While Joaquín Miguel Cuartas Rodríguez (1938-) has written a handful of plays,[1] he is primarily known for his work with Radio Nacional. The Afro-Cuban writer has received UNEAC’s Premio Caracol eight times, and has obtained numerous other awards for his writing and radio work (Cuartas Rodríguez, Biografía). And although Cuartas Rodríguez’s play, Vereda tropical, won Spain’s Tirso de Molina theater award in 1994, and was published in Madrid in 1995, it has never been staged or published in Cuba. No official statement has been made about this decision; however, multiple economic and political reasons likely influenced this outcome. With a limited and poor-quality paper supply, few titles were produced on the island or printed in large quantities during that time.

While financial reasons contributed to Vereda tropical’s lack of distribution in Cuba, other influences also played a role. The economic changes of the 1990s decreased certain regulation enforcement and provided writers and artists with a seemingly less stringent approach to censorship than had previously existed. However, this flexibility was not without exception, something I suggest contributed to the case of Vereda tropical, a play that draws attention to the dire economic circumstances of Special Period Cuba.

This play is one example of how theater approached the economic precarity of the early 1990s with the use of critical choteo. Choteo is a form of humor marked by its irreverence and mockery of the other. Through the use of jokes, wordplay, or even visual elements, choteo frequently discredits the other and reduces or humiliates the supposed greatness of its target. This Cuban humor is anti-authoritarian in nature and refuses to take anything (or anyone) seriously, even if they are worthy of sincere attention. Although choteo holds an intellectual history dating back to Jorge Mañach in the late 1920s, it has long existed in daily Cuban life; it is a social humor that shapes the stories created within a community of individuals. It addresses serious issues, which may cause anger, frustration, and disappointment, with comedic, playful, and spontaneous moments. Choteo is a Cuban humor that allows for critical perspectives to be expressed within moments of levity; it evokes laughter as a means of escape from sadness. Alternatively, choteo may contain tones of resignation that serve to mask the user’s true feelings. But above all, and what differentiates it from other similar forms of humor, choteo is something that feels Cuban.

But what does it mean for a form of humor to feel Cuban? This can be something that is evoked through the word choice or tone of the speaker but, I argue, choteo is also something that can be visual in nature. In the theater, certain props, costumes, or even mannerisms of the actors can conjure feelings of what it means to be Cuban. Choteo at a social level must show something that resonates with the audience. The choteador (the one who uses choteo) in these instances understands Cuban society and the individuals within it. While choteo may cause the audience to laugh, it should also make them reflect upon their own role in a given situation. Choteo often targets authority figures, but it also targets the spectators/readers. In the theater, choteo can exist between characters or can occur beyond the text. In these latter instances, the choteo originates with the playwright and can either be directed at the audience (i.e., the audience is the target) or against an outside authority that the audience should recognize (i.e., the government or another institutional entity is the target).

Commentary that goes beyond the text is the form of choteo most prominent in Vereda tropical. Cuartas Rodríguez’s play uses choteo to establish how the economic circumstances during the Special Period affected the ideological views of many Cubans struggling to adjust to the inevitable changes after the fall of the Soviet Union. The play demonstrates that the Revolutionary systems are also at fault by allowing the main character, Bururú, to hold the belief that her merits will be rewarded if only she continues to work hard. Herein lies the criticism, and the choteo is found in how the failure of those dreams to come true is repeatedly presented throughout the play. However, while, Bururú’s daydreams and unwavering trust in the Revolution serve to critique Cuba’s overall social, political, and economic conditions at this time, the critical choteo in Vereda tropical is most strongly seen in the play’s visual elements. By considering the set, costumes, and blocking in the first two acts of Vereda tropical, I argue that audiences can better understand the serious message that Cuartas Rodríguez drives home in the third act: Cuba is changing, and the Revolution must also change.

Critical Choteo: Straddling the Line

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc beginning in 1989, Cuba faced an economic crisis. The country was no longer financially backed by a super-power nation. This loss of Soviet support, combined with the ongoing US embargo, placed an immense economic pressure on Cuba. When the political and economic arrangement with the Soviet Union ceased, Cuba was forced to formulate a new plan independent of outside support.

