SANTA CLARA._ The legends that have grown up around the cultural center El Mejunje matter little to Ramón Silverio, because he thinks that any locale without controversy is boring, and at his “anything goes, except for slitting your wrists.”
Two blocks from main park in Santa Clara, the epicenter of life in this city in the heart of Cuba, Silverio presides over that center, which locals have dubbed “El Local.”
That code name comes from a time when prim observers frowned on the activities at El Mejunje, which is now about to celebrate its 30th anniversary, and which has broken many taboos over the years, gaining prestige among regular folks and the government.
The center is the venue for a national small-format theater festival and also the local headquarters for singer-songwriters, rock-n-rollers, heavy metal fans, traditional son musicians, bohemians, cultivators of the danzón, intellectuals, coffee-lovers and other “crazies.”
Its creator and director, Silverio, is a former rural schoolteacher who says he is always learning in this blessed school of the human and the divine, to which he has devoted his ideas and energy.
Given that taking it easy does not motivate or interest him, these last 20 years at El Mejunje have been very happy ones for him; granted, there have been heartaches, but he prefers to forget them, because even the bad moments leave something positive. Now the children and even the grandchildren of some of El Mejunje’s earliest regulars come to the center. Mejunje is Spanish for “brew or concoction,” and it was the nickname given to the tea that Silverio served at the first gatherings that were held at the center, located next to the Teatro La Caridad.
Since then, many moons have passed, and El Mejunje is known for being an unrivaled space for social inclusion, where nobody is marginalized, everyone respects each other, and barriers and prejudices have been broken little by little.
“We also enjoy cultivating that mystery about just what happens within these walls,” Silverio admitted to this reporter. I met him when I was in college, and I used to come to the center’s “Good Luck Fridays.” Actually we all knew Silverio and he knew all of us, because the “mejunjeros,” as we called ourselves—and still do—are like members of a brotherhood/sisterhood of live and let live, and we knew we were special.
It was at the center’s outdoor concerts that I first heard musicians who are now popular but were then unknown: singer-songwriters Roly Berrios and Diego Gutiérrez; the fusion band Aceituna sin Hueso (a Latin Grammy nominee); the veteran son group Cascarita y los Fakires; and any singer-songwriter (trovador) who happened to be passing through our corner of the country.
El Mejunje’s graffiti-covered walls were the venue for the first drag-queen shows in Santa Clara years ago, which is why Silverio asserts now, but without any smugness, that time has proven him right.
“El Mejunje is like life itself. I didn’t set out for it to happen like that; it was life, time, acceptance, that attracted the diverse social groups, based on the premise of non-exclusion,” he explained. The idea was to provide a space for young artists to express themselves, at a time when the format of “peña”—a jam session/music circle/ club—was catching on as a movement.
“We never closed our doors on anybody, and little by little, marginalized groups came, bringing their tastes, preferences and cultures,” Silverio said. As he chatted with this reporter, he was constantly issuing instructions to the center personnel.
“It was not my intention to do a show of transvestites, but we had a large gay public, and for years, we were the only state-run [cultural] center with that kind of show. Here, they are not marginalized, and their shows are esthetically revolutionary, without vulgarity,” he said.
At the same time, the influx of rockers and trovadores (fans of trova music) led to the birth of “Trovuntivitis,” a peña that was “spontaneous, like life itself,” and where the public was more involved, he added.
“We also have programs for seniors. Our country is getting older, and we need to create spaces for meeting the spiritual needs of older adults,” he said.
El Mejunje has become known internationally, and Silverio attributes that popularity to its breaking-down of barriers; there is nothing else like it in Cuba and its work for a society that is more inclusive and less banal. “People here are working on the society of the future, based on love, solidarity—human traits that have nothing to do with silliness, consumerism, or glitz,” he said.
Being an educator has helped him to help others connect and unite, because rural schoolteachers tend to be the main cultural promoters in their area, and it was precisely in the countryside that he first entered the world of art. “El Mejunje is like a classroom, and I have learned a lot here from my fellow man. I believe that human beings can be better, not because I read it in a manual, but because I learned it in practice. People need to be recognized, to be listened to, and to be treated as people, and when that happens, everybody wins,” he said. When asked if he’s worried about what will happen to El Mejunje when he’s no longer around, Silverio made a brushing-off gesture, banishing any negative thoughts, which have never and will never have a place at “El Local.”
“I’ve never thought about that; why should I, if it could just as well be tomorrow? I’ve always thought that the Mejunje of the future will be better. But the future is today, and we’re building it today.”