.
By the year 2000, of the 60 frikis in the sanatorium, only a few were still alive. (Not all of the 200 made their way to the sanitarium; not all of the 60 were auto-infected). In 2004, Castro made a speech honoring the birthday of John Lennon (whose music, both with The Beatles and as a solo artist had been banned in Cuba).3
An open rock show was held soon after in Pinar del Rio. It was dedicated to Papo and the frikis. By 2010, the main sanatorium had closed and two of the frikis – a couple who had met there – lived there as squatters. And in the year 2015, rock and roll in Cuba is alive. And in a post-embargo world, Cuban-style Socialismo es – muerto?
- “Spotlight on Cuba” – “Death is a Door”: HIV/AIDS, Freedom, and the Cuban Punk Rock Scene. The Spectrum, A Publication of the University of Pennsylvania Government and Politics Association.