Ramon Alejandro, by Judy Castor

Ramon Alejandro, by Judy Castor

Found Poets Rebuffed by mainstream publishing, a group of exile writers has been busy producing darkly astonishing accounts of life after Cuba BY JUDY CANTOR

mirrors reflect the light defeated
of a beautiful dusk that, in its falling
descended to the most plebeian of topics.

Fluvial city of the south of Florida
facing Havana, rose of the tropics,
you raise your telescopic stained-glass eyes:
obscure bonanza darkly forewarned.

Guided by stolid gulf stream currents
the river mouth he ignored, the outlet overshot,
and passed under steely bridges
-- all raised to make the tallest talk --

that have seen a thousand innocents arrive
from historic seas of insanity.

Confesiones del Estrangulador de Flagler Street
Nestor Diaz de Villegas

Ramon Alejandro and his two young sons live in a rented Mediterranean on the fringe of Coral Gables that a real estate agent would refer to as cozy, meaning small. The sunny, sparsely furnished living room must serve double duty as Alejandro's painting studio. And the artist's bedroom closet has recently become the archive of a fledgling publishing venture of historic, if neglected, import.

Alejandro has the kind of robust good looks that ripen with time, and, at age 54, he has the energy of a man half his age. He rummages around in the closet, where his clothes hang like curtains amid stacks of books and manuscripts that are piled on the floor and stuffed onto shelves. Emerging triumphantly from between two shirts, his thick gray hair swirled chaotically, Alejandro dumps an armload of stapled and bound photocopies on the bed. He throws up his hands and grins. To his delight, he has been besieged.

A year ago, with $40,000 he earned from sales of his large oil paintings, Alejandro began editing and illustrating a series of books, primarily poetry, by various exile authors. So far the Cuban-born painter has created, with a French publishing company, five handsome, heavy-paper volumes in editions of just 500 copies each. They are sold only at the Libreria Universal bookstore on SW Eighth Street and by Alejandro, who frequently carries copies with him in a plastic grocery bag when he leaves the house.

Despite the books' limited availability, word of the project has spread quickly among Cuban-born writers, and he has received a stream of submissions from poets and novelists living on and off the island. Frustrated authors corner him at parties, in stores, and in restaurant parking lots. Friends appear at his house for afternoon tea bearing manuscripts along with bakery boxes. The mail brings a flotilla of manila envelopes.

The best-known Cuban emigre literature has typically been a combination of nostalgic fantasy and political memoir. Established American publishers continue to scout for the next The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love or Dreaming in Cuban, lured by the heroic romanticism of Latin lovers and glorified stories of the bourgeoisie who came to the United States in the early Sixties.

But Alejandro has instead sought out writers who expose the underbelly of exile experience in works that explore poverty and isolation, celebrate decadence, unflinchingly examine Cuban culture, and lambaste the status quo on both shores. The latest book in Alejandro's series, a sardonic autobiographical novel by Lorenzo Garcia Vega, is called Vilis, which can be translated as both Vile and Bilious.

The next title to be published is Confesiones del Estrangulador de Flagler Street (Confessions of the Flagler Street Strangler), by Nestor Diaz de Villegas, a gothic suite of sonnets narrated by a drug-crazed, whore-killing balsero.

"This is the first time that this kind of writing is really being exposed," Diaz says. "The books have been written, they've been there, but now awareness about them is expanding, and I think that's the work of Ramon. Before I met Ramon I was a nonperson here. I was never taken seriously. Now people are starting to listen."

"He's changed everything for Cuban writers in Miami," the poet stresses. "Ramon's not going for big names. He's here looking high and low for people."

Actually, Alejandro has not had to search very hard. While the writers he has chosen to publish are unknown to a large audience, they are part of an extensive literary circle of Cuban authors and bibliophiles living in Miami. These writers pass well-worn books and photocopies to each other in much the same way that censored material has been disseminated in Cuba. They also meet regularly to read and critique poetry.

Some of them lead lives of relative obscurity in exile, despite estimable histories. Alejandro, for instance, knew Garcia Vega had been an esteemed member of the Cuban intelligentsia of the Forties. Three decades later he discovered the 71-year-old novelist bagging groceries at a Publix in southwest Miami.

