Only those who have experienced “La Cruzada” (The Crusade) really know it. Only someone who has traveled the difficult route over so many days between hilltops, along rivers and sleeping in a bed made on the ground. Only those who have seen people silenced or laughing, resoundingly moved, understand the real essence of the most extensive theatrical event in Guantánamo, profoundly inspired by Martí.
Sometimes someone asks: What is the Guantánamo-Baracoa Theater Crusade? And one cites figures, quotes others who quote someone else. One describes what he or she has seen as a journalist, covering the news over one, or at the most two days. But they know that this is nothing compared to the real “crusaders,” those who sleep, who eat, who love throughout this tour.
Because the Cruzada, first and foremost, is traveling theater, an initiative that emerged at a time when many things were scarce in Cuba. In the early years of the Special Period, specifically on January 28, 1990, the Cruzada was born, marked by irreverence, audacity and humanism.
Those who experienced those early years, and still form part of its ranks, explain that the idea arose after a rehearsal, on the initiative of Carlos Alberto González Duporté, who proposed to take the art of puppetry to the hills, on foot.
And so they marched. Some 15 performers in single file through open fields and sugar-cane plantations, with backpacks full of essentials. The tableaus, the puppets, traveled on mules. The sites toured then were few.
Almost nothing, compared to the more than 200 communities that, in recent years, dozens of theatrical groups have visited, organized by the Guantánamo-based Guiñol puppetry company, for a month.
Madness, some said back then. Good and healthy madness one might say almost three decades later.
I’M OFF TO BARACOA
The hustle and bustle in the Teatro Guiñol, located in the center of the city of Guantánamo, does not cease. Everything is prepared and coordinated in the city, where a group of workers plays the role of the rearguard.
Inside, a group of young local actors adds movement to the afternoon with rehearsals of La Calle de los fantasmas, a work that has formed part of the repertoire of the host group for more than 15 years and that, modernized, will see its revival in the hills of Baracoa.
Meanwhile, local and foreign actors, producers and guests enter and exit on their way to or from the hills where, simultaneously, the 28th edition of the Cruzada is taking place, dedicated to the 55th anniversary of the Guiñol National Theater Company and to the 45th anniversary of the artistic career of actor Maribel López, who served as director of this community space during its first 14 years.
Over these days, the crusaders “reconquer” the easternmost municipality of Cuba, Maisí. As producer Alfredo Lopez Montalbo explains, the unusual rain on these dates, forced them to suspend some functions. They were unable to reach La Tinta, one of the most remote communities of the territory, because of the poor state of the roads.
And they must have been in a very bad state, as even the pickup truck with huge wheels that transports them from one place to another, was unable to make the trip. The passengers carry everything on their backs - personal supplies, essentials, the lighter the better, and the equipment for the functions.
Because the art that is performed in the hills, in places sometimes without power, and water drawn directly from springs, is theater of the highest quality: alongside Cuban playwrights, the Cruzada stages Federico García Lorca, Dora Alonso, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
This year, as usual, most of the participants were from the theater groups and projects of the province, including Guiñol itself, La Barca, the Entre Ríos Group, Elenco Dramático, the Colmenita and the Conjunto Artístico Integral de Montaña.
Participating from other provinces, in different stages, were Gigantería Habana, Teatro Andante de Granma, Los Elementos of Cienfuegos, Holguín’s Guiñol company; while from other countries, the Uruguayan group Amares Social Clown and Colombia’s Desensamble Teatro Cabaret also shared their art.
That same day, in the community of Yumurí, a hamlet of Baracoa on the very border with Maisí, the customary Theater and Community colloquium was held, with the theme of “Theater as a transformative social art.” This in the same Yumurí that less than two years ago was devastated by the fury of the sea following the passage of Hurricane Matthew. The charming community opened its arms once again to the artists.
Throughout its history, the Cruzada has seen all kinds of visitors. Actors of all types. Researchers attracted by a project that no matter how many years it continues, will always be considered incredible. Drama teachers, reporters, photographers – some very insistent, stubborn in the face of the rain in Baracoa or the heat of the flatter sites. Among them, the Swiss photojournalist Felix Hauver. Academics and editors of cultural magazines. From countries like Mexico, Colombia, Turkey, Spain, Denmark, Uruguay, the United States.
A sense of magic reins. A magic that emerges between the fatigue and the coming and going of an intense work system perfected over the years. The large groups, once up in the hills, are divided into smaller groups and each one sets off for their performance, sometimes on foot, sometimes by cart, by car, whatever appears. Current Director, Emilio Vizcaíno, notes that up to six functions are performed each day.
When something hampers the performances – and it has to be something very significant to stop these hordes of “crusaders” accustomed to all kinds of difficulties – the people are left saddened, and the actors leave for the next camp.
The Cruzada, which won the National Prize for Community Culture, is a serious endeavor, and any delays to the itineraries are reported in advance even in the most remote villages, and are not taken lightly by the population. The Cruzada has become a habit, a tradition, and traditions are respected.
On those nights when there will be theater, the horizon is filled with lights that go up slopes and along stone paths, that advance along the rocky coastline or through the woodland, as if the sky had suddenly lowered and reached the very top of the trees.
You arrive at a place by day, Ury Rodríguez, one of the first “crusaders,” tells me, and while you prepare the camp you find only 20, 30 people, which would be a sufficient audience, but then the night falls and entire families begin to arrive, until you are surrounded.
And that is also part of the charm. Ury himself defined the Cruzada as a barter. And the word is so well suited to the context, to the circumstances, that when the journalist from Baracoa, Miguel Reyes Mendoza, decided to make heads or tails of it, through a documentary, he called it Trueque: Los Todos de la Cruzada (Barter: All those of the Crusade).
