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By Nicole Fleischner @theNY_nicks
Waiting to enter the club, the boys lean against the concrete wall, forming a chain of crossed arms and flat brim hats, glowing cell phone screens and cigarettes. It’s a hot Saturday night in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood, the streets relatively empty save the clump of teens eager to enter Fabio’s disco.
Leonardo Marin stands in the middle of the group. He’s a slight 16-year-old with a wide smile and crooked front tooth, prone to cracking corny jokes and posting selfies on Facebook with captions like “Supermega Fashion.” Leo dreams of becoming a coach for Cuba’s professional volleyball team, of dancing with bikini-clad chicas at Miami’s Ultra music festival, and of scoring a pair of black Converse (preferably high tops).
In his tiny bedroom you’ll find a beat-up wooden dresser filled with T-shirts emblazoned with imitation Lacoste alligators, Nike swooshes, and the names of cities like New York and L.A, places with the dance clubs, sports stadiums, and clothing stores of his fantasies, though he’s never left the country. Leo’s a little bit of a nerd, which he doesn’t like to admit, and a miki, which he will proudly tell anyone. It’s the first thing he says when I ask: “Tell me about yourself .”
“Bueno, I'm a miki.”
It’s one of several social enclaves, or tribus urbanas as they are known in Cuba, popular among Havana’s millennials. Mikis, their name deriving from Mickey Mouse, are a tribu obsessed with foreign—mainly U.S. and Latin—pop culture and consumerism. They’re typical, globalized teenyboppers, looking to go out, have fun, and snap some photos in the process. Leo is optimistic about change in his country, not just because it means visits from celebrities like Major Lazer and Rihanna (though that’s decidedly part of it), but because he equates change with opportunity, and a glimmer of the capitalistic culture he so admires.
But while Leo and los mikis’ tastes are increasingly aligned with surface-level economic and cultural shifts in Cuba, many of their contemporaries are quick to point to their superficial naiveté. The spectrum of Havana’s youth is wide; their differing styles and opinions presage how nuanced and complicated Cuba’s future may be. Despite los mikis’ starry-eyed enthusiasm (covered by knock-off Ray Bans, naturally), other young Cubans point out the limitations inherent in anything international hype would label as “change.”
Early Saturday Leo wakes with a slight hangover to the bright light and intense heat of Havana mornings. He’s been going out and drinking since he was 14, typical for young Cubans, but Leo’s smaller than his friends, and keeping up can have painful consequences.
Friday nights are reserved for Calle G, a wide avenue that has become a notorious congregating spot for all of Havana’s disparate tribus. In a circle Leo and los mikis sit passing around a bottle of rum, just one of the many teenaged huddles scattered beneath the busts of former Latin American presidents. Like the cliques of a high school cafeteria, each tribu has its own styles and tastes. Frikis, who listen to punk rock, sport facial piercings and black tees and are known for their intellectual edge. Emos, their eyes concealed by jet-black liner and plastered bangs, generally parallel their U.S. counterparts. So do rastas, metaleros (heavy-metal heads), and hipsters. Repas, with their diamond stud earrings and skin-tight tanks, are the hip-hop yin to the mikis’ pop yang.
On Calle G the tribus co-exist. Repas blast reggaetón beneath the arched eyebrows of Simón Bolívar. Mikis pose for photos feet from Salvador Allende’s raised hand. The avenue is a microcosm of Havana’s social scene, young Cubans’ answer to apartments crowded by older relatives and prohibitively high disco entrance fees—which has already inspired both media and academic scrutiny.
Leo and his friends have been going to Calle G since they first started high school two years ago, the same time they decided to be mikis.
“We’re friends with kids in other tribus,” Leo says. “But we don’t act like them.”
Mikis burst onto the scene just after the millennium. Their evolution was complicated, but essentially boils down to Cuba’s slow economic recovery after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This involved a slew of economic reforms—the creation of a dual-currency system, overt attempts at attracting tourists, increased privatization of certain industries—that brought a heightened level of materialism to the island. Plus, waves of Cubans emigrated abroad, and unlike refugees in the 1960s, these migrants wcontinued to send remittances and products to family still on the island.