While kismet seems to bring Alejandro together with most of the writers, he's made sure that his selections reflect the varied voices of exile. The novice editor wants to include all generations of living Cuban writers in the series. To that end, the first book he marshaled into print was Trenos (Dirge), poems by 59-year-old Armando Alvarez Bravo, known as a poet in Cuba but recognized most widely here as the art and literature critic for El Nuevo Herald. For Alvarez Bravo, the obscurity of Miami's Spanish-language writers is due to one simple fact: "People don't read," he says. "They're too busy watching TV or going to malls. Nobody reads. People aren't acquainted with the wonders of poetry. What poetry needs is an audience. I hope there's an audience here for these books."

Alejandro's series, named Baralanube after an Afro-Cuban spirit, was recently introduced at the Spanish Cultural Center in Coral Gables, at a reading and reception that Alvarez Bravo describes as "an uplifting experience." Among the 80 people who attended the reception were older Cuban Americans who have resided in Miami for decades. But there was a larger number of men and women in their thirties and forties who imparted a bohemian presence, dressed casually but carefully in loose pants and rustic sweaters. They were more recent arrivals, part of the large group of academics and artists who have emigrated since the early Nineties.

Alejandro insists that this last wave brought exiles who do read. There are signs, he says, that Miami is increasingly becoming a meeting ground for Cuban intellectuals from all over, including Cuba.

"Here not a day goes by that I don't run into Cuban writers from New Jersey, from Washington, from Paris, and even authors officially backed by the Cuban government," he says. "This happens here; it doesn't happen in Havana."

Alejandro has also decided to work with Cuban poets in Cuba who have not been able to publish because of government censorship or the country's economic difficulties. Thus far Alejandro has published a book by only one writer living on the island, Antonio Jose Ponte. "I think the quality of the writing rises above any contingency," he says, dismissing the possibility of protest from Miami's exile community. And his thesis has proved correct: The book has sold 170 copies, more than any other in the series.

"Ramon's attitude is inclusive," says Alejandro Rios, a member of the organizing committee of the Miami Book Fair International's Spanish-language program, which showcased two of Baralanube's authors this past November. "Here in Miami, he is making an important contribution to Cuban culture. Politics are circumstantial; this literature will remain."

The changing and fixed reality,
Hostile and uncontrollable,
Does away with us in misunderstandings
and the marginalization of implacable loneliness.

Our destiny
and our constant perdition
is to disagree.

Our justification:
An unattainable enlightenment.

The Fatherland is an unmarked grave.

"Finis Cuba" (fragment)
Armando Alvarez Bravo

When Alejandro is not reading or meeting with writers, he's usually painting. Dressed in his work uniform of jeans, T-shirt, and sport sandals, he sits in front of an easel set up in his living room. The painter's beagle Tao lies at his feet. The beat of conga drums comes from a boom box in the corner. The phone rings incessantly.

The canvas on the easel and several paintings hung on the walls are covered with voluptuous, oversize fruits and vegetables: cherimoya, okra, mamey, papaya, bananas. Alejandro's sensual tropical landscapes evoke parts of the human body -- surrealistic visions intensified by the paintings' cotton-candy skies and the addition of Afro-Cuban mystical imagery such as candles and feathers.

Alejandro's passion for literature has been the enduring theme of his life. Words, he says, inspire his figurative paintings. And just as significantly, it was a piece of literature that led him to leave Cuba in the first place.

The young painter had been uncertain of his feelings about the new Castro regime but was convinced of its perils after reading George Orwell's Animal Farm. "The book gave me a clear image of the inevitable cycle of any revolutionary process," he recalls. In 1960 Alejandro emigrated to Buenos Aires, where he had a sister, then spent months traveling around South America and Europe. He wound up in Paris, a city that his uncle -- himself a struggling painter in Cuba -- had touted as the best place to lead the artist's life.

A handsome, articulate young man, Alejandro was welcomed by Roland Barthes and other avant-garde intellectuals, artists, and writers. He was supported by a succession of gay men. Alejandro says that, at the time, he was most interested in perusing the extensive libraries and fine paintings these men owned, but he had begun experimenting with homosexual relationships early on in Cuba.

When at age 31 he fell in love with Catherine Blanchard, an aspiring painter, his friends protested; he wasn't supposed to like girls.

Nonetheless he and Catherine married and were together for eighteen years before she died in 1993. In mourning, Alejandro decided to leave his adopted home behind. He had friends in Miami, and he was intrigued by the increasing Hispanization of the United States. In Miami his children could learn English and practice their Spanish, and they could play outdoors. He could be close to the sea again.

Alejandro and his sons, now ages 11 and 13, arrived in 1995. The move was a homecoming of sorts. Alejandro has reconnected with his native tongue, with Cuban culture, and with the climate and landscape of his childhood in La Vibora, a pastoral neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana that he still recalls fondly.