Miguel explains that the documentary premiered in 2015 and is “an attempt to show life in action, exchanges with the population, the magic of the performances, so many things that can not be shown in a regular journalistic piece. I also wanted people to see these courageous men and women, those people really making art in spite of everything.”
The logistics behind each function, each round of applause, are undoubtedly complex. The Cuban government, through the Performing Arts Council, sustains most of the Cruzada, from providing clothing and some field supplies, to food, personal hygiene products, and part of the transportation.
The municipal governments are responsible for the support within the territories. A place to camp with the necessary hygienic and safety conditions, water, people to help with the cooking and care for the actors and guests, who nevertheless also participate in these tasks.
The problem is when municipal officials see the Cruzada as just another task. Freddy is categorical. “They do not always welcome us with the same affection with which we do on arriving. We have had disagreements, people who are not familiar with the event, who make you feel as if they don’t care.”
But in the community, everything changes. “The delegates of each constituency, the presidents of the People’s Councils, are our great allies. They are closer to the people, they know how they anticipate us, how much it hurts when a function cannot be held for logistical reasons.”
In the community, everything changes. What was pain becomes joy, amazement. The community offers the Cruzada an irreplaceable and perennial embrace.
“We have seen families grow, children grow older, even choose careers in art and work with us later. We have seen the people who receive us over and over again age, who cook for us, who wait for us with coffee, who open their houses to us, wash our clothes, take care of us as if we were their children... We have felt the losses of friends in very distant places as if they were our own relatives, we have suffered their hardships and laughed in the good times,” Eldys Cuba confessed, another of the longest-standing “crusaders.”
The recognition is mutual. Among those who populate the mountainous areas conquered by theater, the Cruzada also has enduring faces and names like Maribel López Carcassés, Eldys Cuba, Ury Rodríguez, Emilio Vizcaíno, Gertrudis Campo (Tula).
Ury Rodríguez, who has participated in the event almost from its beginnings, Gertrudis Campo (Tula) and Emilio Vizcaíno, also a member of the La Barca project, note that it is the responsibility with which the people come out to see them perform year after year, that explains their sheer act of madness on spending 34 days on the road doing theater.
“Because the people who live there in the mountains demand it from us. It is not that it is a compulsory demand, but with their response in the reception of each edition, one says: I have to return next year, because I have things left to learn!”
The exchanges with the communities, the vision of the depths of Cuba, are also key to the dozens of projects from other countries that have participated in recent years. “The Cruzada is wonderful,” Spanish actor Francisco Borja Insua Lema told reporters during the 2013 tour, “An experience that will stay with me for life (...) that unspoiled audience, I have fallen in love with that natural smile of children. In Spain it is difficult to find, people receive so much information that children know too much, so it is very difficult to surprise them, and that theatrical ‘ooohhh!’ that is so rare to achieve, I am experiencing it here in Cuba.”
Something of that charm attracted the attention of Colombian Diana Marcela Guatava, a young actor invited to the 2018 event given her interest in approaching “the cultural encounter between the public and the artists, at the theatrical level but also beyond the stage, that exchange between the campesino and people who come from such different sectors, inside and outside of Cuba,” from the cultural studies and human geography perspectives.
IN THE WORDS OF THE PERFORMERS
Every year Aliexa Argotte Laurencio swears it will be her last time, until two or three months pass, she forgets all the aches and pains, and one fine day at the end of the year, she finds herself mentally preparing for the following January.
“Life on tour is difficult, but we have become accustomed to that idea, although there are always surprises. The strangest place I slept was a construction in the middle of nowhere in Quiviján, of only four square meters for 25 people, and that we shared with three bantam roosters that at four in the morning began to crow in our ears.
“Each place forces you to rethink the scenic movement, because there are no lights, there is no sound, there is no traditional stage... but also one has to be prepared all the time for unforeseen events, because it is a different audience, which often does not understand how theater works as it does in a theater, they are more natural and can even intervene in the play and one has to be prepared. Concentrated in your character, but at the same time attentive to the outside world.”
As young Yosmel López Ortiz, a traveling performer with the Guiñol company since 2011, notes, this aspect always offers space for improvement to which, he believes, many international guests contribute.
“In all these years, the presence of groups from other countries has been vital; it is the access of the event to a different perspective, to other ways of doing theater, to other codes. It is not easy for them. They find it hard to acclimatize themselves to the programming, daily and intense, and to achieve communication with a totally new audience, which does not resemble that of their countries, but is also different from that of the cities within Cuba itself.”
Thus they develop along the way. “They arrive with a show and when they leave, it’s something else. A more solid presentation, more universal, more crafted by dint of adapting, of appropriating codes, words, forms,” he argues.
Yosmel believes, on the other hand, in the usefulness of the Cruzada as a project that if not transformative, is a stimulator of thought. “There is a conscious desire, from deep within the event, to address difficult issues, but in practice there are no works that specifically respond to the problems of these communities that welcome us.
“However, at the moment of the curatorship, of defining the cast and the programming, care is taken to select works with these characteristics. This year, for example, Colombia brought a show about transvestism - Casta de Señoritas - and one says, transvestism in the mountains? But then you meet a transvestite who lives and expresses himself in Yumurí, in Baracoa, and you realize that yes, these are lived realities, and are even naturally accepted.”
They are, he confirms, interesting and tense experiences, both for the public and for the actor. “On one occasion, for example, we dealt with alcoholism, first in men and then in women. The differences in how people viewed each case were very pronounced, but it was necessary.
“I do not think we’re going to change things directly. I know we talk about a topic, about intolerance, about violence... and that does not mean that we resolve it, but I do believe that we provoke thought, questioning, we propose options, alternatives. And that is also transformative.”