The Punks on G Street: Tracking Cuba's Rebellious Youth 50 Years After the Revolution

I met Liván, Takeshi and the rest of their band of frikis—rock and metal fans of the punk-and-anarchist subcategory—around nine one Thursday night on the median of Havana's G Street. I'd come to Havana to write a book about what it was like to be a young adult in the post-Fidel city and, since G Street was the biggest party in town, it was where I began.

Every weekend and some weekday nights, clouds of cliquey, fashion-conscious, loud-talking teenagers and young adults descended on the avenue. By nine, dozens already stood on street corners in loose circles that, since the night was particularly busy, grew amorphously into traffic until drivers honked horns and policemen shuffled toward them and the kids retreated to their sidewalks. Surrounded by so much youth, the impossibility of 80-somethings governing in perpetuity felt as evident as the statues of martyred leftists lofting impotent machetes above the grass below.

These boys loped down the hill four in front, and then three, pushing each other into onlookers. They wore torn jeans, wallet chains, boots, scruffy Converse, inked limbs. Each had sculpted his hair into a Mohawk or some variation of it. They wanted to take up space, and they did: as I sat on a bench, watching, their group stopped a few feet away from me and a photographer out to capture images of the more colorful Cubans on the avenue asked to take a few shots. The camera's flash made the shiny leaves of the bushes in the background gleam along with the studs in the boys' lips, eyebrows, noses.

"So, what kind of music do you listen to?" I asked the boy who sat down on the opposite end of the bench. In the five years since I'd first lived in Havana for an electrifying teenaged semester at the University of Havana, G Street had bloated from a few stonefaced friki hanging out after weekend shows into the nexus for all tribes of young Cubans. It was both threatening and threatened: People rumored that the government would shut it down—send policemen in on a Friday night and round everyone up under the charge of "social dangerousness" or "a pre-criminal danger to society," hazy legal terms that carried with them up to four years in prison. So much collective youth was undesirable to Cuba's government. Understandable, in light of the average age of dissenting movements across the history of one-party political systems.

"Poooooonk," a different voice shouted from three feet away as Liván turned to me.

"I love Joe Strummer," I said.

Liván's face was blank.

"The Clash," I said, too loudly.

But recognition sparked, and Liván grinned. "Us, too," he said. He introduced himself and Takeshi, whose nickname came from the Japanese manga character he apparently resembled.

"Yeah, them, and los Ramo-nays, too," added Takeshi.

Liván's light brown hair was twisted into about a dozen six-inch spikes that extended directly out from his head like a fragile medieval mace. "Asere, he looks like a pineapple," one of the boys crowed when I asked how long the style had taken him to construct. I laughed, and then I saw that they looked at me expectantly.

"Nah, it looks cool," I said.

Another shouted, "Yeah, that's it, looks so cool they'll send a boat from Miami to come get you!" They snickered.

They answered my questions in unison: where did they live (far away), what had they done that night (gone to Maxim Rock for a concert, but the sound system broke and they didn't have cash for the cover anyway), what were they doing for the rest of the night (G). Takeshi's bony shoulders slouched forward as he sat, and the red printed words on the front of his black tee gaped and billowed. He drummed his fingers on his knees, thumping the rhythm of a phantom song. His face was fine-boned and guileless. I asked how old he was; he said he was 17, looked 12, and turned out to be 15. He flashed me his ID to prove it.

Where they had seemed sharp-edged before opening their mouths, they softened, puppy-like, after a few minutes of talking. After a half-hour or so, I asked if I could go to a concert with them over the weekend. I'd been to a few metal shows in college, and though I privately didn't like the music, the scene felt like the only place in the city where my foreignness was less important than my fandom. Takeshi told me to meet them on Saturday at Liván's house around four or five in the afternoon. We'd go from there.

"You gotta see his room," he said with a knowing glance at Liván.

"Yeah," a few of the boys who'd circled around us murmured. "Totally."

Liván nodded, bashful. "I guess it's pretty radical."

They wrote the address and phone number in my worn notebook and ambled away down the avenue.

***

G Street is a central downtown avenue with firm topiary hedges and curbs painted with black and white stripes. The street slopes gently down toward the ocean. In daytime sunlight, little distinguishes it from any of Havana's wide, Paris-on-the-sea boulevards—this area of the city was, in fact, designed in the 1920s by J. C. N. Forestier, one of the head planners of Paris. Colonnaded houses are set behind rich tropical trees, and on main avenues, the city keeps the buildings freshly painted in bright yellow and pink and red that fade to ecru and rose when the sun sets.