Now girls sell Victoria’s Secret bras and Tommy Hilfiger belts (gifts from the tía in Miami) at school before the professor enters. One Christmas visit from an uncle could fuel a black market business for weeks. This made it easier and economically feasible to share foreign movies and music, coupled with new technology like cell phones, laptops, and USB flash drives. Tight, faux, bejeweled American Eagle t-shirts became a look of choice. Lady GaGa and Justin Bieber blared from 1950s Chevys outfitted with Pioneer car audio systems. J.Lo music videos were projected on countless disco walls, and the mikis were born.
Famed Cuban sci-fi writer José Miguel Sánchez, better known as Yoss, put it simply: “Mikis are obsessed with designer labels and the newest electronic toys. They enjoy a certain economic privilege.”
The miki title may have carried some rebellious weight at the onset—to openly worship the yanki material world is, naturally, antithetical to the Cuban Revolution—but the mikis have largely been absorbed into the mainstream, especially as Cuba has continued to open up. Much of Leo’s tastes—from his newfound appreciation of electro dance music a la David Guetta to his idolization of Chris Brown’s clothing to cheesy Dominican bachata ballads—is about belonging to a culture that extends beyond Cuba, about feeling modern and connected. With Carnival cruise ships docking, the “ Fast and the Furious 8” filming, and the Kardashians descending, it’s an easy time to be a miki in Havana. While plenty of Cubans use the term miki in a derogatory way— describing anyone or anything that is vapid, shallow and superficial— for Leo and his friends their tribu identity is a source of pride.
“Being a miki is like being a cool kid,” Leo says. “It’s about being happy and enjoying yourself.”
Leo lives in a white, four-story building with a façade stained by neglect and decorated with circular cutouts, giving it the distinct look of dirty, concrete, Swiss cheese. It abuts the University of Havana’s biology building, an impressive but decayed neoclassical structure. The main university campus, abuzz with the students Leo may join upon completion of his mandatory military service, lies just up the hill. It’s a desirable address, at the center of the busy and relatively prosperous El Vedado neighborhood.
Leo’s family's fourth-floor apartment consists of a few small rooms that smell constantly of burnt hair, a consequence of his mother’s hairdressing business. His father works for the state as an electrician, a much-needed skill set in a building plagued by sporadic outages and other malfunctions.
But Leo spends little of his Saturday in the apartment. As soon as he can rouse his sweaty body from bed he connects with the rest of el grupo—his core group of friends whom he rarely leaves, and heads to the sea.
Leo has known his three best friends, all self-described mikis, for as long as they can remember. There’s Jhan Carlos, the self-assured one with the smile of a winning high-school quarterback; Samuel, who suffers from an endearing but severe speech impediment; and Ishmael, the edgiest and eldest. The trio is quick to point out that Leo is “the nerd” of the group and a chatterbox. It’s a combination that gets him picked on in school, but el grupo always rushes to his defense.
All four boys attend the same high school. Jhan Carlos, Samuel, and Ishmael study mechanical engineering and hope to get paid jobs at an auto body shop upon graduation. Leo studies cultural física, similar to physical education, because of his love of volleyball.
The boys’ usual Saturday destination, a spot called La Puntilla where the Río Almendares dumps into the Florida Straits, is some two and a half miles away. They always walk, wearing ill-fitting flip-flops and swim trunks, towels draped over scrawny arms. This Saturday, the boys sport flat brim baseball caps, and Jhan Carlos a “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” T-shirt, a motto from the TV show Friday Night Lights.
“Do you know where that’s from?” I ask. “Or what it means?”
“No idea,” Jhan Carlos replies.
“It’s in English,” Leo says. “That’s cool enough.”
As they walk to La Puntilla the boys talk mostly about clothes, sports, music, and video games. Like all die-hard mikis, staying on top of the latest trends is essential for el grupo. Their encyclopedic knowledge of shopping in Havana (“The store on Paseo has the low tops for $60 ... The window display in Habana Libre has the red ones with a stripe”) is not often put to use.
“We only get new clothes on our birthdays,” Leo explains.
Foreign media is easier to come by than clothes, thanks to something called el paquete , a weekly digital packet los mikis worship with religious intensity.
