El hombre carismático de Un Paso Adelante

March 14, 2010 at 8:07 PM 5 comments

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Comes a time in the life of every New York City woman when she thinks about learning Spanish. Some women enroll in a class for practical reasons: They want to understand their students or patients. A lot of us, though, feel the gravitational pull in our solar plexus toward a culture that makes the least construction worker talk like Neruda and walk like El Cachafaz. For us, Spanish is the Sazón that can turn an ordinary love life into the romance of the century.

As a little girl, I could not see the allure of Spanish. My view of the language was colored by the blue school buses that traveled east on NJ Rt. 30 every summer. A bus carried forty Puerto Rican farm workers to Hammonton, the “blueberry capital of the world,”  so they could pick blueberries. I would sit on the front steps of my family’s house and try to make out the dark-skinned faces in the bus. With their head kerchiefs, they looked like plantation slaves, each one an anachronism in an age of moon landings and Boeing 747s. I was curious about them and pitied them, but excitement was not high in my emotional register. The blue public school buses rumbled away on the four-lane highway in a cloud of exhaust. Their mufflers dragged on the asphalt.

His fair share of mischief

My picture of Hispanic people shifted when I came to Manhattan. People of every shade blasted salsa and merengue music through the open windows of their Upper West Side apartment buildings. Las tiendas ropas outfitted hip young men in pleated pants and berets and curvaceous girls in dresses with deep decolletage. The Cuban latina y criollas restaurants made chicken and rice affordable for lost souls like me who hadn’t decided if they were headed to a corporate job or to graduate school. The Argentines, Peruvians and Chileans in particular lent Broadway north of Ninety-Sixth Street an air of melancholy expatriotism that went right to the heart of my self-image as an aspiring writer. I wanted to write about people who had had a brush with tyranny. Of course, I did not want to experience tyranny in my own skin.

For the better part of a year, I volunteered to teach English to illegal immigrants who worked as sewing machine operators and semi-skilled cutters, painters and movers south of Forty-Second Street. I got friendly with a couple of teachers and students and went to their parties. On my way home one night to Inwood, a twentysomething Chilean guy escorted me to the 107th Street subway station. I didn’t know he was married until his humiliated wife — one of my students — raced up behind us with their little daughter in tow to drag him back to their apartment. lt didn’t occur to me until that moment that you could put in a full day’s work at a mind-numbing factory job, worry about the family you left behind in South America and still enact your fair share of mischief in the world.

I had one expedient reason for studying Spanish: I wanted to understand my students. My true reason, though, had more to do with the way that Chilean guy pursued me down Broadway, oblivious to everything except my blonde hair and narrow waistline. Next to the college boys I had known, he and the other Latin Americans I taught had real worries, real obstacles to overcome. Real sexuality. One of my students, a Peruvian named Mario, told me about his trip north through Ecuador and Colombia, up into Central America and then to the Mexico-U.S. border. He described the U.S. government helicopters that flew low over the Rio Grande and strafed the river banks with light and sound in an effort to uncover illegal immigrants. Honestly, my students’ stories sounded like movie scripts. I looked to Spanish music, dancing, food and men as my entertainment. They were all a way to distract myself from figuring out who I was and what I was going to do with myself.

Upper Manhattan harbored quite a few of us Jewish girls in love with Spanish culture. One of them told me about a Latin American cultural center on Sixth Avenue and Twenty-First Street called Un Paso Adelante.* An Argentine named Javier Zapala* founded the organization and ran Spanish classes to help fund its music and dance programs. I signed up for a Spanish class taught by Javier himself.

Monogamy is a bourgeois expression of jealousy

Javier arrived from Argentina in the mid-1970s just as that country’s dirty war got rolling. Argentina’s military deposed Isabel Peron, installed Jorge Rafael Videla and started targeting citizens it deemed subversive. In less than a decade, 15,000 – 30,000 people were abducted from their homes and workplaces, tortured and killed. I never got the details about Javier’s emigration to New York. By the time I met him, he was living in a single-family colonial in Queens with his wife and their two sons.

But a steady family man Javier was not. He had a girlfriend who helped him run Un Paso Adelante. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister who went along with Javier’s desire to bed one young women after another. Javier’s teaching partner had a similar set-up with an Argentine girlfriend and a Jewish add-on named Leah. I was flabbergasted by the doctrine that Leah prated at me: “Monogamy is a bourgeois expression of jealousy. You have to get over it.” The whole inner circle of Un Paso Adelante operated on the premise that love relationships had a shelf life. They were to be enjoyed and then given up graciously when one or the other person found a new love.

Javier had no interest in adding me to his queue. “The only thing that matters in life is feeling, and you are too intellectual,” he told me.