On weekend nights, Havanans mostly between the ages of 13 and 30 eat dinners at home, shed school (or, if they're older, work) uniforms, don the clothes that are like passwords for whatever subculture they belong to, and flock to Calle G. Once there, they mill in clusters, lounge on benches, parade up and down, or sit on the sidewalk amid blobs of discarded gum and cigarette butts, knees crooked in upside-down V's in front of them. Smoke hangs in the air even if there's a breeze. Many stay until three or four in the morning. Some stick around until sunrise doing what looks like nothing all night long.

There's no right to public assembly in Cuba, so really, the kids' claim on G Street is tenuous. But even if it's only symbolic, G Street is the sliver of Havana that belongs to them—not to their families, like the crowded apartments where they live with parents and grandparents, and not to the government, like concert spaces and cafes.

There's no right to public assembly in Cuba, so really, the kids' claim on G Street is tenuous. But even if it's only symbolic, G Street is the sliver of Havana that belongs to them.

And it's free. The people on G Street spend what cash they have on tangible goods, clothing and accessories and phones. Wearing brand names is a small, silent ‘up yours' to the revolution's goals of non-materialism and equality—Ed Hardy, Nike and Tommy Hilfiger labels as tightly curled fists against the drab green canvas of identical-looking bureaucrats.

The avenue fulfills some of the same functions as the Internet, which only 15 percent of Cubans regularly access, if that—trustworthy statistics are maddeningly elusive. G Street is email, Facebook, and YouTube rolled into one. Parties are planned in the shadows of stubby trees. The avenue's promenade is a place to publicly trace the linked circles of social groups, of visually similar but philosophically divergent cliques differentiated by sartorial choices and what sort of music they like. And would-be performers compete for audiences: breakdancers and capoeira athletes whirl on the pavement, earnest troubadours strum guitars and rappers that make your shoulders twitch do jam sessions, all with small circles of onlookers. I'd gone to a breakdancing practice session once, in an empty public building on a Saturday, and watched skinny kids spin and flip and shout and clap for one another in what used to be a restaurant with marbled floors and full-length windows.

G Street is a place where young Cubans, who've all read the same textbooks in school, eaten the same ration-book food, watched the same Saturday night movie on one of three government TV channels, and used the same soap in the shower, go with the same goal of projecting different identities. What Liván and Takeshi's crowd projected was fuck you, I do what I want, and while that was understandable—kids their age had grown up in near-constant economic crisis since the fall of the USSR—I needed to know how far the sentiment went. Would G Street ever be the breeding ground for an uprising that could challenge Cuba's single political party?

***

Liván lived on a plain street in La Lisa, an area on the western edge of the city that was once a respectable suburban neighborhood. Decades ago, Communist Party officials who moved from the provinces had asked for homes in La Lisa because they could sow vegetable gardens and enjoy fresh air. But most of those yards had since filled in with ramshackle home additions and the neighborhood had sprouted colonies of squatters in its more downtrodden parts. Today, a common way to say, "I'm screwed" in local jargon is "I'll have to live under the bridge to La Lisa."

Liván's street was a 10-minute walk up a slight incline from the main road, in the nicer half of the neighborhood. Grass laced the sidewalks and potholes kept cars slow. Ferns, palms and banana leaf trees rioted in undeveloped lots and bougainvilleas clambered around undulating chicken-wire fences. These occasional wild lots, combined with the sound of chirping birds, gave La Lisa an indistinct countryside feeling, a vestige of what the neighborhood once was. The monotone singsong of a man peddling itinerant repair services—"re-pa-ra-ciones ma-quinas de gaaas"—echoed from a few streets over.

It was mid-afternoon and the scent of coffee wafted from open doors. On the street Liván had written in my notebook, the growl of heavy metal crescendoed. Liván's mother leaned against the rail of her front porch, smoking a cigarette. She smiled and nodded, kissed my cheek, shouted "Bertha" and gestured to herself. Her grin revealed that she had very few teeth.