A one-terabyte-sized hard drive of international audio-visual materials, El Paquete Semanal is distributed throughout Cuba via USB flash drives every week. First documented in the foreign press two years ago, el paquete is omnipresent, the boys explain. Why had I overheard two Cubans discussing a just-aired Game of Thrones episode on the bus? El paquete. Why do Leo and el grupo already have opinions on Beyoncé’s Lemonade? El paquete. The boys rotate who downloads the desired el paquete files and pays the accompanying 5 CUC fee each week, sharing the content with one another almost instantly.
“I don’t know what we would do without el paquete,” Leo says.
Other consumer products come from family abroad, which all of the boys have. It’s an advantage typical of mikis, a key to their ability to seguir la moda, as Cubans say, that lends them a reputation of privilege. Leo’s brother just moved to Miami.
“He’s been there less than a year and already he’s gotten fat.”
“Well, he finally has something to eat,” Jhan Carlos respond.
Despite their slight status perks, there is no escaping the reality of Cuba’s poverty. Many of el grupo’s style choices are borne out of necessity, not taste; they find subtler, cost-free ways to distinguish themselves as mikis.
When we pass El Vedado’s basketball courts, newly renovated thanks to the NBA Cares Foundation in anticipation of Steve Nash and Dikembe Mutombo’s historic visit to the island, Jhan Carlos stops us, proud to show them off. The new backboards and fresh paint look incongruous with the run-down apartments at the court’s perimeter and wide range of the players’ attire (skinny jeans and flip-flops, a phone company uniform and leather loafers).
“All I want is a pair of Air Jordans,” Jhan Carlos says. He has become an avid basketball fan since Cuba started to air NBA games on national TV. But the other boys make fun of his obsession. Basquet, they explain, isn’t a miki sport. It’s for repas.
If mikis are, well-heeled suburbanites clubbing in Manhattan, repas are throwing a house party in the Bronx. Repas derive their tribu name from the slang word for repartero, someone who lives in the outskirts of the city, typically the poorer and darker-skinned neighborhoods. Since Cubans consider basketball an urban and African American sport, it’s considered repa. Leo’s sports of choice, soccer and volleyball, are more in line with miki tastes.
Sociologists say the miki vs. repa distinction—so established it has inspired songs—reveals important socio-economic and racial divides within Havana. Repas are marginalized and stereotyped as aggressive, even unlawful. The miki clique is viewed as more exclusive and well-mannered.
“Samuel used to be a repa,” Leo says as if it were obvious. Samuel has the darkest skin in el grupo; he’s the only one that would not be considered mulato, but rather negro.
“U-u-u-sed to be,” Samuel jumps in, his stutter revealing the urgency of his assertion. “I’m n-n-not a repa anymore.”
“Being a repa can be bad,” Leo says. “They listen to vulgar music and cause problems.”
As we walk, the boys are excited to point out the neighborhood’s new businesses, rattling off the dates the spots opened, what they sell, and who frequents them, even though they’ve never been themselves. The “Arab” tea house, the paladar with minimalist decór, the corner café that offers iced coffee that is actually iced. They are the places where Havana’s new elite—the ones with the resources and connections to take advantage of policy changes—cheek-kiss with foreigners and snap selfies for later Instagram posting. It’s a milieu Leo and his friends hungrily admire, one that’s physically close but they can’t quite reach (or afford)—like children with their faces pressed up against the glass of a candy store.
The Havana of el grupo’s daily life more closely resembles the city I first came to know six years ago. The Havana where I would journey miles in the heat to reach the one supermarket that consistently carried peanut butter, the Skippy jar a rare find amid aisles of identical pasta sauce cans like something out of a surreal Soviet Andy Warhol dream. Despite what Vogue articles and Chanel fashion shows would have us believe, much of Havana still feels like that—archaic window displays with mannequins sporting a top but no pants, interminable lines at the 10-cent espresso stand that never has change and always runs out of plastic cups, school bathrooms with no toilet paper and sporadically running water. These are the less-glamorous places of el grupo’s weekly grind.