Thus began what was dubbed as the “Special Period in Times of Peace.” As Julio García Luis explains, “‘Special Period’ policies included more than just the economic sphere. They were based, above all, on a broader, more creative and dynamic approach to political and ideological work – especially the capacity for self-sacrifice and commitment by the workers and the people as a whole. They were founded on the honor, patriotism, fighting spirit and socialist consciousness of the masses” (318). Many theater texts from this decade reflect a struggle between this fighting spirit and a resignation to Special Period policies.[2] Within Vereda tropical, a marked contrast exists between characters who believe that a fighting spirit is best cultivated through revolutionary acts, and those who believe that changes are essential in moving forward; this contrast is made more obvious through the choteo-filled moments in the play.

While written choteo was heavily suppressed during the early years of the Revolution, the irreverent humor saw a resurgence in the 1990s. This ability to write with choteo reemerged for two reasons: first, the government prioritized the economic issues at hand; and second, subsidies allotted to theater groups decreased, allowing for an influx of works by individual writers (Stevens 175). This decline in funding provided a leniency which allowed for critical elements to appear in plays written during this time. However, censorship still existed, and while Cuban officials may have become slightly more forgiving, they still refused to publish or produce counterrevolutionary works. Choteo was used to straddle the line between permitted interpretations and direct criticism. This expanded freedom to play with less explicitly revolutionary topics did not, however, mean that playwrights were allowed to write “against” the Revolution, simply that the primary focus could be something other than the Revolution.

Cuartas Rodríguez’s three-act play, Vereda tropical, tells a story that takes place over the course of a week and a half. The work relates the experiences of four generations of Cuban women and their life on the island during the Special Period. Bururú is a 58-year-old black woman fully dedicated to the Revolution, who is currently anticipating an award for her service. She lives in a tenement house with her mother, Engracia (80), her daughter, Caridad (38), and her granddaughter, Purita (20). Although Bururú is content to live within the Revolution, the same is not true for the younger women. While Bururú constantly resists any changes from outside the Revolution, Caridad and Purita actively seek them. Even Bururú’s mother has considered moving into a senior living center with her friend Florodora. Because of the tight quarters, the women even share a bathroom with their neighbor, an older man named Romualdito. In the first act, Bururú and Caridad fight because the younger woman has a relationship with Pititi, the son of Bururú’s former friend (now enemy), Gladis la Jabá. Gladis’s imminent return from Miami will further expose Bururú’s difficulties confronting the inevitable changes taking place in her world. Throughout the three acts, Bururú both dreams of a better life and tries to make the best of the one she has; still it seems that Bururú may be forced to change the way she looks at life.

Cuartas Rodríguez’s choice to focus on the women in this play seems quite intentional, as is his portrayal of race. Prior to the Revolution, women and Afro-Cubans were denied the same career advancement opportunities that existed when this play takes place. Bururú is a Black woman and a highly decorated member of the revolutionary community. Before the Revolution, she worked as a maid and had little chance of upward mobility. Caridad’s ability to earn her teaching degree would also have been less probable prior to the Revolution since she is the illegitimate daughter of a white man and a black woman. And it is unlikely that Purita would have received medical training without the Revolution. The achievements of these women demonstrate many of the positive changes aided by the Revolution. Cuartas Rodríguez does not completely blame the government, as he acknowledges substantial changes that have been made. However, this play is a critical piece as can be seen in both the serious and humorous moments of the play. But Cuartas Rodríguez is, I believe, more successful in delivering this message when he incorporates choteo to demonstrate these concerns. Incorporating choteo, both verbal and visual, reinforces the criticism present in Vereda tropical and draws audience attention to the changes Cuartas Rodríguez seemingly deems necessary for the future of the Cuban people.

The choteo in Vereda tropical exhibits shifts in revolutionary loyalty. The struggle to determine what it means to be Cuban is apparent, with some characters who maintain that a revolutionary temperament and revolutionary living are the best indicators of cubanidad, and others who seemingly identify cubanidad with the economic struggles of the Special Period. Others still see value in distancing themselves from what had previously determined Cuban identity. As such, these characters accept, or even seek, the need to change with the times. What appears to be called into question is the connection between Cuban identity and the Revolution that had been so prevalent in the first three decades under Castro.

Vereda tropical is explicitly critical of the economic situation in Special Period Cuba. And, in order to confront the difficulties Cubans were facing at that time, Cuartas Rodríguez utilizes choteo to pass off the idea that the people’s concerns are nothing more than something to mock. Through his use of humor, he addresses the fact that resigning oneself to the current economic conditions under which Cubans are living is unacceptable.

