I was at my favorite perch in Little Havana, smoking a cigar, when word came of Guillermo Alvarez Guedes’ death and the mood dampened. An all-too-familiar queasy feeling came over me — one that is not uncommon to many of us who still live on the Cuban-American hyphen.
While the loss of the 86-year-old Alvarez Guedes was not unexpected — it had been reported he was ill — it was no less wrenching. You see, with the passing of the last of the great Cuban comics of his era go the laughs and memories of yesteryear — the laughs shared with abuelos (grandparents), the memories of when our parents were middle-aged.
My first encounter with Alvarez Guedes’ comedy, which included his trademark, monosyllabic “ño,” (shortened from a Spanish expletive and loosely used by Cubans to mean “damn” or sometimes “wow”) was during the summer of America’s bicentennial year, 1976.
My parents took time off from their tedious, back-breaking jobs and led the family on a rare sojourn outside the city limits of Hialeah to visit Orlando where their best friends had settled. In the trunk of our green Fury was a cooler stocked with freshly made Cuban sandwiches, a Cuban café espresso maker with several cans of Bustelo coffee and a big, plastic Zayre’s bag with multiple Alvarez Guedes’ albums.
I remember our first night there, after everyone had scarfed down the Cuban sandwiches and settled into the cafecito, my father’s friend Julio put on one of the albums. It was the first time I had laughed at anything in Spanish and it was certainly novel to share belly laughs with my parents.
Everyone in that room clung on to the brilliant comic’s nuanced sounds and expressions. His timing was impeccable — a succinct barrage of witty observations and hilarious anecdotes that accurately depicted the state of Cuban exile at that point and time.
“As a youngster, listening to Alvarez Guedes’ records or going to his films was a sneak peek into what our parents and grandparents were really like. Those were the rare and special moments when they (our parents) would relax and cut loose in front of the kids,” said filmmaker, magazine publisher and my “go to” friend in times of Cuban crisis, Bill Teck.
It was pre-Mariel exodus — a time when contact with the island was sparse at best. Life was all about adjusting to the customs of a new country, a veritable Que Pasa U.S.A. ? episode. And it was precisely through this emotionally charged, cultural tumult that Guillermo Alvarez Guedes’ comedy served as an elixir.
More than an icebreaker, an Alvarez Guedes cuento (story) always struck the Cuban funny bone. “He was a cup of tilo (a chamomile herbal concoction Cuban grandmothers make to settle one’s nerves) for the Cuban soul during a bleak time,” reminisced Valentin Prieto, founder of the Babalú Blog.
Over the years, upon getting to know Guillo, as his friends called him, I realized that this passionate, larger-than-life entertainer who made so many laugh, had a keen understanding of human frailty and suffering. If you knew Guillo for more than a minute you understood that his heart ached for his homeland and his Cuban compatriots.
The loss of a loved one carries a greater sting for those who live in the emotionally and psychologically delicate state that is Cuban exile. For me, the death of Guillo means the echoes of my grandparents’ laughter are painfully a little more difficult to conjure and explain to my daughter.
To Cubans everywhere who have endured the harshness of life outside their natural environs, the passing of Guillermo Alvarez Guedes signifies more than the end of a beloved artist’s life. With the interment of this “funny man,” a parcel of Cuban laughter is also buried.