More than a few of his artist and writer friends here have found it strange -- if not foolish -- that he left the City of Lights for this land of shopping malls and expressways. But Alejandro is secure in his decision. "Something new is happening here," he says, with an accent that bears traces of both French and Spanish. "I prefer to see the sprout coming out of the bean than an empty skin. For me, Miami is a place that's sprouting."

Still, Alejandro is quick to concede that the city has a way to go toward fostering a Spanish-language literary movement, and particularly for poetry. "I found that there were a lot of people here with potential but they were all just kind of off in their own world," Alejandro recalls. "I saw that if they were going to be brought together, it would be me who had to do it."

The fall of 1996 carried a windfall for Alejandro, when a Venezuelan dealer bought $40,000 worth of his canvases. Never one to hold on to money, the artist's immediate impulse was to find something to spend it on. Over the years in Paris, Alejandro had frequently illustrated books with his prints and fanciful drawings, collaborating on fine-art limited editions with celebrated Cuban writers such as Severo Sarduy and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

He settled on the notion of using part of his earnings to publish similar editions, joining forces with some of the writers he had met in Miami. Alejandro proposed the idea to his friend Pierre Laurandeau, who runs a small press in France. Laurandeau, a fellow poetry lover, agreed to produce the books at cost.

The original seed money is long gone. What Alejandro didn't put into the books he used to support his family, and he now has to come up with more funding for the project. He continues to sell his canvases, which remain popular with collectors of Latin American art. One sold at Christie's last month for $14,000.

Still, his income is unstable enough that he had to stall his landlord for November's rent when a check from the tenant in his Paris apartment arrived late. Despite his economic woes, Alejandro says he is committed to investing in the books, even if he goes bankrupt. He gives half of the copies of each book's run to the author and sells the others for ten dollars apiece. The proceeds haven't amounted to much yet, since Alejandro is always giving books away to promote the writers. But what money he does make goes straight back into production.

"What Ramon is doing is extraordinary," says writer Carlos Victoria, who used his own money to have his novel, Sombras en la Playa (Shadows on the Beach), published by Editorial Universal, Miami's largest Spanish-language press. "He's opened a new door for the writers of exile."

And so these lesser-knowns have come to Alejandro in droves. They appear on Alejandro's doorstep at all hours. The artist doesn't drive, and since he can usually be found painting at home, his house has become the site of a salon for writers looking for company and encouragement. Their presence has become a comfort and an inspiration at a turning point in Alejandro's life.

"I feel less alone since I've been doing this because I get so involved with the people," he says. "Maybe working with writers is filling the place my wife left. I've taken up this public life because I have to fill that void."

While the writers have become a kind of family for him, Alejandro stresses that his relationships do not compromise his literary standards. "I'm not doing this for humanitarian reasons," he says. "The work has to be good." His goal is to focus on outstanding writers who would otherwise be ignored and who are at risk of giving up writing altogether.

"I'm really interested in working with writers who haven't had a chance to publish," Alejandro says. "I started with the most discouraged ones first."

The excitement of Magic City
is suspended in shudders
Magic City gets scared
it can't go back to its
origins, nor to its silence

"Visitaciones del Atico y los Espejos" ("Visitation from the Attic and Mirrors")

Esteban Luis Cardenas

Alejandro is as excited as a child when he and one of his writers, Esteban Luis Cardenas, arrive at the Palacio de los Jugos, one his favorite spots in Miami. A combination produce market/juice bar/cafeteria on Flagler Street and SW 57th Avenue, it features shady picnic tables, bundles of sugar cane, and a man in a straw hat who slices coconuts with a machete. The Palacio is, essentially, a fantastic Miami-style theme park, guaranteed to give any Cuban exile instant deja vu. Inside, Alejandro inspects soursop and papayas, exclaims over the mamey, then grabs a handful of tamarind sweets, a slab of dried pumpkin, and two tamales.

No one has taken Cardenas to the Palacio for years, and he is momentarily lost in memory as he observes the man hacking open coconuts. A stooped figure in a neatly pressed oxford shirt and slacks, Cardenas makes his way to one of the picnic tables with the help of a walker.

He injured his legs in 1978 when he jumped into the garden of the Argentine embassy from a second-story roof next door. Cardenas was attempting to escape a dead-end job at the National Library, as well as the feeling that he had no future in Cuba as a writer. "I have nothing against Argentines," Cardenas says. "But we were these two black guys -- they called the police."