He nonetheless invited me to accompany him to various latinas y criollas places after class where we had café con leche and avocados in lemon juice. He liked to tell me about the various women who had succumbed to his Latin charisma. He said he had fallen in love with one called Jane after he watched her have sex in the Adelante loft with a handsome Brazilian bisexual he had hired to teach Portuguese. Javier was smitten by Jane’s willingness to ask no questions, to embrace the moment, to expect nothing. He must have just seen Children of Paradise when it was playing at the Thalia and had associated Jane with the devil-may-care role of Garance that the French actress Arletty plays in the movie: She was a woman in touch with her feelings and was as unburdened as Javier by the bourgeois expression of jealousy.

Javier also confessed that he found the left-wing followers of Un Paso Adelante to be moronic. He said their minds were Marxist prisons. I asked him how he could lead a left-leaning cultural center that he found morally and politically bankrupt. Javier gave me a world-weary smile as if to say that after you have believed in communism and repudiated it, and after you have been forced to flee the country of your birth, nothing really mattered in life except the gratification of the senses.

Looking for a literary salon

One night Javier telephoned me to say that he and Jane had invited some artists and writers over to Adelante. I was on the guest list. Javier apologized for the late notice but he hoped I would join them.

Despite everything I knew about Javier — that he had auditioned Jane to be his new girlfriend by watching her sleep with the Brazilian bisexual, that he headed a left-wing organization whose fans he ridiculed — I was flattered. On my subway ride downtown, I pictured the exciting literary life I was about to enter. Just recently, Javier and I had run into a well-known short story writer — a grandmotherly Jewish woman — who adored him. Maybe she was part of this artistic salon and would become my friend.

In the Adelante building, I took the elevator to the eighth floor. The doors opened on a darkened loft. For a second I thought I had shown up on the wrong night. I was about to return to the lobby when a single light lit up a far corner of the loft. Javier was sitting at an old-fashioned school desk with an open paperback and a carafe of water before him. He waved at me. He looked sad.

A love of intrigue was a big part of my stupidity in those days and I took a step adelante. Once inside, I could make out a ratty sofa near the windows. Jane and a much older man were sitting on it. He had red hair and his arms were crossed over his chest. He was smiling at me.

I didn’t need Javier to tell me what was going on. My Spanish teacher had set up a sexcapade in which I was to play a part. I had the sick feeling that the old guy had been enlisted to be my partner.

“You know why you’re here, don’t you?” Javier asked.

“Javier wouldn’t think of asking anybody else,” Jane called out. Not long ago, I had seen her play flute while Javier sang a nueva cancion in his tenor voice. Jane had a shock of blonde hair. She was Jewish too.

The old guy introduced himself. “I’m Taylor,” he said. “Of course, you’re Barbara.” He chuckled.

I began walking around the loft, looking at posters of Che Guevara, Victor Jara and Pete Seeger, and thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I affected a nonchalant air, as if I always received requests to sleep with fifty-year-old strangers in a room where I learned Spanish from a charismatic political refugee.

Taylor got up from the sofa and planted himself at my side. He told me he was a diver for an oil rig company near Morgan City, Louisiana. He had once been a member of the Weather Underground, but he had seen the light and was now a registered Republican. He remained sentimental, though, about the years he had spent at the Attica Correctional Facility for an anti-war bomb plot he participated in in the late ‘sixties. He was at Attica during the prison riot and would never forget how he cradled the dying body of Sam Melville, one of the riot organizers.

Taylor added that Attica had been his second prison sentence. Twenty years before, he had spent eighteen months at another prison on a pornography charge.

He said he had seen me at several Adelante events. He had been pestering Javier for weeks to introduce us.

I know what you’re thinking: What a catch.

I remember thinking that Javier had to be out of his mind. Why would I be interested in a fifty-year-old bank bomber-pornographer-turned-Republican? Then I realized that what I felt didn’t matter. Javier was doing his friend a favor at the same time he was entertaining himself. He had gotten up from the school desk to sit next to Jane. He was fondling her breasts and laughing so hard that his shoulders shook.

Finally I homed in on the elevator. My brain was a confusion of Spanish, Victor Jara, nueva cancion, political oppression, Videla, curiosity and revulsion.

And way in the back of my mind, I felt resentment toward Javier for not having fallen in love with me. Even in that degraded moment while I waited for the elevator to take me down to the street, I wished he had chosen me. I wished he had loved me so much that he would have given up his fakery and his promiscuity.

The elevator came and I got in. When I turned to press the button for the lobby, Javier was standing in front of me, grinning. “Call me,” he said. I didn’t. He didn’t call me either. I stopped studying Spanish.

Adelante, Garance! Adelante!

Every few years, the female political activists of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies reappear in the media limelight. Usually they are seeking parole after having spent decades in prison for a killing they abetted during a bank robbery or a bombing. I don’t sympathize with the unrepentant ones who defend their youthful violence as a necessary and inevitable response to the Vietnam War or to the industrial military complex — and who say they would plant those bombs all over again if they could.