Not that the boys looked unhappy. Theirs was still a world of teenaged miki bliss, of indefatigable optimism, first girlfriends, and heated discussions about which of Bruno Mars’ many dance moves is the best. Too young for the job market and still receiving pocket money from their parents, el grupo is momentarily satisfied by change that only runs skin deep. If it means a potential Gisele spotting or a free music festival, it’s okay by them.
Though it hovers over nearly every conversation, the boys never mention politics except for when I bring it up.
“So what do you think of Obama normalizing relations?” I finally ask.
The three others instinctively turn to Leo.
“It was like something that fell from the sky,” he says, snapping his fingers in emphasis. “It makes me want to get ahead.”
The other boys nod, and that's the extent of it.
Some twenty blocks from where Leo walked with his miki clique, a different member of Cuba’s Generation Y sits in the awkward angles of a broken butterfly chair. Jorgito Ramírez, a 25-year-old design student, would never dare don a shirt with any logo, authentic or otherwise, and is blissfully unaware of el paquete’s contents this week. He feels ambivalent about the corner café with the iced coffee, and has plenty to say when it comes to politics. He has olive skin, dark brown eyes, and a compact frame well suited for his “have nothing, want for nothing” outlook on life. Anyone who passes him on the street considers Jorgito a hipster, a man-bun-sporting indie rebel with a cause.
I meet Jorgito in his apartment, a second floor walkup up he shares with his roommate and fellow design student Kevin, on Saturday evening after my stroll with los mikis.
“Excuse the mess,” Jorgito apologies as I enter. The apartment’s sink had been dripping for the past three weeks and overflowed the night before. Three mattresses, nearly a dozen vintage cameras, a guitar case, several rolled-up canvases and a slumbering cat are scattered on the tile floor, a dilapidated fan click-clacking over the heap in a vain attempt to dry everything.
“Welcome to our little corner of Havana,” Jorgito says.
The apartment represents a perfect extension of Jorgito’s personality and aesthetic. The former tenant was an eccentric, dissident artist who painted murals on all of the walls and converted the space into a quirky personal gallery. Jorgito and Kevin added their own artistic contributions: a urinal fashioned into an ashtray on the balcony, old VHS cassettes and floppy disks mounted on the wall (“state-of- the-art Cuban technology,” Jorgito jokes) and an old PC connected to speakers that keeps music playing at all hours.
Though technically only Jorgito and Kevin split the $70-per-month rent, in effect the apartment belongs to everyone. Sometimes friends stay for 15 minutes, enough time to smoke two cigarettes and catch up. Other times they stay for weeks. A parentless apartment is a rarity in Cuba, due to a combination of cultural practice and economic realities, and so Jorgito’s friends are happy to take advantage. Tonight, they are cooking chicken. Their shouts and laughs bounce off the 18-foot ceilings.
“We can just make it without honey!”
“No! It will taste like shit!”
“The recipe says honey.”
“There is no honey. Not in the apartment. Not in the store.”
“I have pineapple juice,” Jorgito suggests. “Can we use that?”
They’re a simultaneously eclectic and cohesive group. A mix of half-shaved hairstyles, tattered T-shirts, tattoos and bare feet that somehow all fit together. Hardened by years on the job market or struggling through the bureaucratic limitations of university, Jorgito’s friends offer a perspective diametrically opposed to Leo’s. Unsatisfied by superficial conceptions of “change,” they are part of an expanding, outspoken portion of Cuba’s youth, eager to improve on their country’s inefficiencies and hypocrisies, proud of Cuba’s revolutionary foundations and values but tired of its out-of-touch political machine.
On a good day, Jorgito’s attitude can be succinctly summed up in the mission statement of Somos+, a blog he follows, and a movement to build a modern, free Cuba: “We have the right to share our ideas, we are entitled to say what we think, and to defend with courage and determination the future we want .”
On a bad day, his thoughts more closely resemble the cynicism of an April article in El Estornudo, a new online magazine created by University of Havana graduates: “At 22 or 23, a young Cuban will find themselves chained to their country, not a citizen, but a prisoner of Cuba, of its history, of its tragedy, and finally, of its tenacious insignificance .”