A native of CamagYey province, Cardenas had moved to Havana to study education, but the young man decided to become a writer, mainly because it seemed like a good way to impress girls. After his attempt to defect failed, Cardenas was sent to prison. He says he was sentenced to ten years for trying to leave the country and five more when the court determined that his book of short stories contained anti-government propaganda.

The next year he was pardoned and released to the United States. Soon after Cardenas arrived in Miami, he was run over by a car, an accident that tore up his face and damaged his vocal cords. His raspy Spanish is still hard to understand. But when Cardenas writes, Alejandro says, he builds castle with words.

Cardenas had already been in Miami twelve years -- a dark period he avoids discussing -- before he was able to scrape together some money to self-publish a book, Cantos del Sentinela (Songs of the Sentinel). That volume of poetry was much praised by other local Cuban writers, one of whom took Alejandro to a reading by Cardenas. Alejandro was duly impressed. In fact, Cardenas was one of the writers Alejandro had in mind when he hatched his plan to publish the exile poetry series.

The poems in Cardenas's Ciudad Magica (Magic City), published by Baralanube, are characterized by a harsh romanticism. Two in particular, "Visitaciones del Atico y los Espejos" and "Barrio," were inspired by the streets of Miami. These works evoke the crowded isolation of a place where people "speak in different languages and nobody understands anything." The poems have the same irreal ambiance as that produced by the strange phosphorescence of the Miami skyline at night. "It's a hallucinatory vision," says Alejandro, chewing on a large hunk of sugary dried pumpkin, "a sense of not knowing whether something he describes really happened or not."

The writer and the artist leave the fruit stand, Alejandro carrying a bag of sweets for Cardenas to take home. Cardenas lives in two small rooms on the first floor of a neglected apartment building in Little Havana, furnished with a bed and a table that holds a manual typewriter and some papers. "This is it," Cardenas announces, with an extravagant sweep of his hand. A woman in slippers shuffles by; a tattooed teenage boy in a sleeveless T-shirt nods a greeting on his way out. Spanish conversation buzzes through the hallways. "This used to be a Cuban neighborhood," Cardenas. "Now it's been taken over by Central Americans. I feel good about that, because I'm alone."

Cardenas bristles at being called an exile writer, and he doesn't like being automatically lumped together with other writers living outside Cuba. "I think we just express ourselves," he says with a shrug.

Recalcitrant to the end, Cardenas insists he never set out to write poems inspired by his experiences in Miami. He says he still feels no particular allegiance to the city. "Maybe independently from what I'd like, the place influences me," he says, his voice dipping. "The city trapped me somehow."

"The salesman in that store, the Vilis Burdines, was going to rip him off, but the manager appeared and gave him the merchandise, telling him that it consisted of three mattresses, one for the Father, one for the Son, and another for the Holy Ghost."

Lorenzo Garcia Vega

Nestor Diaz de Villegas arrived in Miami in 1979 and soon became a veteran of the section of East Flagler Street known as Vietnam. Many of his poems reside in the "polyester gardens" of dollar stores, botanicas, and family-run cafeterias, and in the nocturnal war zone of crack dealers, addicts, and hustlers.

"Nestor is a person who lives every minute like poetry in motion," Alejandro says. "He enjoys the horror of it all."

Diaz, age 42, has an ebullient manner and shoulder-length black hair that he wears pulled back in a ponytail. The years have slackened his sensual features, once model-handsome, and his olive skin has faded to a yellow pallor. Last year he was near death, hospitalized with an AIDS-related illness. He bounced back thanks to a new combination of medicines.

Alejandro and Diaz were introduced by a mutual friend at a gallery opening last year and immediately hit it off. Alejandro was eager to publish Diaz's work. And Diaz was thrilled to find a patron who intuitively understood the edgy vibe of his verse. "Ramon's the kind of tormented and contradictory personality we needed," Diaz says. "He's not like a petit-bourgeois, academic old fart. He's vibrant and new and flamboyant, and that's something I personally enjoy very much."

Alejandro and Diaz are at the home of Felipe Napoles, a documentary filmmaker, drinking beer and preparing to watch a video that Napoles and Diaz shot on Flagler Street. Diaz has been invited to appear at the Miami Book Fair and, instead of just reading, he has decided to show a short film capturing some of the images that inspire his poems.

