Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remembering the Great Olga Guillot, una gloria de Cuba

Olga Guillot

When I was sixteen years old, I was talked into "dancing" a "quinces," which to those of you non-Cubans reading this, is the equivalent of a sweet sixteens, but for a fifteen year-old and much, much tackier. The dancing part of it is a uniquely tacky (again) Cuban tradition where thirty of the birthday girl's closest friends (15 guys and 15 girls) do a few routines to usher in her grand entrance. The choreographer hired to put this hilarious production together is usually a recently-arrived flamboyant middle-aged Cuban who at one point or another claims to have danced for the famous Havana Tropicana Night Club before emigrating.

But I digress.

So, I was talked into making a royal fool of myself by a high school friend of mine way back in the day because I figured that every good Cuban teenager should be subjected to this unique form of humiliation. The last few weeks before the party, the rehearsals were held at the venue where the party was slated to take place: the Four Ambassadors Hotel ballroom. Next door to the ballroom was an upscale dinner club called Scala.

During one of our long, annoying rehearsals, I snuck out to take a break and heard singing coming from the Club next door. It was Olga Guillot.

Most 16 year-olds wouldn't know who Olga Guillot was, much less sounded like, but I knew. I've always been an old soul, as most of my friends would attest. So I peaked into the front door of the club, and apparently the crack of the door threw Olga off, she stopped, and said, "eh, pero quien esta ahi?" (who's there?)

So I came in, introduced myself, and she asked me to stay for the remaining minutes of her rehearsal because she wanted to talk to me afterward. So I did. Meanwhile, the rehearsal for the "quinces" was going on next door, sans me, which I'm sure relieved the choreographer I made a habit of publicly mocking.

After Olga finished rehearsing, she sat with me, asked me who I was and how a sixteen year-old like me would know who she was. So I explained that I have always held Cuban tradition and culture close to my heart, grew up listening to her music, was essentially raised by my grandparents, etc.

The result: we stayed there talking for nearly two hours, and the only reason I cut it short was because my ride was there to pick me up at a time certain.

We talked about everything from my family, her story, to even politcs. Back then, Bill Clinton was president, and she had very few nice things to say about him. She said she loved and missed the great Ronald Reagan and lamented the fact that we would never see another one like him. Not only was she a Cuban patriot, but she was also a solid, bedrock conservative who was able to articulate conservative principles better than most politicians.

My favorite story she shared that day was how she was performing in some Latin-American country, and thinking that she would be honored with his presence, the owner of the place she was performing at excitedly told her that the ambassador of Cuba was in the audience. Upon hearing this, she informed him in no uncertain terms that she would not perform so long has he was in the audience. Mind you, this was in the early days of her exile from Cuba when she was not exactly financially set and every gig was vital to make ends meet. But she would not relent. The result: staff had to ask the communist ambassador to leave so Olga could perform.

There were similar stories to that, including ones where agents of the Castro dictatorship actually plotted to assasinate her several times unsuccesfully, of course.

I saw Olga socially several other times after our initial meeting at the Four Ambassadors, including at Republican fundraisers and patriotic rallies, but mainly at Versailles Restaurant in Miami, where she was a regular patron.

If you were ever having a meal at Versailles and all of a sudden the entire restaurant burst into applause, it is very likely because Olga Guillot walked in. I have eaten there more times than I care to recount, and have seen everyone from politicians and prominent journalists, to Grammy Award-winning superstars (i.e., Gloria Estefan). The only person whose entrance would provoke spontaneous applause in that Miami landmark was Olga Guillot.

And every time, I would go up to her, I would say hello, and she would remember me.


There are going to be countless obituaries and honors written to this grande dame of song, about how she was a pioneer at a time when no female artist could sell records in Latin-America, about how she was and always will be the queen of Bolero, and how she was a stalwart Cuban patriot and defender of America, which is all an understatement.

I just wanted to honor her in my own way by sharing my personal story about this great lady. May the Lord bless her soul, and may her music and love for liberty endure forever.