Jorgito’s anxiety over Cuba’s future only deepens as the U.S. presence on the island expands. The more he comes face-to-face with sunscreen-slathered tourist—snapping at the oh-so-photogenic decaying architecture with their hulking cameras or zipping off to the Tropicana in a waxed and buffed old-school car—the more convinced Jorgito feels that a normalization of diplomatic relations is ultimately a move with one-sided benefits.
“We don’t want to be like the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico,” Kevin says.
As far back as 2006, Fidel Castro warned of the detrimental effects of tourism and hoped to curb the industry. Today, Havana's paladares are the most vibrant and oft-lauded component of Cuba’s privatized economy. As countless articles lament, Cuba’s infrastructure can’t keep up with the overwhelming tourist demand.
Just the week before when I’d invited Kevin to meet me at El Cocinero, a rooftop bar of mood lighting and industrial-chic vibes, a bouncer at the door denied him entry even though I’d already secured us a table. It seemed U.S. tourism was not generating opportunities, but barriers. Havana has become a city of VIP sections filled with foreign visitors celebrating “Cuba’s opening” while Cubans crane their necks to get a glance from behind police barricades. The mikis, Jorgito worries, are too distracted by the glitz of consumer culture to care.
“It’s all a show,” Jorgito says, “We’ve just gone back to the way things were before the Revolution.”
Jorgito was born in 1990, and Leo in 1999—years that bookended a turbulent decade for Cuba.
It began with The Special Period, years of severe economic crisis ushered in by the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, which for decades Cuba had relied on for economic aid and subsidized oil imports.
Jorgito and other twenty-somethings were raised during the worst years of the crisis. His friends shared the many quintessential stories—how animals went missing from the zoo as people looked for any source of food, stray dogs and cats disappeared from the street, and a scarcity of meat led to the invention of “grapefruit steaks” and “banana burgers” —to paint a picture of the surreal desperation that overtook the island.
“When there was no baby formula our parents fed us grass,” Jorgito’s friend, Pepe, says.
But with stories of hunger and despair come those of compassion. When the government was unable to provide goods and services, individuals stepped in to fill the void. With the closing of several movie theatres came the creation of informal salons, where whoever had a VCR available would invite the neighbors over for a viewing party. Kids who had a toy were encouraged to go outside and share.
“It was a dramatic change," Pedro E. Moras, a sociologist at Cuba’s Institute of Cultural Investigation, explains. “With personal resources people we’re solving problems that had always been the responsibility of the state.”
It was an experience that created a bond, a solidarity that Jorgito and his friends stress is uniquely Cuban.
“We look out for each other," Jorgito says. “What’s mine is all my friends’ and vice versa. It’s not like you yanquis.” The last word he pronounces in mock disgust, in part ridiculing typical Cuban state rhetoric. But the sentiment behind his words ring true.
With an increased reliance on personal networks and the black market came a growing disillusionment with the Cuban state. Cubans watched in frustration as the former Soviet satellites transformed, adopting capitalism, while their own state remained static and ineffectual. Cuba’s most heated dissident protests took place in 1994, resulting in a mass exodus of over 35,000 aboard makeshift rafts and small boats in the so-called Balsero Crisis. A chasm grew between the state and the people, which eventually evolved into a façade of normalcy. When explaining their relationship to the government, Cubans are known to say: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”
By the time teenagers like Leo and his friends were born, Cuba was slowly coming out of the Special Period due to a series of reforms and, eventually, subsidized oil imports from Venezuela. The Havana of Leo’s childhood was one responding to a rise in tourism, of an increased visibility of prostitution and jineterismo (hustling), and a nightlife scene emerging from a decades-long slumber. Sharing is still part of Leo’s fundamental nature—in el grupo no man is ever left behind—but so is his love of consumption. Leo has found ways to enjoy the rising levels of materialism and foreign influence on the island, just as Jorgito has found ways to reject it. But both young men have to deal with the inequality that’s emerged.
It is a reality that’s pushing young Cubans to enter the private sector as quickly as possible, even if it means forgoing their free university education. But without a connected family member or friend, it can be difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs to get their start. Private-sector work opportunities are sporadic; competition is fierce. It inspires anxiety for a younger generation who feels they should be seizing the moment, but are incapable of doing so. A growing number of Cuban youths are neither in school nor at a steady job, a demographic the Cuban government has dubbed “jóvenes desvinculados,” or “unengaged youth,” an unproductive status that goes against the core values of the Revolution.