Diaz rests his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray and starts the video, a sort of Miami travelogue, but not one that the Visitors and Convention Bureau would want prospective tourists to see. Music by Cuban bandleader Perez Prado accompanies a cinema verite collage of life on Flagler: Dusky faces flash on the screen, some with wide gold-filled smiles, others with lifeless eyes. Young girls, old men, workers, and vagrants fill the sidewalk on a typical morning. Madonnas, dashboard saints, and cigar-store-Indian busts share pharmacy shelves with makeup and hair tonic. A flamenco doll arches prettily, flanked by miniature Cuban and American flags. A fifteen-year-old girl stands on the street in the lace hoop skirt and crinoline she'll wear to her quince. A sign reads: "Vote Humberto Hernandez." A store advertises "Eyeglasses to Cuba for $40.00." Transvestites pose in a beauty salon doorway. Orthodox Jewish men enter a jewelry store. A crack addict sashays teasingly for the camera (and five bucks). Women sew dresses in a crowded factory. A Santeria priest tells stories about the spirits. Night falls, and the street becomes blotted with neon signs and blurry figures. Cars move jerkily down the street full of joy riders, going nowhere.

The film, like Diaz's poetry, captures the feeling of Miami as a place that's at once manically moving forward and suspended in time. Alejandro was drawn to the poet's ability to gracefully portray the daily burlesque of popular Latin culture combined with the speed of life in America. "Nestor's poetic world is very American," Alejandro says. "When I came to the United States I became very aware that it's a land of juxtapositions."

Although Diaz speaks fluent English, he writes only in Spanish, but he says his work is influenced by the sound of English and the rhythm of American culture. "This is where I live and this is my experience; this is my life," Diaz says, lighting another cigarette. "But it took all these years to live here and to suffer to really be able to say, 'This is home.'"

In Cuba, Diaz was jailed at eighteen. His crime? Composing a satirical poem. A writer since childhood, Diaz often shared his verses with like-minded classmates in college. When Diaz learned that government officials had decided to rename Carlos III Street in Havana in honor of the assassinated Chilean leader Salvador Allende, he was annoyed. He wrote a poem about it, saying that a statue of the Spanish king that stood on the street was better off then the Cuban people because it was deaf, dumb, blind, and oblivious to such political maneuvers. Diaz showed the irreverent verses to his best friend, who informed on him. He was arrested the next day.

Five years later (and just months before the Mariel boatlift), Diaz arrived in Miami. He took a series of menial jobs -- working at a Burger King, a factory, and a drugstore to support his wife and son. The couple eventually separated, and Diaz, a self-proclaimed "rock and roll kid," pursued the life of decadence led by his rock star heroes. He started hanging around South Beach and learned to freebase with a plastic bag over his head for a better high.

He also met "the love of his life," a streetwise girl named Patti Perfect who enjoyed a certain local fame as a dominatrix. She introduced him to the burgeoning South Beach club scene, and for two years in the early Nineties he wrote the nightlife column for El Herald's weekend section. All along, Diaz continued to write poetry.

"Even when I used to work in a factory," he recalls, "I'd say, 'Look, I'm a poet, not a laborer. I can't come in at 7:00 a.m. I have to come in at noon.' I had to be out in the clubs all night writing poetry and getting high."

Diaz made photocopies of his work and passed them around, and he gave readings when he could. In early 1997 a small local publisher printed a book of his poems, which he titled Vicio de Miami (Miami Vice). But Diaz still didn't think people in Miami took him seriously as a writer. "Here nobody really cared about my poems," he says. "The first time someone really showed interest was Ramon."

Indeed, Alejandro was so impressed by Diaz's work that he created a second, less costly imprint, called Manunga, and quickly published two of the writer's lyric poems in a palm-size volume called Anarquia en Disneylandia (Anarchy in Disneyland). In the title poem Diaz writes of an uprising in the Magic Kingdom, an allegory suggestive of Mickey Mouse politics in revolutionary Cuba. (The poem, incidentally, recalls Orwell's Animal Farm.)

Diaz lives in a small apartment complex not far from Alejandro, and they see each other frequently. The artist and poet have found commonalities in their work: a commitment to formalism and craft, and a desire to capture the spirit of the contemporary world. In Alejandro's words, their work is an attempt to "find the meaning of life in a search for beauty -- which is the opposite of earning a living."

Lighting up again, Diaz turns to Alejandro. "I see you as a catalyst for local writers," he tells his friend. "Through you, we're all getting connected, and we needed that; we need you here." He lifts his glass. "Ramon Alejandro for commissioner."

Laughing, Alejandro toasts back. "Of Vietnam!"