Hers was the single-story, railroad-style home built all over Cuba: entry living room, narrow hallway along two bedrooms with a bathroom between them, and a kitchen- and dining-room area in the back. Small patios bookended the house. The front living room held two wooden benches, a shelf with a few books on it, a stereo, a TV, a poster of Stone Cold Steve Austin and a photo of Liván and three of his brothers, smiling and angelic in white T-shirts. Down the hallway, the same crowd from Thursday smoked cigarettes around the doorway of Liván's room.

He had papered and painted the walls and ceiling of his bedroom with images and words: a Cypress Hill poster and one of a droll telenovela heartthrob named Maite; a Nickelodeon image of a grinning, greenish SpongeBob SquarePants; a Cuban flag with a punk manifesto scrawled on it; multiple photos of Che Guevara. Liván had written a marginally coherent rant in block letters six inches high: "To be punk is a form of life not only a type of music. I am punk, I vent my aggression at Che and reggaeton and if you don't like it go to 23 and G because there's nothing else to do here." On another wall, he'd painted symbols: (cross) = (swastika) = (hammer and sickle)

On all four walls, he had pasted 16 fines he'd been given by policemen, small white sheets of paper scrawled on in handwriting so similar they could have been written by the same person on different days. Disorderly conduct, talking back to policemen, being in public without identification. Each offense carried with it a fine of seven to 30 Cuban pesos, all unpaid. In the far corner of the room, the lumpy mattress Liván shared with a younger brother wore thin flowered sheets.

Three boys hovered in the hallway, watching Takeshi style hair in the bathroom. Takeshi, on the toilet bowl for a better angle, held his arms in a first-position circle above the crown of a boy's head, teasing his hair toward the green leaves on the printed plastic shower curtain behind him. They used soap, the kind that their mothers got on the family ration book, because gel was only sold in la shopping, the dollar stores, and none of them ever had enough spare cash to buy it. Erlán, the eldest and a haircutter in Centro Habana, was the only one who worked. He was 26 and had a toddler son, he told me later, but he didn't see the boy or his mother often.

As they finished getting dressed, I sat in the living room with Liván, his younger brothers, an eight year old and a pimply 13 year old with a crew cut, and the two boys who'd already been styled. They put on a DVD with music videos by their favorite bands. When I asked who played each song, Liván would say the band's name once, confidently, and after I'd asked again, cringing, another kid would speak up, slower. There was No FX, who they liked because the fans had crazy hair like them; Bad Religion, whose lead singer looked like a clean-cut manager at a mid-90s Gap; the Sex Pistols; Rancid; and Escape. Liván lip-synched and his youngest brother headbanged in the back of the room.

We left after they had plied each other's hair into spikes that would flake white within the hour and, as the evening wore on, droop low over their ears like leaves of a too-ripe vegetable. As I followed them out of the house, saying goodbye to Bertha, she put her hand on my forearm and lowered her head conspiratorially. "Their thing is just hair, you know, image, nothing more," she said, shaking her head. Their jeans were dirty and torn but their shirts were clean, fresh-smelling. I stood with her for a moment, and then thanked her for the coffee she'd served me and trotted to catch up with the boys.

Erlán jangled as we walked the 10 blocks down the street to the bus stop. He had made a wallet chain out of beer and soda tabs he'd linked together. Since the government shops didn't sell much along the lines of their punk-y tastes, he explained, the boys made do. See Takeshi? Takeshi had bought his heavy boots off an electrician and added spikes and studs that he'd pried off a bracelet a foreigner had given him. They swapped clothes amongst themselves, bought at the peso shops where second and third-hand clothing was re-sold, or offered government workers cash for the rationed items they'd be issued every few years. If they saw a guy in an old Metallica T-shirt who didn't look like he really owned the shirt, like he really felt the meaning of the band, they'd offer him a few dollars for it. A boy named Alejandro with an eight-inch tattoo on his shaved skull wore a T-shirt that read, "Carthage College Greek Week 1997. Paint the town Greek!" with lambdas and deltas floating around it. He had spray-painted it with black and pink dots, torn the bottom hem, and painted anarchy symbols and "Punk not Dead" in English across the back. I pictured him crouched on the tiled floor of a cramped downtown apartment, stretching the fabric taut to write on it in Sharpie.

The bus stop cleared out as we arrived. A bus pulled up and we climbed on, but no one paid; all of the boys shouldered brusquely through the standing passengers at the front to the open seats. A teenage girl and a middle-aged woman shrank back, as if the quills of their hair were sharp.