Writing subversive theater, whether with choteo or not, is risky. Though Cubans living on the island during the Special Period faced many adversities, they also demonstrated resiliency, and that strength and determination are reflected in the various characters of this play. Despite a certain sadness to the lives of Cuartas Rodríguez’s characters, the choteo in Vereda tropical provides a balance to audiences and readers who may be able to relate, to some extent, to the story being told. However, the combination of crisis and resiliency is not unique to Cuba. Many nations undergoing extreme crises are also quite resilient, and even turn to humor during difficult times.[3] However, choteo as a tool for coping with Cuba’s specific Special Period economic conditions allowed for non-confrontational resistance when overt defiance was prohibited.

Visual Choteo: Beyond the Verbal

Through his stage directions and set choices, Cuartas Rodríguez allows for the use of choteo to create scenarios that eventually unravel the distinction between fantasy and reality. In Vereda tropical, pairing these visual elements with the struggles of our main character, Bururú, is when choteo is most effective. The opening stage directions, the description of Bururú’s “dream place,” and the return of Gladis la Jabá are arguably the most humorous moments of the entire play. They also reflect the difficulties faced by many during the Special Period. Vereda tropical demonstrates the first elements of choteo right from the start through the explanation of the set design. These short sections from the script demonstrate critical and humorous elements that will be integrated throughout the play:

El mobiliario de la planta baja consta de: una mesa de comer redonda, cuatro sillas, un refrigerador, un televisor roto, un sillón que se encuentra tan atrapado que no puede mecerse.

[The furniture on the ground flood consists of: a circular dining table, four chairs, a refrigerator, a broken television set, a rocking chair that is so trapped that it cannot be rocked.][4] (“Vereda tropical” 11)

The stage directions indicate the presence of a broken television and, presumably, notably so. The damage occurred because the unit had been plugged in during a power surge. The rocking chair serves to indicate the shortage of space in this home. Four women live here, and the area is quite cramped. But these elements provide more than visual indicators of the living conditions of the family; they are representative of many Cuban homes during the Special Period. While these circumstances may or may not be perceived as humorous, the cramped quarters give the audience that feeling of cubanidad. If this set were to elicit laughter, it would be due to the audience’s ability to identify with the particular conditions of the family, that is, their ability to recognize the choteo. This set reflects how the Revolution and, more recently, changes to the economic conditions in Cuba have affected life on the island. The particular set choices for the crowded apartment critique the day-to-day experiences of Cuban life; they provide an acknowledgement that circumstances are far from ideal, even when Bururú insists otherwise.

Further down the page, Cuartas Rodríguez describes how the space is divided into the world of reality and the world of fantasy. Bururú frequently escapes to this fantasy world to daydream:

Sobre toda esta estructura y destacándose aparece un letrero que dice: EL LUGAR DONDE SE VIVE. En el proscenio, al lado izquierdo del público. A continuación de lo descrito, sin puertas o tabiques que lo separen, como un apéndice natural, aparecen dos palmeras fosforescentes con una hamaca rosa colgada entre ellas. En su parte superior un letrero que dice: EL LUGAR DONDE SE SUEÑA.

[Standing out above all of this there is a sign that says: THE PLACE WHERE ONE LIVES. In the proscenium, on the left side of the audience. In addition to what has been described, without doors or partitions to separate it, like a natural appendage, there are two fluorescent palm trees with a pink hammock hung between them. Above this, a sign that says: THE PLACE WHERE ONE DREAMS.] (“Vereda tropical” 11)

The words over the different areas of the living space exist for the audience alone. The characters never acknowledge the signs, but rather than simply imply that these two different areas exist, Cuartas Rodríguez intentionally draws attention to these visual indicators. The words emphasize reality-versus-fantasy for the characters, in particular Bururú, the only one who utilizes the “Place Where One Dreams.” These labeled spaces humorously and effectively demonstrate Bururú’s discontent with her life. Bururú is unable to express her dissatisfaction openly, so she creates a dream-space in which she can fantasize about what she truly desires. Cuartas Rodríguez creates these spaces to make light of one’s need to escape reality now and again. But this moment also mocks Bururú and the Revolution because, while she is someone who openly advocates the tenets of the Revolution, even she feels the need to escape her reality and avoid the changing world around her. The scene further demonstrates suspicions held against authority figures who continue to promote the Revolution as ideal when the audience can clearly see its faults, both on stage and beyond.

