First published: Winter 2010
‘Kill me, or I will kill myself if I have to go back to relive my childhood’, is the memorable way Mario Mesabegins his Künstlerroman. Mesa was born in Güira de Melena in the Province of Havana, Cuba, in 1928.
With palpable bitterness, he explains that he never knew his father, that they had no furniture, no bed, and that the walls of their home were constructed of palm trunks whose fronds made the roof. He recollects toiling with his mother, his two half-sisters and his grandmother, tearing tobacco leaves from their stems and filling huge sugar bags, each of them earning 14 cents a day.
‘When I was five or six years old, I went into the village streets to pursue my own life. I didn’t know I was crazy in those days. I knew nothing about art. Finding something to eat was all I thought about.’
When Mesa was nine he packed groceries at the village bodega, but he made more money on Sundays collecting pennies strewn ceremoniously in the church plaza by the godparents of those just baptised.
‘I tried to go to church three times, and three times the priest threw me out because I had no shoes. 'The Catholic Church’, he concluded, ‘has always been an evil empire.’ (The smouldering irritation of this memory is profound and is the subject of several paintings). ‘I do believe in God and the Nature he has created.’ Mesa leans forward and encircles his arms before him: ‘There is more good to be had embracing a tree than all the priests’ gossip – God is everywhere except the Church.’
At 19, Mesa went to work at the beachside casino resorts near Havana City – El Gato Verde, Antiqua Chiquita, and the Faro Club; the legendary sybaritic excesses of the high life he observed put him in good stead when he later handled his own mujeres (read ‘prostitutes’) in Miami’s Little Havana.
In 1959, Castro came to power and Mesa went to work as an electrician for one of the new socialist government’s bureaus, the Technical Float of Maritime Works. He married Victoria Florin Herrera, a Jehovah’s Witness, and they had a son and a daughter.