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To the beat of a different drummer

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

What can I say about Desi Arnaz?
I do know that if I could speak to him now I would heartily thank him for providing one of the inspirations behind my novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” a book in which I told the story of two 1950s Havana musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who happen to turn up in New York to perform at the Tropicana nightclub.
The idea seemed quite natural-for as a New York City kid of Cuban parentage, who had mainly watched the show in reruns in the 1960s, I was continually fascinated and curious about those walk-on characters, mainly Cubans (so I suppose) who frequented Ricky’s world.
For all the comic trappings of that program, the essential situation-of a Cuban fellow living in New York trying to make it in show biz-did not seem all that different from what my own family was going through; like Arnaz’s character Ricky, my father, who had first come to the States in the mid-1940s, often played host to visitors from Cuba-bookkeepers, cooks and teachers trying to find a new life in this country. That the characters who entered the Ricardo household seemed quite familiar and, therefore, real to me, I believe had to do with the way that Ricky related to them; ever helpful, generous and gently inclined, he greeted his visitors with warmth and affection, a manner that I have always thought of as the essence of being Cuban.
Of course, while writing my novel I had to invent histories for my Castillo brothers, but when it came to describing the personality of Desi Arnaz, I did not rely on his portrayal of Ricky Ricardo, but, rather, I “read” between the lines of his performances, contemplating his expression in repose and finding that, in the midst of his comic world, Arnaz seemed a quite serious, perhaps slightly melancholic man-his was an understated “realness” that I believe added to the verisimilitude of that show.
As it turned out, my version of Desi Arnaz, as he appears in “The Mambo Kings” with his quite Cuban work ethic, his nostalgia for Cuba, his warmth and small sadnesses, was close to the mark, for people who had known Arnaz, like his late pianist Marco Rizo, have told me that my bit of portraiture was in many ways true.
But all I did, in writing about Arnaz and the Castillo brothers, was to treat them as real human beings-a result that flowed naturally from that show. Whatever one may say about Arnaz’s portrayal of a Cuban in New York-for his role has been sometimes dismissed as a parody of Cubanness-his essential situation, as a newcomer in America, was something that spoke to a generation of Hispanics; that his character lived in a bilingual world was years ahead of its time; that he comported himself with a “zany dignity,” if I may coin that phrase, made it easy for Americans to like him.
With his very human qualities, he helped to set in motion a wider acceptance of Hispanics in America. And I am also thankful to him for that.