The first act opens with Caridad and Pititi sneaking into the house. Admitting that Bururú would disapprove, Caridad still insists that her lover can safely enter because her mother will be gone for hours. Pititi’s mother left Cuba for the United States, souring Bururú’s opinion of his entire family. The couple retires to the bedroom that Caridad shares with her grandmother, mother, and daughter, comfortable in the assumption that no one will discover them. Humorously, Bururú soon returns home, her combat training cancelled for the day. As she enters the house, she fails to notice the activities in the bedroom (at least initially), but instead goes directly to her dream place where she daydreams about receiving an upcoming award:

Padrón. Compañera Bururú.

Bururú. (Emocionada.) Sí, compañero Padrón.

Padrón. Llegó el día.

Bururú. ¿De veras?

Padrón. Lo que usted ha anhelado tanto, compañera Bururú. Lo que usted se merece.

Bururú. Yo no me merezco nada. Todo lo he hecho por la revolución. (Melodramática y casi con lágrimas en los ojos.)

[Padrón. Comrade Bururú.

Bururú. (Excited.) Yes, Comrade Padrón.

Padrón. The day has come.

Bururú. Really?

Padrón. What you have longed for so much, Comrade Bururú. What you deserve.

Bururú. I don’t deserve anything. I have done everything for the Revolution. (Melodramatic and practically with tears in her eyes.)] (“Vereda tropical” 24)

The formality with which the two continuously address one another as comrade, and the fact that the entire conversation takes place in Bururú’s mind, is where the choteo can be found in this moment. While Bururú claims that she does not deserve anything for her dedication to the Revolution, the mere existence of her melodramatic daydream proves otherwise. The house that she envisions as a reward for her revolutionary deeds has three bedrooms and is quite large; this idea contrasts starkly with the visual representation of her actual living space. In this moment, the tonality of Cuartas Rodríguez’s humor signals a level of cubanía that seemingly aims to critique revolutionaries that claim not to pursue material recognition for their actions without overtly doing so; this tonality is what distinguishes the humor as choteo. As the play progresses, Bururú constantly castigates those individuals who seek physical objects to better their lives, claiming that all Cubans should be satisfied serving the Revolution. But, clearly, even she falls victim to the appeal of certain material items. The choteo here only just masks a critique of hardline revolutionaries as Bururú’s daydream transpires. Without considering the humor here, the impact of Bururú’s continued judgements of others would not hit as hard, nor would the sad reality of her actual, eventual award: a restaurant meal and a medal.

In fact, Bururú´s fantasies continue to provide a source of choteo throughout the remainder of the play. When she next returns to her dream space, she imagines her granddaughter´s future successes as a doctor. Bururú creates a world in which Purita has discovered a vaccine for the AIDS virus and receives the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Upon hearing this news (in her dream world), Bururú cannot hold back her delight:

Bururú. Purita, mi nieta, salvaste a Cuba. Mija, salimos del período especial gracias a ti. Ya no necesitaremos los dólares de la gusanera. Ya no van a dejar venir a Cuba a Gladis la Jabá. (Purita se retira. Bururú queda sola en la hamaca, meciéndose con alegría.)

[Bururú. Purita, my granddaughter, you saved Cuba. My dear, the Special Period has ended thanks to you. We will no longer need money from the gusanera [Miami exiles, literally: breeding ground for maggots]. They will no longer let Gladis la Jabá come to Cuba. (Purita exits. Bururú remains alone in her hammock, rocking joyfully.)] (“Vereda tropical” 35)

While Bururú is proud of her granddaughter’s future achievements as she envisions them, she focuses on how those accomplishments will help Cuba more than on Purita herself. This choteo is for the audience. Through dramatic irony, the audience can assume (or at least suspect) that many of these dreams will not come true. While this moment alone could cause laughter, what makes it choteo, and more than just humorous dramatic irony is the Cuban (i.e. Cuartas Rodríguez’s) critique of Bururú, the so-called great revolutionary of the play. Because choteo demonstrates a simultaneous lack of respect for authority figures while containing signs of resignation, this moment creates a strange juxtaposition between Bururú’s reality and her hopes, something that will likely resonate with Cuban audiences.