But sometimes a woman expresses genuine contrition. She no longer is that twentysomething girl who was infatuated with Marxist ideology — and with the scraggly-haired boyfriend who embodied the glamour of some marginal socialist party. I think back to that evening in the loft and wonder what path I would have taken if Javier had brought me into the inner sanctum of Un Paso Adelante. Maybe I would have had the sense to reject him. Maybe it took a girl like Jane, with a Garance-like temperament, to be Javier’s preferred partner-in-crime. Fate spared me the misery of finding out what I was capable of doing.

Ten years after my night at Un Paso Adelante, I saw a poster in a Spanish neighborhood for a health fair. Javier Zapala and Jane Goldfein were part of the entertainment line-up that included face painting and salsa dancing. I had half a mind to spy on them from inside the safety of a crowd. But when the day came, I forgot to go.

Recently, I did a Google search on Javier. He was keeping Un Paso Adelante alive during the economic downturn with Spanish classes and salsa and tango instruction. In an interview I unearthed, a reporter was intrigued by the shoulder-length curls of the sixty-year-old Argentine refugee — the legacy, Javier said, of his Jewish ancestry. The reporter noted the dozen freshly baked rolls that spilled out from Javier’s satchel and remarked on the newest addition to the cultural center: Javier’s five-year-old daughter. The mother was a woman named Mariana Sklar. Somewhere along the line, Jane had made way for the new Garance. Did she blithely step aside or had Javier insisted in his gentle, anti-totalitarian way?

* All place names are fictionalized, as are all people’s names, except for those who were or are public personalities.


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Entry filed under: Love, New York City, Politics, Race, Religion. Tags: , , , , , .

Excitement around every corner Rest in peace, Stewart, wherever you are

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Will R  |  March 15, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    “Why would I be interested in a fifty-year-old bank bomber-pornographer-turned-Republican?” Thanks for another revealing memory! Your honesty is delightful. FWIW, I think you made the right decision.

    • 2. modestine  |  March 15, 2010 at 9:30 AM

      A 50-year-old of any political persuasion was horrifying to me when I was in my twenties. It pains me to say that now, a 50-year-old is practically a kid! Incidentally, “Taylor’s” Republicanism was his only redeeming virtue. Thanks for continuing to read, Will.

  • 3. Catherine  |  March 17, 2010 at 12:30 AM

    There is always a boundary.

    Exploring a world of potency, creativity, creative (unique, even extravagant) thinkers and people who are “up for anything” we always come upon our own boundary, and press up against.

    We open to, but don’t accept, everything. Because we accept only that which has a precedent space in language and relationship. Maybe because, as lovers of language and perspective, we actively remember consequence, and like to.

    Consequence has its place in freedom and for people, like you and me, who are willing to open and see worlds different from what we’ve known. Still, these are worlds with whom we want to at least enter into a dance (say Tango?), to at least make sense of, if only (ever) in a “treatise” sense, an agreement to know aspects and leave the rest to the unknown. And we necessarily agree to leave certain aspects in undecided tension between “shoddy”, “vain” and “sublimely generative”.

    I believe we maintain this tension so as to continue always, over time, to take in more of that which is diverse. To truly take it in we need to be able to compare it, to have something to compare it to and so we need to feel at least a bit tethered to meaning, to our own language. And yet we long to press against and stretch into the unknown. But to do this stretching, we need to hold an awareness of boundary.

    Your post illustrates this.

    Javier was practicing his philosophy. You were practicing yours. On the one hand I can say you might have left feeling disrespected, and yet I can see also how he was respecting you by inviting you into his philosophy. His laughter seems to reveal his unwillingness to stretch into you. And so you left.

    You could have gone for the adventure of the unknown that night. But it wouldn’t have been right for you because your boundary (intellectual curiosity) was much more evolved, much higher than what they had to offer you. What screams from that situation is their own false affirmation of freedom. Here they are affirming their sexual freedom and yet they devised to manipulate you into an awkward situation and not engage you in a real encounter of what you had to offer. In a way, you actually did go for the adventure that night, in that you captured it in reflection, and brought it here into language.

    We still have boundary, though it shift and change with each interface, and it holds a sacred reflection of our own freedom to chose, and the reminder of consequence.

  • 4. Pesha  |  March 24, 2010 at 6:03 PM

    What is it about leftists’ comments that always make a person feel square? A conservative’s rhetoric just doesn’t present the same challenge. At any rate, I’m glad your instinct kicked in while your common sense was unplugged!

    • 5. modestine  |  March 24, 2010 at 7:50 PM

      Oh, I don’t know about that — that a conservative’s rhetoric just doesn’t present the same challenge. Anything said in the spirit of contention can pretty much get you unraveled.


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