I spent many sweaty afternoons in the library of the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Investigation, a dusty room in a building off the Plaza de la Revolution with no internet access or toilet paper, reading studies about the anxiety surrounding the “ desvinculados.” “Is the youth lost," “The marginalization of teens and young people in Cuba,” “Reflections on youth disengagement.” Several works outlined state programs such as the creation of computer labs, educational reforms, and training courses aimed at reclaiming this lost generation and turning them back into productive, politically-active citizens.
When I mention the programs to Jorgito, I am met with an exaggerated eye roll.
The cover of one 2013 study pictured a teenaged girl in pigtails surrounded by a swirling constellation of electronic devices—an enormous cell phone, a fax machine, a PC desktop— that more closely resembled a 1993 sci-fi movie poster. Leo and los mikis had already moved on to touch screens and el paquete YouTube clips. The Cuban government simply can’t keep up.
By 10 p.m. on Saturday night, Leo and his miki crew find themselves waiting outside of Fabio’s. Slightly tired from their afternoon of lounging and drinking at La Puntilla, el grupo can always summon the energy for dancing at a disco. Freshly showered and hair-gelled, they huddle together, pooling their money to ensure everyone’s entrance fees will be covered.
By day, Fabio’s is a typical two-floor, state-run Italian restaurant, named for Fabio di Celmo, an Italian tourist who was killed in one of the 1997 Havana bombings blamed on anti-Castro, Cuban-American terrorists operating out of Miami. Fabio became a symbol of Cuban solidarity, a martyr at the hands of imperialist aggressors. A portrait of the young Italian in a soccer jersey hangs over restaurant patrons as they eat their not-quite-authentic spaghetti and pesto, a typical example of the inescapable hovering of the revolutionary political agenda.
But by night, Fabio’s is something else. Operated by the semi-private and wildly popular Por Un Mundo Mejor (PMM) company, known to throw the best parties in Havana, the top floor of Fabio’s becomes a bass-thumping, strobe-flashing club, complete with a fog-machine and a DJ that keeps the bachata, reggaetón, and pop on repeat. Large bodyguards block the door, and the AC is always on high, two key ingredients that have made Fabio’s the go-to spot for Leo and other high-school mikis. With a $3 entrance fee, Fabio’s is not so expensive that el grupo can’t afford it (newer, trendier places range from $15-$50 CUC), but it’s still high enough to keep out the “bad types,” as Leo explains it. Certain places—where fights break out, where it’s too sweaty, where the lines are too long, where repas abound—are to be avoided at all costs.
The fact that Leo and the mikis dance with their girlfriends to Justin Bieber in a place symbolic of anti-imperialism is either lost on them, totally unacknowledged, or beside the point. But it reveals a new Havana reality, where young Cubans’ consumer demands and tastes have managed to reappropriate state institutions.
In the dark haze of the street the boys chat to pass the time. They speak of tomorrow’s plans to play soccer in the park, and, most importantly, whose turn it is to purchase el paquete.
Just a month ago they had downloaded a DJ software program and began mixing and recording their own love songs. Ishmael is the DJ, Leo the songwriter, and Jhan Carlos and Samuel the singers. They hoped this week’s el paquete contents would have some additional sound-mixing apps.
“When Samuel sings, his speech impediment completely disappears,” Leo says. “It’s amazing.”
Out on the street, in the glow of Fabio’s green laser lights, the boys refuse to perform one of their songs for me. Their plan is to record a CD.
“Just for our girlfriends and family,” Leo is quick to add.
It’s not a dream that they think will make them much money, but it’s one they feel is attainable.
Suddenly, the decked-out miki teens are on the move. As with high-schoolers the world over, as soon as one person pulls the trigger, the rest follow. Quickly flicking away half-finished cigarettes and placing cell phones back into pockets, el grupo edges to the front door of Fabio’s. By the time they reach the entrance Leo and his friends are all grins, their bodies pressed against one another as they head toward the distinct beat of Rihanna’s latest hit.