In the second act, set one week later, Bururú gives a speech in honor of the nineteenth-century Cuban educator and philosopher Don José de la Luz y Caballero where, arguably, the single most choteo-filled moment of the play occurs. As was the case with the opening scene, this choteo is primarily visual. In this moment, Gladis la Jabá, Pititi’s mother and Bururú’s rival, returns from Miami. By this point, the audience is well-aware of how Bururú feels about her rival, and way that Gladis enters the scene for the first (and only) time is utter choteo, mocking the perceptions of many revolutionaries toward Cubans returning from the United States. Camilla Stevens has commented on this scene suggesting that “given Bururú’s inclination for fantasies, it is unlikely that the rest of the crowd sees the same splashy scene she did” (239). But regardless of whether the events were witnessed similarly by all those present, this scene exemplifies how visual choteo is able to subvert the established Cuban social order and reduce revolutionary authority through a reverence for the capitalism associated with Gladis. Interestingly, the playwright appears critical of both American capitalism and Bururú’s perspectives on the impact and implications of Gladis’s return. These stage directions reveal that Cubans deeply entrenched in revolutionary life perceive the United States as a country filled with abundance and flash.

The details provided about this moment mock both the capitalist and socialist systems. Although, on the surface, it may seem that this description only pokes fun at the United States and Cuban-Americans, the choteo here also helps us understand the underlying critique of the Revolution. The first visual Cuartas Rodríguez describes is the conga line:

Vuelven a escucharse los aplausos, mas también una conguita alejada que se va haciendo cercana. Todos miran, extrañados, al fondo del foro.

[They hear the applause once again, but also a distant conga that is getting closer. Everyone looks, surprised, toward the back of the stage.] (“Vereda tropical” 74)

This, in contrast with Bururú and her comrades’ solemn commemoration, mocks the seriousness of the unveiling ceremony. The choteo is revealed through this carnival dance, which stands in stark contrast to the revolutionary ideals Bururú describes in her speech. The appearance of Gladis and her followers discredits the Revolutionary culture. And the choice of the conga as a way of moving from one point to another can be associated with disorder, lack of discipline, and irresponsibility. This scene creates a visual contrast between the revolutionary and capitalist bodies. According to Magaly Muguercia, the “mobile body creates scenarios of adjustment, resistance, or subversion in the face of dominant logics. It is [a Cuban’s] potential for obedience or revolution” (Muguercia, “The Body” 177). Bururú appears frozen in place and her lack of movement reflects an unwillingness to adjust to the changes taking place around her, while Gladis’s conga demonstrates the inevitable transformations that have already begun to take place on the island at this time:

La conguita se va haciendo más fuerte. Del fondo de la parte izquierda del foro sale el personaje de Gladis la Jabá. El tratamiento al personaje es por completo de farsa. Su vestido está hecho de pequeñas banderas norteamericanas y de letreros que dicen: “Made in USA”. Frente a ella dos abanderados uniformados llevan estandartes que agitan al ritmo de la conga. En cada estandarte dorado se destaca el símbolo del dólar ($). Tras Gladis la Jabá una cohorte formada por ocho botones, cuatro a cada lado, llevando cada uno dos maletas. Los botones y abanderados marcan el ritmo, mientras cantan.

[The conga is getting louder. From the back, left-hand side of the stage emerges Gladis la Jabá. The treatment of this character is a complete farce. Her dress is made from small American flags and signs that say: “Made in USA.” In front of her, two uniformed flag-bearers carry banners that they wave to the rhythm of the conga. On each golden banner, there is the silhouette of the dollar sign ($). Behind Gladis la Jabá a cohort consisting of eight bellhops, four on each side, each one carrying two suitcases. The bellhops and the flag-bearers mark time while they sing.] (“Vereda tropical” 74-75)

While Gladis’s character is considered farcical, it is due to the Cuban lens through which she is presented that this scene demonstrates choteo. Priscilla Meléndez proposes that farce is similar to choteo in its “evasive, marginal, fragmented, and grotesque artistic and cultural expressions and (semi)humorous” nature but suggests that choteo is representative of a particular historical moment (44).[5] However, while Meléndez seemingly utilizes farce as an umbrella term for various forms of humor throughout Latin America (56), I argue that the differentiation between farce and choteo is not exclusively based on a historical context, but also geographic location and cultural sentiment. Again, choteo feels Cuban, so while some of its characteristics overlap with other forms of humor, it is distinct in its cubanidad. Gladis’s appearance may be farcical in nature, but the underlying ideas behind her appearance reflect pure choteo: her dress mocks the supposed greatness of Cuban socialism at this time; the sixteen suitcases her bellhops carry, and the contents of that luggage, highlight the resources unavailable on the island. This is the Special Period; certain material goods are frequently unavailable. So when the bellhops open Gladis’s suitcases, the representations of foreign supplies that they remove are quite intentional:

Los botones abren dos de las maletas de golpe. El escenario se oscurece por completo de inmediato. Se llena como de fantásticas luces de colores y fuegos de artificio. Anuncios maravillosos parecen centellear por todas partes, ofreciendo autos y MacDonalds, así como Coca-Cola, mientras una música estruendosa de Heavy Rock y música pop llena todo. Esto dura unos instantes. Cuando todo vuelve a la normalidad, los cederistas, que han aceptado estar presentes en el develamiento del busto, están como hipnotizados mirando a Gladis la Jabá, que, ayudada por los Botones, ya baja del estrado formado por sus maletas y comienza de nuevo su marcha, retirándose por el fondo del foro. Botones y Abanderados repiten la conga ya conocida. Parte de los cederistas la van siguiendo con lentitud marcando el compás hasta que logran agarrarlo. Bururú se les aproxima, los sacude tratando de sacarlos del sortilegio.

[Suddenly, the bellhops open two of the suitcases. Immediately, the stage darkens completely. It is covered in what appears to be fantastic, colorful lights and fireworks. Marvelous ads seem to sparkle everywhere, offering cars and McDonalds, as well as Coca-Cola, while thunderous heavy rock and pop music fills the stage. This lasts a few moments. When everything returns to normal, the CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution] members, who have chosen to be present for the unveiling of the statue, are hypnotized watching Gladis la Jabá, who, helped by the bellhops, comes down from the platform created with her suitcases and begins her march again, exiting toward the back of the stage. Bellhops and flag-bearers repeat the already familiar conga. Some of the CDR members follow slowly, marking time until the rhythm grabs them. Bururú approaches them, trying to shake them from the spell.] (“Vereda tropical” 76)

It is not that these items are even in Gladis’s suitcases, necessarily. Instead the dark scene with flashing lights and fireworks, rock music, and capitalist ads provides another indicator that, perhaps, this moment of glitz and glamor exists only in Bururú’s mind. This is the moment when the choteo is no longer only directed at US capitalism. Through Bururú’s reaction, Cuartas Rodríguez also provides a source of humor that belittles the constraints of the revolutionary system, at least in how it functioned during the Special Period. The visual choteo in this scene effectively demonstrates a level of frustration with the system, while simultaneously mocking the outsiders.

The other revolutionaries around her insist that they saw what Bururú saw. However, though most people present for Gladis’s spectacle are able to leave and presumably forget about it, the return of her former friend seems to affect Bururú greatly. She retires to her dream place at home and imagines confronting Gladis, who begs Bururú for forgiveness. Instead of pardoning her, Bururú refuses and seemingly takes satisfaction in her superiority over her rival. Bururú’s visible contentment here serves as the last real choteo-filled moment in the play. What happens next not only lacks humor, but drives home the serious message.

Putting Aside the Choteo: Making the Point

The final act takes place only three days after the second, on Ash Wednesday. This specific choice of a day is meaningful on two levels. First, and most obviously, the bathroom is in ruins after a fire caused when, during a power outage at the end of act two, Romualdito fell and knocked over a lantern he had been using. Bururú was able to free the man and bring him to the hospital, but, unfortunately, he did not survive. Second, the reappearance of God in the women’s lives takes place. Bururú struggles with this notion since, for the last thirty-five years, she has been told that God did not exist. At the same time, however, she sees the reintegration of God into Cuban life through the experiences of the people around her. Given these solemn circumstances, Bururú finally begins to accept that her world is changing.