We got off the bus and began to walk uphill. I walked toward the swooping bandshell, splotched with mold and surrounded by a tall fence, but Takeshi stopped me. The boys had literally not a cent on them, he told me. We sat on the curb and I pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Some of the boys bashfully bummed a smoke; two of them got Takeshi to ask me instead.

As I reached up to pass Liván a cigarette, I got a good look at the tattoo on his knuckles. A-N-A-R-Q-U-I-A, one letter on each finger to spell the word when he held his fists together. It looked homemade, but had cost him five dollars—he had gone to a black market tattoo guy to get it. I asked him: Did he believe anarchy was the answer, the ideal scenario?

Hell yeah, he enthused. "I mean, there's not much you can do about it here, but once I was hauled off to a police station for throwing a bottle at a cop car," he said. "It's like The Clash says: I can study, but it's for nothing, because it doesn't help me in life or to make any money or any anything." Liván had spent the three years since he'd dropped out of school at age 14 doing not much.

What were his goals, I asked? He looked away. He wanted to leave Cuba, he guessed. Go to Kansas, maybe, where his older brother lived.

And then?

He shrugged. "I don't know, anything, whatever. Aren't there punks there?"

"Hey, so," Takeshi jumped in. Would I—could I, he asked—pay for two extra entrance fees? It was 20 Cuban pesos, just shy of a dollar per person. Sure, I said. Ten minutes later, we had regrouped inside the outdoor amphitheater. Three of the boys had talked their way in and two had snuck in via a back entrance. Around a hundred and fifty kids had converged, how many paid viewers unclear. A band, Hipnosis, was setting up.

When they began to play jagged, monotone guitar riffs, the pink and purple lights on stage created a dissonant bubblegum effect. All around me, sweat flew from the headbanging. Takeshi emerged from the crowd and handed me a cup of rum, smuggled in by a friend of a friend. I took a swig. He bounced back into the fold, waved at me to follow. I shuddered at both the scalding bootleg rum and the snarls coming from the speakers, and retreated to the seats. When it was over an hour later, we headed to the street and waited for a bus to take us to G. It was around ten o'clock.

Liván was woefully drunk from rum he'd gulped out of other people's bottles. I asked him if he'd rather go home, and he shook his head emphatically, sluggishly. "If my mom sees me like this, she'll kill me," he slurred. "She won't let me out of the house for a week." He swayed toward another bus shelter to vomit.

After a half hour or so, an off-duty school bus stopped. The driver was going as far as an intersection a mile from 23rd and G, he shouted as he cranked open the door, and the two dozen kids who'd gathered at the bus stop whooped and pushed inside.

***

In a 1977 essay, music critic Lester Bangs wrote that "the roots of punk was the first time a kid ended up living with his parents till he was 40. The roots of punk was the first time you stole money out of your mother's purse and didn't know what to spend it on because you weren't old enough to buy beer… Punk may (may?) be essentially passive. Punk is stupid proud consumerism. Punk is oblivion when it isn't any fun and unlike winos you do have a choice in fact; you're young."

Okay, then. By Bangs' criteria, most everyone on G Street was punk. There were invisible punks spread in pockets around Havana, kids who'd dropped out of school or government jobs, who lined up at night outside of neighborhood clubs they couldn't pay to get into just because, who hand-washed crappy Brazilian imported T-shirts with logos they didn't understand in the sink and waited for their lives to begin. Cuban society had created an environment in which Bangs' version of punk—the anaesthetized, rebellion-for-rebellion's-sake kind, not my pop punk, Joe Strummer-as-modern-prophet version—thrived. Liván and his crew just applied the word to themselves.

G Street refused, in a tiny way, to accept the dreary reality of Cuba 50 years after the Revolution.

One night, as I waited for someone on G Street, a boy walked past with a wallet chain made of soda tabs like the one Erlán had worn. And as I watched him, G Street clicked together. It was where trends broadened their reach, blog-like. Since media content in Cuba is controlled by the state—no international magazines for sale, period, TV channels without commercials, and billboards with only bright pro-government propaganda—advertising campaigns don't push products or trends through society. Subcultures and gossip do. For example: A skater watches a video on a friend's dad's PC of skating tricks and sees a trucker hat; looks cool, he thinks, and he finds some fisherman on the malecón who's wearing one, a really old one. "Compadre," he says, "I'll give you five dollars." He sews it back up or frays it or maybe he gets a friend who's in graphic design school to draw a tag on it. Other kids see him on G Street; what the hell's he wearing, they think - until they see the same style in a ragged copy of, maybe, a People magazine that some tourist left behind years ago. Aha, they think. They find hats, too.