Less than a mile away and some two hours later, Kevin decides it’s time to go to La Fábrica, one of Havana’s most popular new clubs. It’s a place el grupo miki has spoken of longingly, but an 18-year-old age requirement keeps them from attending. Jorgito’s hipster crew is markedly less impressed by it.
“We go to La Fábrica because it’s the best place out of a lot of bad options,” Kevin says.
Outside, the line wraps around the block, Cuban men with brightly colored snapback hats and muscle tees, hair-sprayed women in heels snapping away on their iPhones, and tourists and international students interspersed throughout.
At the jam-packed entrance, two impressively built bouncers guard the door.
Kevin leads the group straight to an outdoor garden. Around us people chain-smoke while resting their drinks on tables made of refurbished car tires. Overhead, ‘90s American hip-hop and Cuban rap play. I sit on a wooden bench between Kevin and Pepe, their heads swiveling to take in the scene.
“Well, as always, La Fábrica is shit,” Pepe says.
Ostensibly created to attract an alternative and artistic crowd, La Fábrica had already lost its authentic edge. Instead of young, creative types, it’s filled with people who go to spend money and dress up, to see and be seen.
“Foreigners and farándula,” Pepe intones.
A word that basically means “the scene” including the pretty young things, semi-celebs, and “it” people of Cuba, la farándula is an ever-expanding crowd in Havana’s evolving socio-economic climate. Some are twenty-somethings with parents high up in the government; others are popular artists or actors, or former high-school mikis with money to burn. They are the shiny, trendy people that inspire Leo’s admiration and Jorgito’s eye rolls.
I return with my second drink while Pepe and Kevin nurse the can of beer they’d been sharing. They speak of Kevin’s progress with a part-time job he’d found, and about Pepe’s latest plan to bartend at a hotel. He’d been in and out of work ever since completing his mandatory military service in 2011, a reality he chalked up to Cuba’s dearth of opportunities, and, as he says quietly and simply: “Because this country is racist.” Compared to Kevin and Jorgito’s olive complexions, Pepe is mulato—a café con leche mix, as he describes it.
Cuba’s legacy of racism has garnered increased attention since President Obama visited the island. It continues to cause anxiety for young people like Pepe, who feel disadvantaged when it comes to landing private-sector jobs. As a 2013 New York Times opinion piece explained: “The reality is that in Cuba, your experience of these changes depends on your skin color.”
“Are you proud of your country?” Kevin asks me.
I'm surprised by the question, but answer truthfully. “There are things we do that upset me,” I say. “But yes, I am. Are you proud of yours?”
“I won’t answer that. I shouldn’t answer that,” he says. “Too many things have happened here that I am not proud of.”
We sit in silence for a moment, watching the crowd ebb and flow. An old Justin Timberlake song comes on, prompting a clique of faránduleras to break out in dance, the jingle-jangle of their stacked bangles audible over the beat. The sporadic flash of cell phone cameras punctures the warm glow of overhead lights. I can imagine Leo, Jhan Carlos, Samuel and Ishmael dancing among them, with their new hairstyles and sneakers and phones, in two years time.
“The people have the government that they deserve,” Kevin says.
In the golden-hued deep blue of early Sunday morning, Leo and los mikis and Jorgito and los hipsters return home. Sundays are for sleeping in, finishing school projects, and running errands. Leo watches Brazilian telenovelas with his mother. Jorgito visits his own family for a proper home-cooked meal.
Come Monday the cycle starts again, the hustle of daily life in a Havana of contrasts, where basketball courts are sparkling new but apartment roofs crumble, where weekly groceries are too expensive but The Rolling Stones play for free, where glitterati and la farándula hobnob at Chanel fashion shows while the University of Havana loses electricity. Where perhaps the biggest contrast of all is between the potential, energy and passion of a younger generation—be it miki, repa, hipster, or otherwise—and the stubborn endurance of an inner circle of octogenarian revolutionary leaders. The United States can’t satiate its appetite for Cuba or stop speculating about the island’s “future,” but that future is neither ours, nor the Castros. It belongs to Leo and Jorgito, and all the Pitbull-listening, pop-music-hating, U.S.-loving, capitalism-fearing, disco-dancing, blog-following cynics and optimists in between.