After Romuladito’s funeral, Engracia returns home while Bururú attends her award ceremony, where she believes she will be presented with the key to a new apartment. By this point, the audience should have enough information to recognize that Bururú will not be compensated with a new apartment, as she has let herself, and everyone around her, believe. The choteo in this, while non-existent between the characters, occurs on a more cultural level. Cuartas Rodríguez is expressing real-life tensions between the people and the government through Bururú’s naivety. The reality is that few Cubans received such substantial rewards during the Special Period, no matter how much they dedicated themselves to the causes of the Revolution. There simply was no available real estate. No new homes were being built and those that existed were already overcrowded. Again, this moment presents audiences with more than dramatic irony. Choteo requires that one not only acknowledge the truths that go unmentioned, but that one question the specific situation and even themselves (Beaupied). An understanding of the social, political, and economic conditions in Cuba during this period creates a layer of humor that goes beyond dramatic irony and crosses into choteo with a criticism of the system as expressed through Bururú’s experiences.

Later that evening, after returning from the ceremony where she receives her medal and the meal for six at a nice restaurant, Bururú uncovers the gifts Gladis had brought from the United States for Caridad and Purita. The two younger women are finally honest with Bururú regarding life in their small apartment; they express their desire to change their current circumstances. When Purita confesses her plan to abandon medical school and instead find work in a hotel, Bururú’s dreams shatter around her. She is furious and blames Caridad for convincing her own daughter to leave such an honorable profession. Purita insists that this decision is hers and defends her choice when her grandmother (a former maid herself) contends that working in a hotel is not the same as becoming a doctor, stating, “Es verdad, abuela, no es lo mismo. Una profesional suelta el piojo y lo que gana no le alcanza ni para un ajustador. La empleada de un hotel come bien y con las propinas se viste mucho mejor que la profesional” [That is true, Grandma, it’s not the same. A professional works her ass off, and what she earns isn’t even enough for a bra. A hotel employee eats well and with her tips dresses much better than the professional.] (“Vereda tropical” 129–30). This statement may not be humorous, but it does critically consider the socialist system. There is little amusing in the idea that Purita could earn more as a hotel employee instead of a doctor. If anything, Purita’s comment reflects a sadness and resignation to her difficult reality. As Hannah Elinson explains,

During the Special Period, it became apparent that many young people had previously become professionals in order to realize their material goals. Given the scarcity of goods and services available on a peso salary, many no longer found professional positions attractive. Because more than half of Cuba’s population was born after the 1959 Revolution, a change in the younger generation’s behavior is significant for Cuban society as a whole (Elinson 3).

Purita’s behavior reflects this reality, when she declares that she only followed a professional career path for her grandmother’s sake. It is difficult to find humor in Purita’s decision as she is simply trying to survive.

Vereda tropical ends on a somewhat tragic note. Caridad and Purita leave the house, presumably to return to Pititi’s new apartment. They will come back for their belongings at a later date. Bururú is understandably distressed by this turn of events and seeks someone or something to blame. When Engracia insists that placing blame is impossible, Bururú confesses that she has, up to this point, always placed her faith in dreams. In her frustration, Bururú destroys her dream place, claiming, “Los sueños. En este país ya no hay sueños” [Dreams. In this country there are no longer any dreams] (“Vereda tropical” 132). To which, her mother simply replies “¡Ay, Bururú! Y ¿quién te dijo a ti, mija, que un país vive de sueños? Vive de realidades, y las realidades siempre son duras” [Oh, Bururú! And who told you, my dear, that a country lives on dreams? It lives on reality, and reality is always harsh.] (“Vereda tropical” 132). The notion that, for too long, the Cuban people have tried to survive on dreams is more than apparent in this moment. While the other characters realize this and actively take steps to change their living conditions during the Special Period, Bururú is at a loss of how to handle this newly recognized reality. She represents a generation that has sustained itself on dreams for many years, and she struggles to accept that dreams do not always come true.

However, as Engracia explains to her daughter, “A veces en las familias tienen que pasar cosas así. Las familias son como los países, que de vez en cuando necesitan de un sacudión” [Sometimes things like that have to happen in families. Families are like countries, once in a while they need a shake-up] (“Vereda tropical” 134). Through a harmless verbal and visual mockery of authority throughout the work, the playwright uses choteo with the audience to get his message across. But it is with these solemn lines that Cuartas Rodríguez makes what I consider to be the main point: things must change in order to improve. The country, just like the family in this play, needs to break with the past to make improvements and survive into the twenty-first century. This scene correlates with Peter McGraw’s belief that in order to successfully convey a message one must “start with attention-grabbing jokes, then put all kidding aside and make your point” (54). Appealing to the audience with humor, allows a playwright to then drive home their main (read: serious) message. With an audience’s investment in the humor, they will be more likely to process the serious message and potentially initiate change.

