There was no mistaking it. It was the same face that smiles defiantly from some paintings in which it resembles an unrepentant Christ. I had seen the signature of El Sexto at bus stops, followed his ironies on Havana’s walls, and wondered if this young man really existed, putting so many dreams, so many screams into his midnight strokes . But there he was, standing in front of me, in a T-shirt with a spray can.
“You cross out my stuff, I cross out yours,” said some of the artist Danilo Maldonado’s first paintings. It was when the police were using pink paint to hide his graffiti. Walking down Linea Street you could guess that behind those colorful patches in the middle of a wall that had gone decades without maintenance, the irreverent artist had left a drawing.
So when I stumbled upon El Sexto, thin, rebellious, talented, it seemed I had rediscovered a well-known face from my family photos, someone I had shared colorful nocturnal moments with, insolent and clandestine. With time I discovered that I was also facing a man who would not give in to fear and who would use his own body as a canvas for disobedience.
He declared himself “El Sexto” – The Sixth – of the “heroes” and shamelessly demanded “give me back my five euros,” in a mocking allusion to the official demand for the “five heroes” to be returned to the island.
When we were drowning in the Castro regime’s longest campaign, demanding the release of the five Cuban spies in prison in the United States, Maldonado confronted this hemorrhage of slogans and billboards. He declared himself, at his own risk, “El Sexto,” The Sixth of the “heroes” and shamelessly demanded “give me back my five euros,” in a mocking allusion to the official demand for the “five heroes” to be returned to the island.
The nickname stuck, although the former prisoners – sent home from the United States last December – are now fat and bored in their endless national tours and public events. And so the graffiti artist went from being “the sixth hero” to being the only hero of this story. A few days ago Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. This same restless boy who launched flyers all over Havana, inviting people to tear up and destroy their own fears.
But it would be the playful side of El Sexto that most annoyed the prudish Cuban officialdom. The capacity for laughter, to ask an apparently naïve question that infuriates the repressor trying to interrogate him. The mischief of turning a traffic signal into a work of art. El Sexto made us big in his hands, although many of us were still watching him like a friendly and playful child who was beginning to leave his signature in the city.
Has there been anyone in Cuba as devoid of comic timing and the capacity for merriment as Fidel Castro? Probably not. And so the system created in his image and likeness reacts with self-consciousness and intolerance to sarcasm
But the authoritarians lack humor. To them, laughter is an offense. Any joke plunges into their chests like a knife and hits them in the face like an embarrassing slap. Has there been anyone in Cuba as devoid of comic timing and the capacity for merriment as Fidel Castro? Probably not. And so the system created in his image and likeness reacts with self-consciousness and intolerance to sarcasm.
The two piglets El Sexto was preparing to release in Havana’s Central Park last 25 December, painted with the names Raul and Fidel on one side, were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Every day of his long confinement in Valle Grande prison, they had to make him pay for the great audacity of that performance which he titled “Animal Farm.” But they don’t realize that he who laughs first laughs twice, and Danilo Maldonado has always been the one who initiated the fit of laughter in this story.
Danilo was born when many Cuban children were saying goodbye to their parents as they left for the war in Angola. He put on the neckerchief, recited at every morning school assembly that slogan we proclaimed, “Pioneers for communism,” concluding with the commitment “We will be like Che.” What when wrong with the process to tame his clay?
Poverty and exclusion shaped his life. In the letter he wrote from his cell, during the hunger strike that he carried out for 24 days, he wrote, “My family is very humble; I lived in Arroya Arenas from the time I was four; in Chafarinas, Güira de Melena; in Covadonga, Las Tunas: a village still without electricity; Guáimaro, Camagüey and Arroyo Arenas, La Lisa.” He wore Cuba on his skin before he painted it.
He worked for several days, filling the place with the smell of sweat and paint. Over his colorful rainbow of plurality, an angel asks for silence and a police inquisitor still looks out at us with reserve.
Then he knew the pain of police handcuffs when they tightened them around his wrists, the cell where they locked him up when Benedict XVI visited Cuba and that time he was detained for almost four days to make him confess that it was he who had painted those arabesques and rubrics. That sequence of clashing with reality forged the artist, in a more authentic way than the academy does other professionals of the brush and canvas.
I’ve never had a Christmas tree as beautiful as the one this young man, born in Nuevitas, Camagüey, painted on a cardboard box for a group of bloggers and independent journalists to celebrate the coming of the new year. It was rangy, beautiful and he did it in a stroke, without even taking a breath. Because if something springs from El Sexto’s every pore it is this capacity to turn the ugly and forgotten into a work of art.
One day we offered him the wall of our own home. The one that separates our apartment from the abyss, on the balcony fourteen floors up. He worked on it for several days, filling the place with the smell of sweat and paint. Over his colorful rainbow of plurality, an angel asks for silence and a police inquisitor still looks out at us with reserve.
Every morning I look at that wall as a daring orange sun rises over it. I imagine the cell where Danilo Maldonado is now, the mattress they give him to sleep for barely five hours a night, the heat and the overcrowding. There are no spray cans there, no colored pencils nor oils. But who knows if after he is released, in some corner of the prison, they will find one of his graffiti made with the metal of a spoon or a piece of coal. El Sexto will be laughing then, for the umpteenth time, at his jailers.