"Like the sick who can't shake their chill even in heated rooms, our hunger is deep inside of us. (The photograph sent by relatives in exile, everyone gathered around a mountain of meat, splaying their hands to demonstrate the diameter of this tree of flesh, is the measure of health for the afflicted: as if the food were rugs and scarves, hats and gloves.)"

Las Comidas Profundas (Profound Meals)
Antonio Jose Ponte

One evening late this past November, Alejandro accompanies writer Carlos Victoria, the book fair committee's Alejandro Rios, and some other friends to the airport. Eventually they find the hidden third-floor gate where charter flights from Cuba arrive. Antonio Jose Ponte is standing in the middle of the lounge with a small bag, blinking in the fluorescent light. A birdlike 33-year-old man with large green eyes and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut, his face is thin and drawn, and his teeth look huge when he smiles at the approaching strangers.

The prize-winning Cuban author has been invited by the book fair to read from Las Comidas Profundas, published by Baralanube earlier this year. The six-chapter essay places the material deprivation in contemporary Cuba within a historical context and contemplates the Cuban people's passionate relationship to food since the time of the conquistadors.

At his reading a few days later, Ponte is paired with Eliseo Alberto Diego, a well-known Cuban writer who lives in Mexico. The room at Miami-Dade Community College fills up with an audience that includes elderly men in guayaberas and college students, some of whom have never heard of Ponte but are curious to hear a writer from Cuba.

Ponte is a lively raconteur. He reads an anecdote from the book about black-market sandwich vendors in Havana who, during the "special period" in the early Nineties, breaded and fried strips of rags and passed them off as beef cutlets to their desperate customers. Their disbelief suspended by starvation, they ate the sandwiches with gusto. As the writer recounts the story -- at once hilariously absurd and tragic -- laughter erupts in the crowd. Ponte's words have a different effect on a thirtyish man and woman near the front of the room. They seem familiar with the tale and weep silently as he reads.

Las Comidas Profundas has not been published in Cuba. Ponte originally proposed writing the essay in 1995 for a special issue of a Cuban magazine on areas of Cuban culture: food, architecture, baseball. Because of financial difficulties, the issue never ran.

Alejandro began corresponding with Ponte after reading a book of his poetry two years ago. Ponte sent a sample chapter of Las Comidas Profundas to the painter/editor. Alejandro, whose canvases are filled with food imagery, was mightily impressed and urged Ponte to keep on writing.

During the question and answer session after the reading, Diaz gets up. "What audience are you writing for when you know your book will be published abroad and might even be prohibited in Cuba?" he asks.

Ponte responds without hesitation. "The diaspora."
This is Ponte's first trip to the United States, although he has traveled to Europe and Latin America. He says Miami was pretty much what he expected, "the historic reversal of Havana." He has been surprised at the obesity of some of the people he's seen -- he calls them "walking Boteros" -- but also, pleasantly, at finding as many kindred souls here as in Havana with whom he can talk about writing, and the arts in general.

Chief among them is Alejandro, who has offered Ponte a bed in one of his sons' rooms for the duration of his stay. One evening about a week after the book fair, Alejandro goes out to buy a barbecued chicken for dinner.

When he returns, Ponte starts to say something, then laughs. "I almost asked a very Cuban question," he explains. "I was going to ask you if you were able to find anything to eat."

Since his arrival in Miami, Ponte appears to have grown into his skin. His face has fleshed out, and he's even started to worry a little about getting fat. In a few days, he'll return to Havana. He hasn't even considered staying. Ponte lives with his mother in a comfortable house in Old Havana, where he can write with few distractions or pressures. He really has nothing else to do. He says that for now, his occasional trips abroad have given him as much of a taste of fast-paced consumer lifestyle as he wants.

"I think we have to leave the idea behind that you have to either stay here or there," he says. "Wherever I am, I'm a writer."

Alejandro agrees that great literature transcends nationality. Though he has not been back to his country of birth in 37 years, Alejandro insists that Cuba has come to him in the form of Ponte's book and the other manuscripts stacked in his closet. Here he can meet Cuban writers of every generation, each with a story to tell.

"I don't want these books to be about my taste," Alejandro observes. "I want to expose a whole realm of possibility. They should be a reflection of the moment." He pushes aside a pile of manuscripts and books that are spread on the kitchen table to make room for the chicken. "Anyone who still says that Miami is a cultural wasteland never gets out of their car," Alejandro says. "I love Miami." He calls in his boys and serves Ponte a fat chicken leg. "Miami is my country.

miaminewtimes.com | originally published: January 29, 1998

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