Men in Undershirts

A poem by Orlando Gutierrez Boronat in memory of the late Tony Izquierdo, courageous veteran of the Brigada 2506 and an example to the Cuban exile community:

Men in Undershirts

Dedicated to the memory of Tony Izquierdo on the anniversary of his death in combat

Miami 1973

There are unsmiling men upstairs.
Above the two-room apartment that
I share with my brother, my abuela and my parents,
In a box-like two-story building full
of apartments like mine
that house us and those like us,
next to a park where we spend all the time we can,
laughing in English, cursing in Spanish
a few blocks away
from an avenue by the sea
from which skyscrapers will one day rise

Deep in the ghetto
they call this housing project Matanzas,
because everyone here
is either related or comes from
the province by that name in that land
that we left back there, in the middle of an ocean
but which seems to be here as well
until I am confused as to what’s there and what’s here,
what’s Cuba and what’s America.

The men above,
the muscular men in undershirts.
They are not confused.
They know where Cuba is.
And in the afternoons,
as the Miami sun slowly settles,
they walk out on the balcony,
and lean on the railings
always facing south,
and they drag slowly on their cigarettes
sending up a cloud of smoke,
and no matter which way the wind blows,
they face Cuba.

In the evenings,
ensconced again within their dwelling,
that apartment above,
the men in undershirts
some way too young,
others too damn old,
deliver speeches to each other.
Their tirades are mostly about
los americanos,
and these are words,
los americanos,
they some times say
with the crepuscular
loud to deep intonation
of men betrayed,
and other times
with the fast, smiling
clipped-word kind of way
with which Cubans state their passion:
a certainty about los americanos
established after endless Havana Sunday matinees
of John Wayne films,
within living memory of watching
los rubios
land in beaches
from Oriente to Normandy
to put an end
to the terrible things
first the Spanish,
then the Germans,
now los rusos…
do to other people’s freedoms.

And when the men in undershirts
speak that loud
some times their voices
rise and break
like the tide against the rocks
in the South Beach pier
where exilio families
papis, mamis, and los viejos
with los ninos in tow,
go to spend
their Sunday afternoons…
to catch the breeze
and look at the horizon
and every now and then
turn their faces south
to Cuba,
before placing the domino chips
on the tables before them…

The men upstairs,
they don’t play dominoes,
but their radio is always on.
Not the radios, mind  you,
that play music
or have programs where a Havana postman
recalls the stories and the streets
of the Lost City
for an exilio audience,
but another type of radio,
through which hidden voices from Cuba
with mucho static
that peppers bodiless,
alien words
that provide accounts
of some war going on
that no one here ever sees
but which everyone knows about.

There are unsmiling men upstairs,
some too young,
some too old…
their skins melding together like a flag of many colors:
the brown, the white, the yellow
Some times a mix of Chinese eyes and African lips

Crowded into a smoke-filled apartment
these men of many colors,
sleeping on cots
among all those metal boxes
that through the blinders I see them
bring in late at night, early in the morning
Boxes they rush upstairs
and hide behind that door they never open…

these men upstairs
with drawn, gaunt faces,
working late into the evenings,
my brother and I hearing them
past midnight,
moving metal against metal
no speeches now,
just silence
and the sounds of bullets sliding into chambers,
aluminum sponges rubbing the inside of
World War II barrels,
as the short wave radio transmits
a voice over
a curtain of static
softly, breathlessly calling to arms
those who can listen
for a war no one sees…

In the day time,
my grandmother
some times
makes cups of Cuban coffee
for them
although they never ask for it.
She sends me to take it to them
and that’s they only time they smile,
when they open the door
to their tiny fortress
and laugh and welcome the dark brew
made by la senora below
and delivered to them by her ten year old grandson.
They allow me a few steps into their room
of cigarette smoke
and stacked boxes of uniforms and ammunition
and maritime charts laid out on the floor
and guns leaning, dark and oily guns,
leaning against walls.

And one they call Ernesto, who always
blocks the driveway with ridiculously small boats
he men in undershirts call their war ships,
pauses in his work stirring a huge pot of the soup
they call ajiaco
to tousle my hair and thank me,
while the tall black one,
the first-among-equals
these free men
call Tony, El Negro,
makes the sign of the cross on my forehead
with his thumb
and bids me go,
and I hear him say to the men
as I turn to leave and he closes the door
behind me,
“Y ahora volvemos a la situación, porque persiste”.

Los patriotas
Abuela calls them
and she says to me
during those late afternoons
when she watches over me
while my parents are still at work,
that if nature itself knew how to sew,
if the flesh of nations
were the fabric of its banners
then these men of many colors
would be Cuba’s one and only flag.



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