This was what was subversive and fresh about G Street. It was a place of incipient rebellious energy, even if the connections that were made among groups had more to do with who was wearing what than attempting to bring about a meaningful change to society. G Street refused, in a tiny way, to accept the dreary reality of Cuba 50 years after the Revolution. Everyone there insisted on difference, on fashion. The bubble of electric tension this created, I realized, was in micro what had hooked me about Havana from my first visit: the contrasts of urgency and timelessness, informal and controlled, the city's hustle and the languid pace of life, that the people I met were jaded and naïve in contrary ways.

Even if the place was a mess of undirected anxiety, G Street was alive in a way the Internet could never be. The frikis didn't have to talk to the hippie university students or the Ed Hardy-wearing reparteros for their joint presence to say, we are here, and there are so many of us. There was no ignoring the bodies, the physical space they'd commandeered; even Communist Party cars slowed down because the street was so swollen. But G Street's physicality was also limited by geography. If the police ever shut it down, Liván's fictions of life outside Cuba and how every shortcoming in his life was the government's fault would solidify even more.

The struggle for control over G Street was smarter than that. In the time I would spend living in Havana, coming to need the avenue in my own way—it was the only place in the city where I could meet people without immediately addressing the uncomfortable fact that I had dollars and they often didn't—its dimly lit spaces diminished. Floodlights were installed up and down the avenue. The grey-suited cops, young, burly men from the provinces who stood in sets of three or four with hands deep in their pockets, multiplied. And one day, when I hopped up on a retaining wall to sit and wait for friends, I felt pointy rocks jab into my backside and stood back up, an angry glow in my chest. They'd been set in a fresh layer of concrete to discourage loitering. I wanted to rip them out.

These measures were taken, ostensibly, in the name of public safety and drug control, because what drugs were sold in Havana could usually be found on or around G Street. But for the most part, the people who had the money to spend on drugs, which were about five times more expensive per person than a $1 box of Planchao rum, weren't the sort who hung out on G Street. Those people could afford club entries and gleaned trends from black market DVDs of new Hollywood releases. Sure, there were drugs: kids snorted ground-up, state-issued painkillers and bought Ketamine for five dollars per in the wet stairwells of nearby apartment buildings. But it was more common to overhear the two guys who told everyone that they were vegetarian vampires and lived off the human energy released by sex, trying to convince a girl that really, it was true, than to catch someone in the act of a drug deal. Not much of anything actually happened on G Street.

That was kind of the point. I met Liván and Takeshi a few years ago, back when the increasingly liberal economic changes rippling through Cuba today were still twinkles in the nomenklatura's eyes. When I went back a year after I'd moved away to check in with everyone I'd profiled, little was different, at least to an outsider's eye, for them. The school system hadn't changed and even if Liván had earned a college degree, he wouldn't have been able to make money off it, because only non-professional jobs like handymen and birthday clowns—achingly literal titles like button-upholsterer—had been legalized. Neither he nor Takeshi had a car or any property they could sell, which is now legal in Cuba for the first time in 50 years, or wealthy family members abroad who'd front the cash to open a cafe. They could, presumably, start a shop for homemade punk goods. But they hadn't, and didn't plan to. They were punks, not entrepreneurs. The only notable difference in their lives, they told me, was that now they were dating emo girls, because there were hardly any friki chicks they hadn't already been out with. That, and they'd gotten a few new tattoos. A sickly-green SpongeBob SquarePants slid down Liván's calf. He liked it because, "I don't know, he's the most loco of the cartoons."

In spite of the new money that fluttered more freely around Havana, in spite of the police, G Street was still teeming. It was hardly a Cuban Spring, but herds of kids continued to hang out in the bright circles of light cast by the streetlamps in a terse stalemate with the government over a territory that they'd come to regard as theirs.

Julia Cooke lives in New York City and is writing a book that combines memoirs of her time in Havana in 2009-10 with reportage on the city's youth culture. Prior to moving to New York, she worked in Havana and Mexico City as a cultural journalist; her writing has been published in The Village Voice, Guernica, Monocle, Design Observer, Condé Nast Traveller, and more. She is a Creative Writing Teaching Fellow at Columbia University.

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