By using four generations of women to show the changing face of the Cuban economic situation during the Special Period, Cuartas Rodríguez succeeds in critiquing that situation. While characters in their sixties advocate revolutionary ideals, the younger generations question the circumstances in which they live. The Revolution is aging and Cubans that were born into it uphold a different vision for the island than those who came before them. The younger generation’s understanding of the world requires a different attitude toward daily life. The playwright incorporates choteo into this critique to better relay that message. Bururú’s humorous daydreams are reflective of the Cuban government’s perspectives on the population. Authorities believe that people understand and accept the current circumstances under which they live, just as our protagonist does with her family members. But, like Bururú, Cuban authority figures also live in a dream world in which they are unable to grasp the changing realities of the individual. Bururú’s dreams for herself and her family reflect the gap between fantasy and reality that also exists for the government during the Special Period.

Conclusion: Choteo and Economic Precarity

McGraw insists that “the secret… is understanding that in comedy, emotional attachment is key. To make a joke more or less funny, you can make the violation involved more or less benign by shifting the psychological distance between the violation and the person perceiving it” (60).[6] With Vereda tropical, establishing an emotional connection with any one of the principle characters is easy. The psychological distance between the audience and the representative character types in this play is what allows the choteo in these relatable moments to remain humorous to spectators. By analyzing the visual choteo in Vereda tropical, readers and audiences (were the play ever to be staged) are able to more strongly identify with or better understand the varying ways that Cubans chose to cope (or not cope) with the uncertain economic circumstances during the Special Period.

The previously seen revolutionary rhetoric in Cuban theater of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, appears to decrease after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, and newer works often emphasized the disillusionment experienced by various artists and writers (Howe 3). While many playwrights had been hesitant to take risks during the earlier years of the Revolution (or were punished for doing so), they now wrote with a certain degree of freedom. Incorporating choteo into these works serves as one way in which to offer contrasting perspectives. By using visual choteo to present serious issues, playwrights such as Cuartas Rodríguez might be able to hide behind humor as they critique the economic changes occurring in Cuba. Bururú represents the “political old guard”; her determination to continue embracing the revolutionary precepts of the last thirty years, contrasts with the need to move forward. It is not that the Revolution should be eliminated, but rather that it must adapt with the passage of time.

Traditional proponents of the Revolution, like Bururú, believe that they must forge onward and battle through the difficult times but, as demonstrated in Vereda tropical, that is an unsatisfactory response. Cuartas Rodríguez incorporates choteo directed at Bururú to emphasize the failures of that approach. The visual humor in Vereda tropical clearly demonstrates the conflict connected to political, economic, and social changes on the island. Thus, when the audience laughs at Bururú, they understand that she is removed from her present reality. Her staunch ideological approach to life is incompatible with the changing world around her. There is humor in Bururú’s actions and in how she approaches certain situations in her life, but it is also evident that she, and this type of individual, is part of the problem impeding progress in Cuba.

  1. Los ángeles no son dogmáticos (1962), Llegó a la gloria la gente de los Santos Inocentes (1965), Descubriendo América (radioteatro, 1989), and Vereda tropical (1994) (Cuartas Rodríguez second cover). I was unable to confirm if any of these plays had been staged.

  2. In addition to Vereda tropical, theater scripts such as Manteca by Alberto Pedro Torriente and Laberinto del lobo by Miguel Terry both present characters that represent varying perspectives of the Cuban people at this time. The contrast in how these characters are presented to the audience is exaggerated and intentional.

  3. Peter McGraw discusses the use of humor as a coping mechanism in places such as Tanzania, North Korea, and Palestine, in his book The Humor Code [NO_PRINTED_FORM].

  4. All Spanish to English translations are my own.

  5. The period most regularly connected with choteo would be the bufo period, and with character names such as Pititi and Bururú, it seems likely that Cuartas Rodríguez was influenced by bufo traditions.

  6. In 2014, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner published The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Using Thomas Veatch’s humor theory (the N+V Theory, which states that V is the violation of a subjective moral principle and N is a normality) as a point of departure for his research, McGraw develops what he calls the “benign violation theory” as a way to analyze humor. He expounds upon Veatch’s theory in a search to define and describe reactions to humor of all forms across the globe. McGraw asserts that “humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign)” (McGraw and Warner 10).